HL Deb 17 June 1996 vol 573 cc11-70

3.9 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Henley.) On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [Arrangements for making grants]:

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1. line 6, after ("may") insert (", by or in accordance with regulations,"}.

The noble Lord said: This amendment heads a composite group in which Amendment No. 2 is the most important. Depending on the Minister's response, I may need at the end of the debate to move that amendment to a Division. I may also wish to come back at a later stage to other amendments such as Amendments Nos. 6, 13, 16 or 31.

I set the scene for what may be a long day's night with some words from the much underrated poet, Hilaire Belloc, who wrote: Godolphin Horne was Nobly Born: He held the Human Race in Scorn … Alas! That such Affected Tricks Should flourish in a Child of Six"! I hasten to add, for the benefit of noble Lords opposite, that that is not confined to the aristocracy in any way whatever and should be held as a comment upon the whole of the human race at the age of six. But, as the twig is bent, so will the branch grow; and education in the earliest years of our lives is perhaps more significant, more important than at any other stage when the mind is wax to receive and marble to retain.

Still, we make no apology for spending some time on this scheme, and particularly in asking for serious consideration of the need to take this whole business at a responsible and respectable rate. In the terms of the Latin tag, festina lente—let us make haste slowly; because what is decided among us today and on the day we come to the Report stage will have a most significant effect on a very large number of young people. So Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 6, 13, 16, 22, 23, 29, 30, 31, 32, and even so late an amendment as Amendment No. 84, which I hope we shall reach before dawn, are of great significance.

The second amendment in this group would require the Secretary of State to proceed by order in making arrangements to make grants under the Bill. Under the terms of Amendment No. 84, relating to the powers attached to Clause 7, such an order would then be, subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament". The purpose is to require a further round of parliamentary scrutiny before the arrangements are put in place to enable the scheme to proceed. As the Bill stands, Ministers may proceed to impose it at any stage after Royal Assent and to make the arrangements to introduce the main schemes without any further parliamentary consideration.

It occurs to me that it is an odd Bill in so many ways. It is called the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill. But it is the word "voucher" that seems to be the cause of all the churning trouble in the nation at the present moment. A number of noble Lords tell me that their postbags are stuffed, crammed, pressed down, shaken together and running over with complaints from all over the country about nursery vouchers. They, like me, are mildly surprised that the Bill simply talks about the Secretary of State's power to make some sort of "arrangements". An examination of all the little pamphlets that emanate from the DFEE shows the scheme to be very closely argued, whether you like it or not, in relation to the issue redemption, use, value and inspection of vouchers. But there it is. That is the form in which it has come before us. It has been before the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. After a certain amount of care and thought and much correspondence and to-ing and fro-ing with the DFEE, the committee feels that it is probably all right the way that it stands. However, given the uncertainty surrounding the scheme and its practical effect in the pilot areas—the committee will forgive me if I refer to "pilot areas" instead of "phase one areas"; the two terms seem to have become inextricably intertwined—which is as yet unproven, it is argued by us that Parliament should have a further opportunity, having as it were conceded the principle of nursery vouchers, to consider at what point it is wise to proceed to the main scheme.

Amendment No. 6 requires the Secretary of State, in proceeding with the main scheme, to have regard to the results of any evaluation conducted in advance. That links with Amendment No. 13 which prevents the Secretary of State from proceeding with the main scheme before he has laid in front of Parliament an evaluation of the operation of the pilot over a full 12-month period. That amendment is designed to draw together the many strands of ongoing evaluation—to which I shall return—to which the department has drawn attention in debates so far, but to require that evaluation applies to the full period of the pilot, and for it to be made coherent and published in Parliament so that we can all have a look at it. Evaluation would thus become a public rather than a private process, although nothing in the amendment would impede the work which the department has already put in train to assess the pilots in their middle and later stages. It is just that the matter should not depend on what happens to churn up in Norfolk or other places during the next couple of months before that has been set in a full context.

The Government may argue that the amendment would introduce an element of delay since the full evaluation could not be completed until after 31st March 1997. But the logic of the Government's position, having started pilot schemes which are already in operation as parliamentary approval is sought, would be that those pilots ought to be allowed to run their course and a proper judgment be made as to their success or failure, strengths or weaknesses, and what lessons are to be learnt before the main scheme proceeds. Festina lente—make haste slowly.

The amendment in no way cuts against the purpose of the Bill, which, incidentally, contains no date for the main scheme to start. No date is mentioned. It merely introduces what we consider to be an orderly timetable born of the logic of the Government's policy so far which places the Bill and the parliamentary approval they seek into a proper framework. It seems to us that the onus is on the Government and the Minister to convince us that the process must go through at this breakneck speed and that evaluation is not necessary before implementation for some reason which produces the date at a point where it comes absolutely at the end of the pilot scheme.

Evaluation has been discussed before. The key point was encapsulated by the Secretary of State when she said on 19th March 1996: We shall evaluate exactly how the scheme works as phase I proceeds". In other words, the evaluation will start and finish before the pilots are concluded.

But other things have been said. Ministers have committed themselves to evaluating a pretty fair range of issues. The evaluation is to include reports from the autumn, with the chief inspector being invited to report on phase one as a whole before it finishes. The second issue is publicity and public information for parents, which presumably can be gathered before the scheme is complete. Thirdly, I quote the noble Lord the Minister: We need to evaluate the benefits to children's later educational performance".—[Official Report, 20/5/96; col. 717.] On any ordinary reading of those words it seems that those "benefits" to their "later performance" could hardly be evaluated in any sensible way until some time had passed and the benefits or disbenefits to their future educational performance had been at least investigated. Presumably they will be investigated before phase one finishes.

Fourthly, Ministers will evaluate how effectively forms reach parents. That is probably all right. It can be done within the 12-month period. The fifth issue relates to how vouchers are issued, collected and redeemed. That is more complex but, with enough person power and resources, something can perhaps be done. Sixthly, they will evaluate how effectively vouchers create new provision. That, I submit, is much more difficult. Although I believe it is an undisputed fact that, so far, very few other providers have crept out of the woodwork and set up their stalls, it may very well be that that will come on stream very much faster in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth months of the phase one pilot scheme and be much more difficult to evaluate as it actually happens.

Seventhly, do the Government propose to evaluate whether the voucher is set at a right value or not? Of course we shall have a great deal more to say about that. Once again, how much easier it will be to do if the pilot scheme has run its course.

Eighthly, there is the impact of special needs pupils. That again is going to be extremely difficult to evaluate because special needs pupils will need to be evaluated as a group and over a period. Those things cannot be done on a snapshot basis.

Ninthly, the Government have said that they will evaluate safeguards against fraud. That may be possible within a 12-month period but I have serious doubts about that.

In the circumstances it is clear that Ministers accept the need for a wide evaluation. What they have so far refused to accept, and what our amendments in this group hope to convince them of, is that it should be thorough; that it should be based on the full year's experience in the pilot areas; and, if possible, that it should be published.

The Government are running four pilot schemes or phase one schemes from 1st April 1996 to test the workings of the nursery voucher proposals in three London boroughs: the City of Westminster, Wandsworth and Kensington and Chelsea, and in the County of Norfolk. The plan now is that the main scheme should be introduced from the 1st April 1997, with vouchers being issued (according to the schools Minister) before the general election due by May 1997. As things stand there is no relationship between the ending of the pilot schemes and the launch of the main scheme, since the Bill as proposed enables Ministers to introduce the main scheme without any further preconditions at any date they choose.

The original purpose of creating pilot schemes seems to have been side-stepped in order to hurry this timetable for issuing nursery vouchers. I hope that the Minister will explain that when he comes to reply to this first debate because, as we see it—I approach this delicately—regardless of what may happen at a general election, the issue of nursery vouchers is not going to be helped by being rushed. If the Labour Party were returned with a respectable majority, we are quite clear what we would do: we would honour the existing vouchers and issue no more. If the Conservative Party were returned with a suitable majority it would simply carry on with the scheme as it has inaugurated it. Why the unseemly rush?

The latest government document Nursery Education Scheme: the Next Steps which was published on 9th January 1996 seems to me to invert the logic of holding pilot schemes at all by arguing that: Full evaluation must await the bedding down of the full scheme". On that basis a full evaluation of a pilot scheme seems to be impossible in any circumstances.

I would make one thing very clear. This amendment is not intended, nor would it function, as a wrecking amendment. It would have the effect of preventing the Government from introducing the main scheme before a full year of the pilot scheme has elapsed, plus a short period for the evaluation and the laying before Parliament of a report. The effect of the amendment, if agreed, would be, on the Government's own logic, to enable the voucher proposal to proceed in a more effective manner. The amendment would require an order to be agreed by Parliament before the main scheme could be started, but the timing involved differs very little from that announced by Mr. Squire in launching the scheme on 2nd November 1995. In practice an order could still be laid before a general election held at the end of the Parliament, although it might be thought more proper for the subject to be a matter of debate at the general election in the light of the pilot schemes, and for the new government of whatever party then to decide whether to proceed. The crucial point is that Parliament would be empowered by being given a vote on the order if prayed against.

If I may draw all that together, this group of amendments points the way for the Government to run, as they claim they will, successful pilot schemes which can demonstrate in practice how the vouchers will work. It offers the Government the opportunity to seek a public affirmation of the value of the scheme after a one-year experiment endorsed by Parliament and introduced after proper consideration. No doubt the pilots will yield experience which will be very useful to civil servants in the private planning of the main scheme, but there will be no opportunity either to demonstrate their success or for Parliament to apply the brakes if the train appears to Parliament to be heading directly for the buffers. The Government should then in our view seriously consider whether this amendment does not offer the opportunity significantly to improve the credibility of their policy for the expansion of nursery education. I beg to move.

Lord Tope

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, for explaining the set of amendments so fully. I am particularly grateful, because I returned from a 12-day official visit to China only late last night, and have spent my time since then trying to come to terms with all that has happened in relation to amendments to the Bill since I left. I am also grateful that he explained it so fully because I do not need to do so, and can be much briefer. I am very conscious that my body clock tells me that it is now coming up to half-past ten at night and I hope very much to be home before my body clock tells me it is time for breakfast.

The two essential points of all these amendments are, first, that a full evaluation must be carried out before we go ahead nationwide; and, secondly (and equally importantly), that Parliament must have an opportunity to debate, discuss and decide upon it before it goes ahead nationally. It seems to me (we spoke of this on Second Reading) that a full evaluation of the pilot projects is absolutely essential. I can see no point whatsoever in establishing pilot projects if we are not going to be given the opportunity to learn something from them. When the Next Steps document, to which the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, referred just now, says that a full evaluation is not possible before the full scheme has been allowed time to bed down, I worry about what the Government have in mind.

We accept of course that a full and in depth evaluation of the effects over time of an extension of early years' learning can be possible only after it has been in operation for some time. There is a whole range of other very important matters about which we are learning through the implementation of the pilot projects—indeed, that is why the pilot projects were established in the first place—and on which we need to have a report in order to be able to consider, discuss and debate them before the full scheme is inflicted on the country. There is a range of important issues about which we need to know before we apply the scheme to the country. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, has already mentioned most of that in more detail than I would wish to do.

We need to look at whether the whole bureaucratic process is necessary (and even if it is, whether it is working effectively), and what are the administrative costs going to be. It has been suggested by the Government that the administrative costs of applying the whole scheme in 108 local education authorities is only four times that of applying it in the four pilot project areas. As leader of a local education authority I find that somewhat hard to believe and would certainly wish to see more evidence of it.

There is much concern—we will return to this later today, I am sure—about the scheme's possible effects on special educational needs and their provision. We will return also to the effects on capital and training, three year-olds, and so on. Those are all matters upon which we need to have some evaluation as well as the actual administrative process of the pilot schemes.

I believe that it has been properly established that as we are having pilot projects before we launch a nationwide scheme, we need properly to consider a full evaluation of those pilot projects. Otherwise, what is the purpose of having them in the first place? We might just as well have gone to the whole scheme.

The second point relates to parliamentary approval, by whatever means suggested. The amendments cover a number of different ways of achieving that. The main point at this stage is not necessarily how we do it, but that we do it at all. It is important that before we go nationwide Parliament should have an opportunity to debate and consider the evaluation, and then to debate and approve the arrangements and the enormous power being given to the Secretary of State to implement such a scheme.

On Second Reading in this Chamber some reference was made to whether we had learned nothing from the lessons of the poll tax. The poll tax was implemented despite dire warnings from virtually everyone involved with local government finance, be they professionals, politicians or indeed the public. The Government went ahead regardless. I have been thinking since then that a better comparison might be with the national curriculum, which is basically a desirable objective—a good idea—as most people in your Lordships' House believe that the extension of early years' learning is a desirable objective. The national curriculum was rushed and introduced with too little regard for the many concerns and criticisms that were expressed about it. We have spent years since then not merely suffering from the effects of that rush but undoing the damage that need not have been done had there been a more careful consideration in the first place. We should learn the lesson from that.

There is much concern expressed by professionals, by people working in the scheme and by politicians about the implementation of the suggested nursery voucher scheme. We need to listen to it. That is why we need the evaluation and why Parliament must have the opportunity to decide before the scheme goes nationwide. A refusal to allow such an evaluation to be considered and the scheme to be given approval by Parliament, which must seem a logical and sensible process, can only lead to one conclusion; namely, that this Government are more concerned to push vouchers through the voters' letterboxes before the general election than to provide an extension of good quality early-years learning.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I attend this debate at the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. I wrote him a note to say that I would listen to the merits of the argument and, if they appealed, I should support him. I am afraid that I cannot do so. I have listened with great care to what has been said. I am not concerned with the poll tax, nor with the national curriculum, nor with paving the way to an electoral victory for my party at the next election. But I am concerned with the merits of this argument.

As to those merits, I refer the Committee to Clauses 1 to 3. In Clause 1 the Secretary of State has very wide powers to make arrangements for making grants, which is in no way restricted by Clauses 2 and 3. There is inbuilt in that power almost unlimited flexibility, which is a far more sensible proposal than the limitations proposed in any of the series of grouped amendments that I have read.

This is not a wrecking amendment; it is accepted that it has a significant effect—the whole object of the provisions is to have a significant effect; and it is not at all in conflict with the purpose of the Bill. But all legislation is experimental. I cannot recall—perhaps some Member of the Committee will help me—any precedent for this type of double-take, especially where there is inbuilt flexibility in the master clause.

I apologise for taking time, but those are my reasons for not being able to support the amendment.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

In this group of amendments, I speak principally to those tabled in my name; namely, Amendments Nos. 2, 6, 13 and 84.

When I was in the education service as a teacher in the independent and maintained sectors and later as an education officer with Leicestershire and Oxfordshire LEAs, I used to note with professional interest how little in the way of solid evidence often underlay people's perceptions of educational issues, whether it was the issue of selective versus comprehensive schools or simply the reputation of one school compared with another. In the same way, the teaching profession would come into and go out of public favour on a tide which was often just a matter of fashion and political opinion.

We are witnessing a particularly violent swing of the pendulum at the moment. If I had been able to be present at Second Reading, which unfortunately I was not, I should have said a few words on this subject and entered a plea for a substratum of measurable facts to inform future debates on education. A great deal of nonsense is being talked in some quarters and it is doing much damage.

The relevance of the present amendments is precisely that they give us an opportunity to introduce some firm evidence into a controversial area. I do not believe that we can rely on the kind of flexibility to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has just referred. We need something a great deal more specific. In common with the noble Lord, Lord Morris, I believe that something has gone wrong with the original idea of a pilot scheme. It is very significant that it now appears under the name "phase one". How can Parliament properly agree to the main scheme before the evidence from the pilot—like the noble Lord, I shall call it that—is properly in? We need to know so many things. I shall not go through them because they have already been dealt with, except perhaps to mention the special needs situation and how pupils are faring there, which is of particular importance, and also whether new provision is effectively being created. I gather that evidence for the latter is not at the moment very encouraging.

In the matter of educational reforms over the past 16 years there has sometimes been a tendency to legislate first and do the thinking afterwards. Not surprisingly, that has had some fairly unhappy results. We have already heard the key one in the area of the national curriculum and testing, which the noble Lord highlighted, as well as others in the local management of schools, arrangements for schools opting out and so on. Why must we rush yet another reform? Let us for once have a proper evaluation before going ahead with a plan which will shake up the whole approach to nursery education.

I said that I used to be in the educational field. I now find myself dealing rather more with health care matters. In the medical world professionals try to advance on the basis of discovered fact. They do not always succeed but at least evidence based medicine is a laudable aim. I believe that it is time for some evidence based education. For that reason I commend the amendments to the Committee.

Baroness Young

I too want to thank the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, for writing to me about the purpose of his amendments. I read his letter with great interest. However, I must tell him that I cannot support these amendments. In effect, he and his colleagues are saying that they want to delay the introduction of the scheme for a year. They have adduced a number of arguments for doing so. But, although my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway said that this amendment is not a wrecking amendment, anybody reading the amendments and those which follow from them subsequently will recognise that that is exactly what it is.

I find it absolutely astonishing. I believe I can honestly say that I have taken part in every single education Bill that has come before this Chamber, certainly since 1979, if not since 1971 when I first entered this Chamber. There has hardly been a time when there has not been a plea for nursery education. from all parts of the Chamber. There has been no need—as the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin, said—for all kinds of evidence to tell us that it is a good thing. Everybody has agreed that it is a good thing. What prevented it being done, by either my own party or the Labour Party when the Labour Government were in office in the 1970s, was the cost of the scheme. That is what prevented it. Nobody disagreed with the principle.

Now there is a scheme before us which will provide nursery education. But, instead of an acceptance that it is something which will help thousands of children from one end of the country to another, there is a proposal to delay it. We are told that we should find out more information about what is going on, as though somehow there were not any nursery schools in the country at large either in the maintained or the independent sector. But of course they have been in existence in most education authorities for years and operating very successfully.

I find the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, extraordinary in that, were there to be a Labour Government, they would support the four pilot schemes that have already been started, but would not have any more. Either one believes in these things or one does not. I suspect that what lies behind this series of amendments is the fact that, despite all the fine words, neither a Labour nor a Liberal Democrat authority has been prepared to try it out.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I should perhaps state that I did not say precisely what she said I said. I said that, in the event of a Labour Government coming to power, we would honour the existing issued vouchers, but we would issue no more. That does not mean that in the four pilot boroughs the scheme would go on for ever; we would simply issue no more vouchers.

Baroness Young

I apologise to the noble Lord if I misunderstood him and of course I withdraw my remarks. The fact remains that, even though the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, says that today, we all know that the Labour Party—I believe he is speaking for New Labour—has changed its mind on virtually every single educational issue and it will only be a matter of time before it changes its mind on this.

I never thought that I would live to see the day when the Leader of the Labour Party would support streaming and setting in schools. I find that an astonishing statement, as someone who served on a local education authority and has been an education Minister. It has changed its mind on many other matters and it will change its mind on this one.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

I must once again correct the noble Baroness. The Labour Party has not supported streaming; it has supported setting. They are entirely different things, as anyone who has either experienced them or taught in schools will know. The difference between them is distinct. What is more, the noble Baroness is right in saying that a lot of this has gone on for some time. Setting is something which my children went through between the ages of seven and 11, and that was a very long time ago.

Baroness Warnock

I should like to say something which is not as political as the arguments so far put forward.

Lord Henley

Is the noble Baroness intervening in my noble friend's speech? I do not believe that my noble friend has finished her remarks. Or is the noble Baroness making her own intervention now?

Baroness Warnock

I put my name to this amendment and was supporting it for its own sake. If the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has not finished speaking, I shall of course sit down.

3.45 p.m.

Baroness Young

I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. I had not finished speaking. Perhaps I may respond to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. I am delighted that his children were in classes that were set. I have no doubt that they did extremely well in school and they will be grateful for something of which he can be justly proud.

However, the noble Lord knows as well as I do—I know the difference between streaming and setting—that the problem arises when one has to decide in a school who is to be set and what are the criteria. Like so many things said by New Labour, all the small print is left unsaid and people are left with a vague idea that the kind of things they have wanted for a long time will come to pass.

To return to the Bill, it is extraordinary that all those who for so long supported nursery education should be against this Bill. Nursery vouchers give responsibility to the parents. That is something I thought we all wanted to see—people taking a greater interest in their children's education; parents taking part in the decision-making. What is so immensely encouraging about the four schemes in operation is that 80 per cent. of the parents in the four areas have now applied for vouchers. That is a tremendous proportion of parents seeking vouchers. We all accept that not every parent wants their child to go to a nursery, and that is their free choice. It shows that the scheme is immensely popular.

We also heard from the Pre-School Learning Alliance that over 94 per cent. of pre-schools have registered for vouchers and 80 per cent. believe that parents value the vouchers. I am sure that those facts are right. It is an opportunity, as a parent, to choose with the voucher where one will send one's child for nursery education. It is an opportunity for there to be an expansion of nursery education, which we all want to see and which I should have thought would be widely welcomed.

I received a letter, as I am sure did many other noble Lords, from the leader of Wandsworth council making it quite clear that this particular scheme is extremely popular with parents. It has been widely accepted, with a great many schools, including voluntary-aided Church schools, now considering adding nursery departments to their schools. I should have thought that all that was to be welcomed. What would be gained by putting the scheme off for a year? We have the information. It is not as though we are deciding to introduce nursery schools for the first time.

Lord Ogmore

Perhaps I can interrupt the noble Baroness and make a point about universal acclamation for nursery vouchers. I received correspondence through the post from various constituents throughout the country and from Wales who are adamant about the nursery voucher scheme. They want at least to delay it or want a pilot scheme before going into it. They are concerned at the detrimental effect it will have on very young children.

Baroness Young

The noble Lord is raising a point which comes up on a subsequent amendment in relation to elections for those schools. I will give the noble Lord an opportunity to come back if he would like to, but I should like to answer his question.

The whole point is that, as we discovered with grant-maintained schools, which are immensely popular with parents, many people—I regret to say within the educational establishment and educational authorities—have moved heaven and earth to prevent parents voting for their schools to go grant-maintained. I could quote chapter and verse on that. I have not the slightest doubt that the same would apply with nursery vouchers. Many people in principle are against vouchers, against parental choice, against giving parents the opportunity to choose what they want for their children's education. They would come forward; they would be articulate; they would frighten parents; and the scheme would be dropped. That is what will happen. We must recognise that.

I received a great deal of briefing and it is easy to see from where it all came. We must recognise that where the schemes are in operation, 80 per cent. of parents are taking up the offer of vouchers. That should make everybody think. I have been a long time in politics. If I thought that every policy had the support of 80 per cent. of the people, I would be extremely pleased, as would anybody in politics. That is a very good measure.

With this series of amendments we put at risk—I do not doubt the sincerity of those supporting them—delaying the scheme for a year for no measurable value. We shall find out something from the way in which the scheme is operating and in the course of time, as my noble friend Lord Campbell pointed out, changes will be made to make it more effective and more responsive. Nothing is perfect first time round. I have no doubt that we shall learn from the four pilot schemes. The idea of waiting for another year for something of which we have a great deal of experience seems to me to be a terrible waste of time.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

Before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps she can say whether or not she agrees with me that parents have taken up the nursery vouchers because they have no choice. If they do not take up the vouchers, their children will not in future obtain the nursery education they are currently receiving. The whole scheme is simply a means of recycling money. If the parents do not take up the offer of the voucher, their children will not receive the education. What else can they do?

Baroness Young

The short answer is that it is not a scheme of recycling; a lot of new money is going into it. By using the voucher parents can choose to which type of nursery school to send their child. It is freedom of choice. I happen to believe that that is important and we would like to see it extended. I thought New Labour wanted to see that also, but I am mistaken. We are back at old Labour, which believes in telling everyone where they should send their children to school.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

I am reluctant to prolong this debate, but I am astonished by the noble Baroness's astonishment. Surely she is able to distinguish between nursery education per se, which is what we are all in favour of, and this scheme, which has a lot of question marks over it and which we think needs to be evaluated.

Baroness Young

Curious as it may seem to some Members of the Committee, I am perfectly capable of distinguishing between nursery education per se, with which we are all agreed, and this scheme. This is a way of getting more money into nursery education, getting more children into nursery schools, giving freedom of choice to parents and, much more, encouraging parental responsibility. I stand by all those four principles. I am sorry that the noble Earl does not.

Baroness Warnock

I support Amendment No. 2 to which I have put my name. I do so because the pilot scheme needs to be properly evaluated. I say that because the areas where the scheme is now working have their own characteristics which are not shared by most of the country. We are all in favour of more nursery education—I certainly am strongly in favour of it—but, given a shortage of resources overall, we very much want nursery education to be targeted or to be able to be targeted at those areas where it is most crucial that there should be nursery education; namely, where there are deprived children, not necessarily with special educational needs, who suffer from disability through lack of care and attention to education at home.

The present scheme is working in areas where it is difficult to tell whether that will happen. In the case of rural areas, especially in counties like Norfolk, which is enormous, there is no doubt that the use of vouchers will suppress certain small playgroups which work very well in isolated villages and where the resources simply do not exist, even with the use of vouchers, to upgrade those playgroups into nursery schools with trained nursery teachers. In any case, there will not be a large use of vouchers for these playgroups because they are too isolated. The whole idea of what is happening, on the one hand, to small village-based playgroups or even schools and, on the other hand, to what is happening with the LEA and its funding needs to be rethought before we try to introduce this scheme over the whole country.

At the other end of the scale I know from my contacts with the Girls Public Day School Trust that parents who had already decided to send their children to nursery school—the trust's schools are opening nursery schools quite frequently at the moment—and to spend money on doing so are eagerly running forward now to take up their vouchers. Those are the people who for the large part are thinking, "Oh good, we can save some money". That is admirable, and I do not begrudge it, but I do not think those are the children for whom nursery education is most valuable. It may be, but those are children who would have had it anyway. It is the children who would not have had it and whom we want to target about whom we want far more evidence to tell whether they are taking up their vouchers and, if so, whether they are getting the education they actually deserve.

Finally, we want to know whether the local education authorities, which in many places provide adequate and good nursery education, are finding that they are unable to do so because of the cost to them of the vouchers. Those are my reasons for wanting a proper evaluation and not the surreptitious turning of the pilot into a phase-one scheme.

Baroness O'Cathain

I have spoken to a headteacher of a first school in Norfolk who said that the pilot is a process of constant evaluation. She said that there were natural concerns among the education sector in Norfolk about the financial effects of the scheme on individual schools but that they are talking about it and evaluating it as they go along. The monitoring of the quality of provision for four year-olds is another issue, as is the logistics of dealing with the paperwork. I suppose that a pilot does put a lot of stress on these teachers, but they feel very much part of it because they are utterly committed to giving greater nursery education to children.

The headteacher of the first school said that she has had the same concern as was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, about the difficulties concerning playgroups and how they will be affected by the provision of nursery education. She said: I have been working very closely with a playgroup to ensure that children's education is not adversely affected by these changes and we have been quite bold in our planning for the future". If that is what is happening on the ground with headteachers of first schools in the provision of the first level of education, I should have thought that it does not necessarily need a whole board of people at the end of the pilot period to sit back, stop the schemes and spend a year or more evaluating them. The momentum will have gone into the ground and the system will have to start from scratch all over again. We should give the people in the education sector the benefit of the doubt. They are not nine-to-three o'clockers and they are working very hard to ensure that any problems in the scheme for nursery education are ironed out during the operation of pilots so that lessons can be learnt.

To mirror what my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway said, flexibility is the issue. We are talking about intelligent teachers who are flexible and who will be able to talk to the education departments and say, "These are really not working", or, "Perhaps we should do it in a different way". We do not want people becoming enthusiastic—a lot of people have become enthusiastic about this nursery schooling—and then have to say to them, "Stop, the pilots are over, you must now wait". That would be disastrous for the long-term future of nursery education.

Lord Monkswell

We are all indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, who pointed out the breadth of Clause 1, which effectively gives the Minister enormous powers to disburse grants for nursery education in whatever manner he sees fit to whoever he sees fit. One of the difficulties we have is in terms of how the Secretary of State will use those powers. I think I heard my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris right when he said in opening the debate that, if the Government could give us assurances, then in the spirit of this House we would accept those assurances and we would not have to go ahead with the amendments in this grouping.

Part of my reason for speaking in the debate is that I have been a little concerned about what I detect is a partisan positioning of people on different sides of the Committee. I come to the debate as a parent. When our children were young we were initially living in an area where there was no local education authority nursery provision and we then moved into an area where there was LEA nursery provision. We have, as a family, had experience of both sides. I have also been a member of a local education authority education committee and a governor of primary schools with nursery provision and of a high school. During that period when I was involved in the exercise of my responsibilities, the education system was subjected to quite a large degree of change because of legislation pushed through by this Government. One of the predominant features of those changes was the paucity of consultation.

Perhaps I may explain. One of the difficulties that we had was that consultation papers tended to be issued about July with responses required by September or October. Bearing in mind that most people in education have a long summer break during that period, those most involved in the subject were away on holiday and were therefore unable to talk among themselves in order to provide fully thought-out responses.

The other matter is that we tended to get what I may describe as "national schemes" without any pilot programme to evaluate the effect of such changes. These national changes were laid on us with very little time to make the changes.

It is worth pointing out that when the change to comprehensive education came about that was taking "best practice" by a Conservative local education authority in Leicester. The Labour Government said that it was a good idea and advocated a best practice approach across the country. But the Government did not require every local education authority to implement reorganisation into comprehensive education within one or two years. Each LEA was asked to come forward with a plan to show how it was going to be brought about in its area. Over a period of time, just about the whole country went comprehensive, but there were a few areas that held out. The Labour Government did not force them into it.

4 p.m.

Baroness Young

I hesitate to interrupt the noble Lord when he is advancing his argument so closely. Those of us who follow educational debate remember very clearly the circular put out by Mr. Crosland. I believe it was numbered 10/65—I know that it had a very familiar ring. I was in a local education authority when great pressure was put on it to introduce comprehensive education.

Lord Monkswell

I do not argue that great pressure may have been put on, but the fact is that there was no legal requirement.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

It cannot be described as "great pressure": it was an order. Mr. Crosland said himself, "I want to get three Cs; comprehensive schools, a common examination at 16 and common sixth forms. You have two of them and the third is to be worked for". I can assure the noble Lord that it was an order because I have read it.

Lord Monkswell

We obviously operate in a slightly different context. Perhaps I may point out that the local education authority for Trafford, which is next door to Manchester where I live, still has selective education even today. Therefore, an order may have been issued by the Labour Government education secretary in the 1960s, but it has still not been adopted by a Conservative local education authority.

What would be the situation now if a Labour local education authority, in response to an order from this Conservative Government, said, "We are not going to implement it"? All hell would break loose. The Government would send in the commissioners. It would be totally illegal. The local authority would not be allowed to do it in that way. What is suggested is that as regards education Labour governments operate rather differently from this Conservative Government.

I have given a little background to this matter because we have the opportunity now, with this measure in front of us, to do things a little differently. We have the opportunity of a pilot scheme which will enable us to look at what is happening and the changes that the nursery voucher scheme engenders in three local authority areas. They are different and they will give a clue as to what might happen in other parts of the country. The pilot project should be allowed to run long enough for it to be evaluated sensibly. The Government should allow the project to be evaluated sensibly and then make a decision on how the scheme will be implemented throughout the country; whether it should be modified or not implemented at all.

One of the other advantages of this series of amendments is that it enables Parliament to be involved in the decision-making process. As I suggested earlier, we accept assurances given by government Ministers. I hope that the Government can give us an assurance that these pilot schemes will be allowed to run long enough and then for there to be a period of searching valuation. There will inevitably be teething troubles and that occurs with any new scheme. If we can have an assurance from the Government that those teething troubles will be addressed; that there will be a full analysis and review of the pilot schemes and that that review will be available for parliamentary discussion and debate, I am sure that we can allow the Bill to go forward as it is at present.

That is what we are asking for and that is what I ask for, in trying to take out party political debate from this subject. It does politicians no good to have party political divisions on such an important subject as education and to force something through without proper evaluation. It has been said on all sides of the Chamber already this afternoon that we all agree that nursery education is so important for the development of our young people that we should aim to see how best we can develop it. That is the plea that I make to the Government to try to take politics out of this particular debate. If the Government insist on putting forward a party political slant on the matter, as a number of speakers on the government Benches have done so far, I hope that the rest of the Committee will support the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

After that speech. I suggest respectfully to the Committee that we shall only do justice to the importance of this amendment and to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, by constructive and short speeches directed to the important issues of the amendment. While I am on my feet, for my part I wholly accept the sincerity of the noble Lord when he said that this is not intended to be a wrecking amendment. I hope that we may proceed in a more sensible fashion.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

I shall be both brief and historical. I want to refer directly to the business of having to wait a year to carry through this very important educational change. Perhaps I may draw the Committee's attention to three of the greatest changes ever made in English education. I refer first to the Elementary Education Act 1870, which introduced state primary education for the first time. Mr. Gladstone's Government did not ask for a year's pilot scheme. They relied on the existing models of primary teaching in Church schools.

I refer secondly to grammar schools and to the Education Act 1902, which was the first time that the English state took it upon itself to provide secondary education. The government of the day did not rely on a year's pilot scheme, but looked to the existing endowed secondary schools and to the practice in Germany.

I turn thirdly to the disputed change to comprehensive schooling, possibly the most profound change made in English education since the 1902 Act. Circular 10/65 stated that every local authority had to come forward with a scheme for comprehensive education. It is true that some doughty Tory councils delayed—and have delayed to this day—but it was not the intention of Mr. Crosland that they should.

Perhaps I may remind the Committee of another great change in English education when a noble Baroness, who sits in this House on a different Bench but is not here today, abolished direct grant schools. No one said that there needed to be a year's evaluation.

There are many nursery schools in this country. We do not need a year to study this. I say with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, that when my pupils quoted Latin tags I often feared the argument that followed.

The Lord Bishop of Ripon

Many of your Lordships will have received a great deal of material on this Bill. What has intrigued me has been the number of letters that I have received from private individuals—far more than I have received on any other issue since first becoming a Member of your Lordships' House 12 years ago. Some of the letters are simply signed circular letters, but many are individually written and refer not only to a particular school but, more importantly, to particular children, to the children for whom the parents are responsible. In almost every case, the writers state that they are looking for high quality nursery education which is locally accessible.

We all support the intention of providing nursery education on a wider basis—I certainly support that—but as has already been said, the question is whether this Bill will facilitate that. I am by no means opposed to the Bill, but I accept that many people in our society have grave hesitations about it simply on the grounds of what it will do to their child's nursery education. For them, it is not a political matter; it is entirely a family and personal matter.

As I said at Second Reading, I have taken the trouble to consult two of the diocesan boards of education which were involved in the pilot project. I have received comments from both about their hesitations which mirror the hesitations of many parents. The noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, referred to her talks with a primary head teacher in Norfolk. My information is that there are many models—four are spelled out in the paper that I have—for working to provide nursery education in Norfolk, of which the model mentioned by the noble Baroness is one. That seems to make the point that some sharing of experience and reflection on what is actually happening is essential.

Much of this work took place even before the nursery voucher scheme was proposed. Perhaps I may advise the noble Baroness, Lady Young, that the demand from Church schools for nursery provision was strongly in evidence even before the Bill emerged. Surely what we need is an opportunity for the kind of on-going evaluation which has been mentioned, but for that to be brought together in a reflective way so that there can be some sharing of experience. I do not see that that means that the existing pilot schemes must be halted, but I do think that it means that the scheme must be properly grounded. There needs to be an opportunity to share both the difficulties and the strengths of what is happening.

Clearly, the two boards of education which I consulted had very different views. One, in the rural area of Norfolk, was particularly concerned about a matter that has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. I refer to the need for local provision. That board is by no means clear that the voucher system will make available more local provision in rural areas. The concerns are different in urban areas and relate mainly to ethnic minorities and the need to ensure that information is available in a variety of languages. Clearly, such matters can be dealt with, but, if the scheme is to be properly founded, I believe that a certain amount of reflection on the experience gained from the pilots would be extremely valuable.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Parry

I begin by apologising to the Committee for my absence from earlier discussions on this matter. I have been handicapped and unable to come to the House. I am here now not because of the quantity of my postbag on this, but because of its quality. I am here not because of the organised circular letters to which the right reverend Prelate referred, but because of the friends who have asked me to be here this afternoon specifically to win a stay in what they consider to be progress towards implementing a scheme which may contain valuable provisions, but which they feel threatens the existing provision of nursery education.

I make a short but passionate intervention on behalf of those teachers who have written to make precisely the opposite comments to those made uncharacteristically vehemently by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, whom I have faced in your Lordships' House in discussions over many years. I know of her concern for education, but what we have heard this afternoon has been the authoritative voice of government dictating to people who have concerns rather than listening to what they are saying.

We have heard it said that only those who support the Government's case are worth listening to in the staff rooms and classrooms of Britain. However, that is not borne out by the facts. There are many teachers of great experience who care about this matter as much as anyone. From this side of the House I have never questioned the care of those on the other side of the House. However, this afternoon I have heard history rewritten from that side of the House in authoritative and ringing terms, declaring that things that never happened in the history of education in Britain happened under the administration of the governments that I have always supported.

The teachers in the classrooms of Britain and the parents who work with them in parent-teacher associations do not like the scheme at the moment. They want it to be re-examined carefully. As was said by my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris, that is implicit. My noble friend made it perfectly clear that he is not seeking to halt the scheme, but to improve it. He is seeking to bring into the discussion the voices of those teachers who will work with the scheme. For heaven's sake, why don't we listen to them?

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

I should like to speak briefly to Amendment No. 31, which stands in my name. It states that the Secretary of State should annually review, the educational, financial and administrative consequences of arrangements made under section 1 and following consultation may revise those arrangements". The argument is similar to that which we have heard in relation to reviewing the pilot scheme, but it is not identical. We are talking here about a new way of providing education. People have grave doubts about whether over the long term the Bill will achieve the objectives that have been set out for it. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, spoke about the need to target funds. That point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, on Second Reading. When the Secretary of State comes to review the financial consequences of this legislation, one of the things that he could consider is whether this additional provision—if additional provision is made—is being made where it is most needed. That would be extremely useful.

We are talking also about the quality of education. People are worried because there is no provision in the Bill as it stands—later amendments seek to address this—for there to be trained nursery teachers in every nursery class. That goes straight to the heart of the quality of the education which the children will receive. If the Bill is enacted, an annual review of the educational results of the operation of its provisions could enable the Secretary of State, where necessary, to amend the way in which the scheme is being operated.

I speak briefly, following the gentle hint given by a previous speaker. I believe that something as new as this must be looked at on an ongoing basis to ensure that it achieves its objectives; namely, the extension of good quality nursery education to those children covered by the Act at a financial cost which the Act determines, particularly in those places where it is most needed.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

The amendment of the noble Baroness has caused me the greatest concern. Does she know of any precedent in any other form of legislation for this type of clause?

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

I am not at all sure that I do, but this is an unprecedented way in which to provide education. The world in which I am more accustomed to play a role is that of local government. When one has tight resources directed to specific objectives one tries to monitor whether they are effectively deployed. I suggest that the Government ought to do the same.

Baroness Seccombe

I did not intend to speak. However, when the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, referred to complaints it occurred to me that I also had had complaints, but from parents who were furious that their councils had not taken up the opportunity to participate in the pilot scheme. They asked when that opportunity would be available to them. We have heard about the success in Wandsworth and how popular the scheme is with parents. It widens choice and gives parents responsibilities with a variety of provision. I cannot support the amendments. I believe that evaluation should be ongoing, but I see the Bill as seeking an extension of quality education for all children.

Lord Sewel

I seek to justify the double-take objective of the amendments to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, has referred. I believe that the argument is relatively simple. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Bill as it stands at present, not because of the policy objective of widening access to nursery education—which I do not believe divides Members of this Committee—but because of the introduction of a new principle of public policy. For the first time a major public service is to be provided by means of a voucher scheme. That is a totally new departure. A case has never arisen where a major public social service—nursery education—is to be provided by the voucher method.

One thing that is certain about this legislation is that unforeseen and unintended consequences will arise. When major changes like this are made it is virtually certain that matters will arise at the implementation stage which were not even dreamed of when the scheme was put together. For those reasons, the amendments that are now being discussed are important and valuable. They provide an opportunity to see how a voucher scheme impacts on educational experience, on access, particularly access by differentiated social groups, and the level of provision of nursery education throughout the country and in different areas. There is an absolutely unanswerable case for having a decent period in which consideration can be given to the effects of the scheme and an opportunity for reflection and modification. Otherwise, we stand the risk of introducing a totally new basis upon which public services are to be provided, and in a way which, to be quite honest, completely ignores the need for proper scrutiny when such a major change is contemplated.

Lord Dormand of Easington

When the Minister replies, will he say whether there is any part of the scheme which will not be subject to examination in the four pilot areas?

Lord Dixon-Smith

One of the joys that I have experienced in being a Member of the House is that from time to time I hear a speech delivered with such fluency and plausibility that, even though the argument is fundamentally flawed, I am enormously tempted to go along with it. One heard such an example this afternoon from the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris.

I have spent a large proportion of my life in the indirect administration of education as a member of a county council. I have spent a great deal of time battling with my LEA. On many occasions I have battled for my LEA. For a small proportion of the time I have found myself in the same situation on a national basis. I have battled with LEAs and, on many occasions, for them. I hesitate to indulge in this argument because there are a great number of black pots and kettles rattling round in this Chamber this afternoon. However, I may as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.

Curiously enough, the fundamental issue that lies behind the Bill is subsidiarity. Of course, at national level we know what it means. If a decision can more appropriately be taken in Westminster than Brussels that is subsidiarity, and we are all for it. I have witnessed a slight change in the scene. LEAs argue about subsidiarity. Very properly, they have argued with Westminster and Whitehall over the years that decisions which can better be taken locally should be taken locally and not nationally. The argument goes on. One sees the same congruence of view here between an LEA and Whitehall. If a decision can better be taken by an individual that is where the decision should properly lie, and the purpose of this particular Bill is to aid and facilitate ordinary people so that they have greater power over their children's education from the start.

Throughout the whole of my experience in education there has been a consistent congruence of view—I hesitate to call it an alliance because I do not believe that it will ever be that—between the Labour Party, the teachers' unions and some LEAs in favour of the collective view over the individual view. That may be an uncomfortable fact. The evidence is entirely circumstantial but it is based upon long experience.

The next question is whether one is to wait for sufficient evidence to have certainty in this matter. The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, has already provided the answer. The great reforms are undertaken based upon something that has already happened and they have been put in, as far as possible, across the country. If one is to wait for evidence for the success of the scheme how long a period will it be? At what point does one know that the scheme is a success? Does one measure it when children pass out of primary school? Surely not. One could not then be certain of the effect and impact. Does one measure it when they leave secondary school, or perhaps university? How many cohorts of children does one need to provide solid evidence? This presents a very real problem. We cannot wait that long. The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, spoke to a series of amendments. They address a way of delaying the implementation which goes against the principle of giving individuals the power to take decisions in this area of education. I cannot support the amendments because they will delay that possibility, and I think that is wrong.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

I wish to speak to Amendment No. 31, to which my name has been added, in the light of earlier contributions made in the debate.

There may be, although I have yet to receive any evidence from any source, including debates and letters I have received in relation to the Bill, parents who since 1977 have been offered local education authority nursery education who would rather opt to take a voucher that would provide less than half-time nursery education funding and spend it elsewhere. I have no evidence of anyone in that position.

However, I know of people whose children receive no nursery education who may, if offered the opportunity, wish to avail themselves of the new money the Government offer to supplement full or part-time nursery education or to buy less than half-time nursery education.

The Bill includes two issues. It includes the Government's calculation of additional resources to be made available to provide nursery education where none exists and where there is no choice and availability.

The Government could say that all parents, whether or not they are offered a place by the local education authority in a voluntary aided school nursery, for example, could choose to go down another route. They could choose to take a nursery voucher and move their child from the maintained sector to some other form of nursery education. The Government could use the new money to ensure that those for whom a place was not available or those who preferred the private sector could purchase a place using that money. That situation would have been clear, and then the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, may have been valid.

I have dealt with local government finance at the sharp end, facing Government Ministers, since 1977. The Government have chosen to remove the money currently spent by local education authorities on the education of children in local authority schools, and say that parents who wish to continue to use that provision will have to apply for a voucher. They will have to fill in a form and write to a private company which will assess the matter, and it will have to be collected by the school.

The Government state that they will remove the right amount of money for the children who are in the maintained sector and provide it through a voucher, and that the local education authority will get back that amount of money, if everything continues as it is now. With the greatest respect to the Minister, I have spent many years looking at the way in which local government finance works. If that degree of precision were to occur, it would be the first time in the history of local government finance.

The Government owe it not to us, but to parents, to explain why a sum of money may have to go through eight different channels to get back to where it started, involving huge bureaucratic costs, and causing trouble to Church schools, nursery schools, and everybody else.

If the Government have new money and want to target people who want to use it in that way, why do they not do so? Why do we have to have this process? There may then be a case for saying no to delaying evaluation. I am suspicious as to whether the Government's facts are financially accurate.

Lord Henley

I hope that neither the noble Lord, Lord Peston, nor the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, wants to add to the contributions from the Opposition Front Bench. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, for writing to my noble friends Lady Young and Lord Campbell of Alloway. I have no doubt that he wrote to other noble Lords and will write to me. I look forward with interest to receiving his billets.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

I wrote to them because I feared that they might not be here but I knew that the noble Lord would be here.

Lord Henley

I am grateful for the noble Lord's consideration. Ignoring what the noble Lord's noble friend has just said, the amendments broadly fall into two groups: first, those seeking more regulation on the face of the Bill and less of what the noble Lord referred to as arrangements; and, secondly, the major part of the group of amendments (Amendments Nos. 2, 6 and 13) which deal with evaluation. I shall deal with them separately and in that order.

The Bill sets out the broad framework, and the necessary legal underpinning for the grant, and its functions; for example, allowing the use of the child benefit database, defining the inspection regime, and so on.

Amendments made to the Bill in another place provided that two key elements of the grant arrangements should be set out in regulations. Those two elements are the type of institution which can be eligible for grant, and the description of children in respect of whose education grant can be paid.

As the noble Lord will be aware, later we shall be discussing a further government amendment (Amendment No. 21) which provides for a third key element of the grant arrangements to be contained in regulations. That element is the way in which the grant will be calculated. Those three issues are key policy issues, and should therefore be subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

The grant arrangements themselves will include the administrative detail. It is clearly not sensible to make all that the subject of legislation, be it primary or secondary. Time-consuming amendments would then be needed for the slightest change, which would be absurd. It would also limit the flexibility of grant which will be paid to a range of types of institution.

All the grant arrangements will be clearly set out and published. Key aspects will be in regulations, and the usual arrangements for accounting to Parliament for public expenditure will apply.

Those are convincing arguments for what I refer to as the first part of the group of amendments. I hope the noble Lord will feel that it is not necessary to press those amendments whatever he may feel about those relating to evaluation. However, in support of my case for rejecting, I need have done no more than point to the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee's report on the Bill. I am sorry that the noble Lord was dismissive of the committee's report because I believe that the committee, which we set up to deal with exactly such questions, performed its job very well on this occasion. It held considerable discussion with my honourable and right honourable friends within the department to ensure that its concerns were allayed.

The committee reported that, subject to the method of calculating grant being contained in regulations—hence the further amendment— the delegated powers in the Bill will be subject to appropriate parliamentary control". I hope that the noble Lord will accept that the amendments, which are based on Amendment No. 1, are not necessary because the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee dealt with those concerns.

I turn to the question of evaluation. I accept the word of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, that the amendment is not a wrecking amendment. The noble Lord knows how restrained I am on these occasions and I should be the last to say that it was a wrecking amendment. However, I must say to him that it is partially a wrecking amendment because the scheme, if it could not go forward, would be wrecked for the parents of children aged four in 1997. I am the first to declare an interest because I shall be the father of a four year-old late in 1997. As regards that group, this is certainly a wrecking amendment. I do not believe that it is necessary to delay the introduction of the new measures for a year or more, as the noble Lord suggests.

The amendments would have the effect of delaying the introduction of nationwide implementation of the scheme. There would have to be an evaluation of Phase 1 in the four LEA areas over 12 months; that is, up to the middle of April next year. A report would then have to be made to Parliament and the arrangements for Phase 2 could not be made until that had been done. Phase 2 could not, as a result, come into force in April 1997, as planned.

Amendment No. 31 would cause further delays year on year as the grant-making arrangements were reviewed annually and consultation undertaken. It would, in addition, cause considerable uncertainty for nursery education providers in all sectors about future funding arrangements. The additional choice offered to parents by the scheme, the new arrangements for quality assurance, and the availability of new resources through the vouchers for expansion would be delayed. There is no need to deny those benefits to children and their parents up and down the country, and the Government have no intention of doing so.

Obviously, we shall monitor the operational arrangements for Phase 1 by drawing on data on the issue and redemption of vouchers provided by the voucher agent and by surveys of parents and providers. I can give an assurance that initial results will be placed in the Library of each House as they become available, with an overall assessment in the autumn. The first inspection reports under the new quality assurance regime will also be available in the autumn. Ofsted envisages publishing an overview report of early inspection findings in January next year.

The noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, asked which parts of the scheme would not be evaluated. Obviously, there are some elements of the scheme which we cannot evaluate fully until we embark on Phase 2. I do not believe that the beneficial effects of yet wider choice and greater participation will be seen overnight. However, as we move on to Phase 2 we shall begin to see those benefits and we shall be able to inspect and evaluate them as they arise.

As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith made clear, it is not always possible to see all the benefits of every new reform overnight. One only has to look at the national curriculum, which most people now accept. We shall not see the benefits of children having studied science since the age of five until the end of the century because the full cohort of those starting to study science at the age of five will not have reached the end of the national curriculum until the end of the century. However, that should not be an excuse for delaying the introduction of such a beneficial new measure.

Baroness Hayman

Does the Minister agree that perhaps a pilot scheme with a proper evaluation of SATs for seven year-olds might have proved extremely valuable rather than having to change the whole scheme for everyone, which is what we faced?

4.45 p.m.

Lord Henley

I would be the first to accept that we did not get the national curriculum right first time. I would be the first to accept that broadly we have got it right now. That is why last year we said that we did not envisage further changes for another five years. That was broadly welcomed throughout the educational world.

The noble Baroness will be aware that we have in place a pilot scheme in order to examine some of its advantages. We have a chance to evaluate the scheme, which is what I am arguing today, but we do not believe that evaluating over a longer period has any advantages. It simply delays the advantages to those who are missing out on them at the moment.

Baroness Hayman

My point to the Minister was simply that everyone nationally had to go through the pain of getting it wrong first time in SATs and that that ought to make us extremely cautious about evaluating properly the pilot scheme here.

Lord Henley

We have a pilot scheme and we are evaluating properly. The noble Baroness and her party are suggesting that we should delay the scheme even further so that no one other than those in the four areas can benefit from its advantages.

I have said a great deal about the evaluation that we shall be undertaking and the detail that we shall be making available to the House. We believe that the various data and the findings will provide a good basis for deciding in the coming months whether any changes are needed in the operational arrangements for Phase 2. They will allow us to settle for this autumn the Phase 2 voucher administration contract; our plans for publicity and information; the briefing of the LEAs, the schools and other providers; and other operational arrangements. Those must be settled this autumn if there is to be a smooth introduction of the scheme nationwide next year, as many parents and providers expect.

Let us remember what is new in the scheme. Basically, it is the funding of some nursery education via vouchers and the inspection of private and voluntary providers. It is unlikely that a full year's evaluation of Phase 1, proposed in the amendment, would add significantly to the initial findings from the monitoring and assessment that we plan. As I made clear, it will take time for the major effects of the voucher scheme to be seen. Our evaluation plans provide over the medium-term for surveys to compare the provision and use of places for three and four year-olds. Over the longer term, they provide for longitudinal research into the effects of pre-school education to at least Key Stage 1.

We are committed to the proper monitoring, assessment and evaluation of the voucher scheme at all the appropriate stages in its development. The necessary plans for Phase 1 are in place and the results will be made available to this House and to Parliament as a whole. The alternative versions proposed in the amendments are unnecessary and would disadvantage the many parents and providers who are looking forward to the start of Phase 2 next April. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

I am sorry to say that I find the Government's reply less than totally satisfactory. Obviously, they are determined to concede absolutely nothing. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, quoted a letter in support from Wandsworth. That is the only letter in support that I have heard until today. Most of us have received hundreds of letters from parents, governors, LEAs, children, teachers and headteachers who are root and branch against nursery vouchers and all they stand for.

Lord Northbourne

I wonder whether the noble Lord is aware that today I received 26 letters from playschool groups supporting the voucher scheme.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

I believe that my total is 32 against and therefore on today's play I claim a victory. I may be slightly wrong on that because I have not opened all of them, but this very day I received a pile of nearly 50 letters.

Lord Henley

If the noble Lord has not opened his letters, how does he know which way they are pressing him? The noble Lord ought to be able to answer that question.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

As I said, there are at least 50 letters there, and I have opened only 32 of them.

However, I should like to clear up a few misconceptions. It is not a wrecking amendment because such an amendment would wreck the Bill. If the amendment were accepted, it would not wreck the Bill; indeed, it would simply delay the operation of one part of it. Therefore, in my submission, it is not a wrecking amendment.

I should like now to take up the point on the 80 per cent. take-up made by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I should point out that in Kensington and Chelsea there is barely any new provision and the vouchers merely reflect what is already there. In that case, 80 per cent. is not good: it is inefficient. On the other hand, in Norfolk almost all the new provision is by the LEA; in other words, giving the extra money to the LEA directly rather than taking it away, shuffling it around and then pushing it back would have produced an even better expansion.

The noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, pointed out that there would be a 12-month period of evaluation, as indeed did other Members of the Committee. But that is not necessarily so. Indeed, the Minister made it clear—I should like to underline this—that the main scheme could, I believe, start in September 1997 if the amendment were accepted. As I said, the amendment would simply delay the implementation of the arrangements until the evaluation is done to some point after 1st April 1997.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

Assuming that the Bill receives Royal Assent in July, I am not sure whether the noble Lord referred to September 1997—I imagine that I may have misheard him—for full implementation. Is that correct?

Lord Morris of Castle Morris


Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

But that is a year ahead.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

Surely it was only going to be April 1997 in the first place.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

I may have misunderstood.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

Perhaps we can discuss the matter at a later point.

I yield to no one in my admiration for the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee with whose members I have had several discussions. They were deeply concerned until The Next Steps pamphlet came out and had been discussed, as I understand it, between themselves and the Minister. In the light of what has been said, I beg the Committee's leave to withdraw Amendment No. 1. However, in doing so, I give notice that I shall move Amendment No. 2 and ask Members of the Committee to express an opinion on it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 6, after ("may") insert ("by, or in accordance with, an order").

The noble Lord said: I beg to move.

4.53 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 2) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 114; Not-Contents, 135.

Division No. 1
Addington, L. Harris of Greenwich, L.
Annan, L. Haskel, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Hayman, B.
Ashley of Stoke, L. Henderson of Brompton, L
Baldwin of Bewdley, E. Hilton of Eggardon, B.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. Hollick, L.
Berkeley, L. Hollis of Heigham, B.
Birk, B. Hooson, L.
Blackstone, B. Hylton, L.
Borrie, L. Hylton-Foster, B.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Irvine of Lairg, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Jay of Paddington, B.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Jeger, B.
Carter, L. Jenkins of Hillhead, L.
Castle of Blackburn, B. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Judd, L.
Craigavon, V. Kennet, L.
Darcy (de Knayth), B. Kintore, E.
David, B. Lockwood, B.
Desai, L. Lovell-Davis, L.
Diamond, L. McGregor of Durris, L.
Donaldson of Kingsbridge, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Donoughue, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. McNair, L.
Dubs, L. Mallalieu, B.
Eatwell, L. Mar and Kellie, E.
Elis-Thomas, L. Masham of Ilton, B.
Ewing of Kirkford, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Ezra, L. Mayhew, L.
Falkender, B. Milner of Leeds, L.
Falkland, V. Monkswell, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Morris of Castle Morris, L.
Fisher of Rednal, B. Murray of Epping Forest, L
Gallacher, L. Nicol, B.
Gladwin of Clee, L. Ogmore, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Parry, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. [Teller.] Peston, L.
Greene of Harrow Weald, L. Plant of Highfield, L.
Gregson, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Grey, E. Rea, L.
Halsbury, E. Redesdale, L.
Hamwee, B. Richard, L.
Ripon, Bp. Taverne, L.
Robson of Kiddington, B. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Rochester, L. Tenby, V.
Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Sainsbury, L. Thomson of Monifieth, L.
Seear, B. Tope, L. [Teller.]
Serota, B. Tordoff, L.
Sewel, L. Varley, L.
Shannon, E. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Shepherd, L. Warnock, B.
Smith of Gilmorehill, B. Weatherill, L.
Southwell, Bp. White, B.
Stallard, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Stoddart of Swindon, L. Williams of Mostyn, L.
Strabolgi, L. Winston, L.
Aberdare, L. HolmPatrick, L.
Addison, V. Hooper, B.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Howe, E.
Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, L. Ilchester, E.
Astor of Hever, L. Inglewood, L.
Balfour, E. Jenkin of Roding, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Johnston of Rockport, L.
Birdwood, L. Kimball, L.
Blatch, B. Lauderdale, E.
Boardman, L. Leigh, L.
Bowness, L. Lindsay, E.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Lucas, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Braine of Wheatley, L. Lyell, L.
Brentford, V. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Bruntisfield, L. McConnell, L.
Burnham, L. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Butterfield, L. Mackay of Clashfem, L.
Butterworth, L. [Lord Chancellor.]
Campbell of Alloway, L. Mackay of Drumadoon, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Macleod of Borve, B.
Camock, L. Manton, L.
Chalker of Wallasey, B. Marlesford, L.
Charteris of Amisfield, L. Merrivale, L.
Chelmsford, V. Mersey, V.
Chesham, L. [Teller.] Miller of Hendon, B.
Clanwilliam, E. Milverton, L.
Clark of Kempston, L. Monson, L.
Cochrane of Cults, L. Monteagle of Brandon, L.
Courtown, E. Montgomery of Alamein, V.
Cranborne, V. [Lord Privy Seal.] Mottistone, L.
Cuckney, L. Mountevans, L.
Cumberlege, B. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Dean of Harptree, L. Moyne, L.
Denham, L. Munster, E.
Denton of Wakefield, B. Murton of Lindisfame, L.
Dixon-Smith, L. Nelson, E.
Downshire, M. Newall, L.
Eccles of Moulton, B. Northbourne, L.
Ellenborough, L. Northesk, E.
Elles, B. O'Cathain, B.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Oppenheim-Barnes, B.
Elton, L. Orr-Ewing, L.
Erroll, E. Oxfuird, V.
Ferrers, E. Palmer, L.
Flather, B. Park of Monmouth, B.
Fraser of Kilmorack, L. Peel, E.
Gage, V. Pender, L.
Gainford, L. Pilkington of Oxenford, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Quinton, L.
Gray of Contin, L. Rankeillour, L.
Harding of Petherton, L. Rawlings, B.
Harlech, L. Renwick, L.
Harmsworth, L. Romney, E.
Harrowby, E. St. Davids, V.
Hayhoe, L. St.John of Bletso, L.
Henley, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Holderness, L. Seccombe, B.
Selbome, E. Swinfen, L.
Sharples, B. Teviot, L.
Shaw of Northstead, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L
Simon of Glaisdale, L. Trefgarne, L.
Slim, V. Trumpington, B.
Stewartby, L. Ullswater, V.
Strathcarron, L. Vivian, L.
Strathclyde, L. [Teller] Wade of Chorlton, L.
Strathcona and Mount Royal, L. Wedgwood, L.
Swansea, L. Wynford, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.1 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton moved Amendment No. 3: Page 1, line 7, at end insert ("except in any area of a local education authority within which a majority of parents of children with places in maintained nursery schools, voting in a ballot organised in accordance with regulations, has voted that arrangements under this Act should not be applicable to that area").

The noble Baroness said: Opting out has been a theme of government policy since the passing of the Education Reform Act 1988. That Act was intended to give parents the opportunity to vote to establish a different system of governance in their children's school, with funding direct from the Government. Later, an element of selection was introduced.

This amendment follows precisely that logic in providing that parents should determine whether vouchers should be introduced in their area. In many parts of the country, most notably Solihull in the West Midlands—an authority under Conservative control where provision was made available for all parents of four year-olds who wished their children to avail themselves of that provision—local parents are clear that the mechanism of the voucher scheme, as enshrined in this Bill, will bring no benefits to their area. In areas with a high level of provision such as Solihull the removal or raiding of local authority finances to provide the base of the funding for the scheme is imperilling existing provision in an area where the local authority has made that provision widely available and where it is widely used. Parents in Solihull are increasingly puzzled as to why vouchers are necessary. I await with interest the Minister's reply.

In the debate on the previous group of amendments the noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to the level of success as being measurable by the number of parents who claim their vouchers. However, that is the only way that parents who are satisfied with what they have now, and with the resources that are available to the local authority, can ensure that the system may continue. However, the huge bureaucratic nightmare of red tape and the cost involved in those parents in Solihull and elsewhere having to claim the money through a different route is bewildering to those parents and to most people involved in the education service in England and Wales, and in Scotland where the Government can hardly claim that their proposals have met with universal welcome. Parents ask why, if they are satisfied with provision now, they should have to claim vouchers through this costly, bureaucratic, red-tape nightmare in order to continue to receive what they now have.

These are not assertions or criticisms of the legislation. This amendment accepts that the Bill will proceed, but provides that it should do so as a measure empowering parents rather than imposing a scheme upon them. It would require the Government to bring forward regulations to set up a system of balloting, not dissimilar to the system established by the Government under the 1988 Act (and revised in 1993) for opted-out schools. Where a majority of parents with places in maintained nurseries voted that arrangements should not apply within that LEA area, they would be exempted from the voucher paper chase.

The Government claim that the system they propose to introduce is universally popular. I can find no evidence of that. People in areas such as Solihull can find no one to speak in support of the scheme. Surely the Government ought to judge the legislation they propose on the basis of their past philosophy and logic. If the Government believe that there ought to be parental choice, why cannot those parents collectively express that choice? Why on earth should we waste public money to ensure that parents apply to obtain what they have now, and why should we have to pay for seven, eight, or ultimately even nine bureaucratic hoops? I have seen the Government's statements about the cost of the scheme. I remain totally unconvinced on that point. We on these Benches believe that if the Government are being consistent they will support this amendment. I beg to move.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

I also support this amendment. Parental choice is an important principle, and the Government do not have a monopoly on it. The difficulty has sometimes been in persuading them to apply it in cases where the result might not be to their liking. The classic example of this was in our debates three years ago (I was re-reading some of them last night) over the rights of parents to opt back in from grant-maintained status if circumstances later changed—a right which the Government were not prepared to grant. That was apparently a choice too far.

Here we have a situation where it is clear from our postbags that in certain areas, notably those where nursery education is already thriving, parents see real problems in the patchwork arrangements this Bill seeks to impose. They should be able to opt out if that is their majority wish. There is no reason in logic or practice why a scheme of balloting should not be devised which gives effect to such a choice. I would urge the Government to look favourably on this amendment.

Lord Tope

I rise briefly to support this amendment, which is also tabled in my name. The points have been well made by the two previous speakers. In my experience—I speak as a leader of a local education authority and our party's Front Bench spokesperson—not only have I not received a single letter from anyone supporting this scheme so far, and certainly no letter from anyone castigating my authority for not taking part in the pilot schemes, but the overwhelming majority of letters have been from parents who simply do not understand why, when they already have good provision for their four year-old child, they will have to go through this enormous paper chase and great bureaucratic tangle. They do not understand why we shall have to spend, by the Government's estimation, £20 million—although some of us suspect it will be rather more than that—administering a hugely bureaucratic process which simply takes them back in the end to where they are now, or something worse. It must be entirely consistent with the Government's education policy over the years not to impose a national scheme on parents who do not wish it, but to allow them the choice to opt out if they so wish. That seems entirely consistent with government policy and practice. I find myself a little uncomfortable in supporting it, but on this occasion I believe that it is right to allow the opt-out. I am pleased to support the amendment.

Lord Bowness

I am sorry that I was not present for the whole of the Second Reading debate. I am even sorrier in many ways to find myself not in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. They are local authority colleagues of many years' standing, albeit from the other side.

I understand entirely that Members of the Committee opposite may approach the question from a point of view and direction different from that of the Government. Indeed, as a former leader of a local authority I can understand some of the problems and worries expressed about the paperwork involved. I have no doubt that the Minister will consider whether, in the light of experience, the process can be streamlined in some way.

However, in the context of this Bill, I find the amendment incomprehensible. The proposal goes further than that urged upon us by local authority associations in their briefing to Members of the Committee. The amendment does not even propose a scheme to be adopted at the discretion of individual local education authorities. It proposes a vote among those people who currently have a benefit in a particular sector as to whether or not a similar benefit should be extended to those who currently do not enjoy it.

There is no proposal to seek the views of those parents who do not enjoy the benefit. During the course of this afternoon's debate, there has been an assumption that all parents who put their children into nursery education in the private sector can do so without hardship. Yet I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, will know from their local authority experience that local authority leaders are frequently told that if the provision of nursery education is inadequate in their area, for whatever reason, it causes many people considerable hardship. But those parents suffer financial hardship in order to put their children into nursery education in the private sector, either because they believe passionately in nursery education, or because it is necessary to have some kind of childcare to enable a parent to go to work.

The ability of an education authority to provide nursery places is not limited solely by the question of resources. It relates to the physical constraints, the location where places can be made available, the size of the sites and the suitability of the schools. To say that the amendment carries forward the principles of opt-out proposed in previous legislation for grant-maintained schools is not true. There one consults the parents in one school at a specific time about the future of that school. That does not deprive other parents within the area of the opportunity to put their children into local authority maintained schools. If parents were against grant-maintained status, and a ballot goes against them it does not prevent those parents putting their children into local authority maintained schools.

However if the amendment were agreed, it would enable parents with a vested interest at the time the vote was taken—those with children in maintained nursery schools—to prevent the proposals in the Bill being made available to other parents.

While the question presumably would be prescribed by the regulations referred to in the amendment, who will explain to the parents concerned the implications of voting yea or nay? I do not believe that one can draw a parallel with this proposal. It is not appropriate to go to one small sector of the community—parents who happen to have their children in maintained nursery places—to decide whether or not other parents can take advantage of a national scheme which is put forward to increase the number of places available. I oppose the amendment.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness David

The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said that some people will be put at a disadvantage by the amendment. But the parents of those already in nursery schools will be the major part of the electorate who will be involved in the scheme. No doubt in areas such as Sollihul, with about 95 per cent. of children in nursery schools, the major part of the electorate of that area will be affected. I am strongly in support of the amendment. I believe that it follows the case of grant-maintained schools where parents have the choice. I do not see why parents should not have the choice as regards this scheme. I have received a vast number of letters asking for this amendment to be put forward. Since the Government make such a thing about parental choice, I believe that those voices should be listened to. I hope very much that the Government will look kindly on this amendment. I strongly support it.

Lord Monkswell

In a previous debate, our noble colleague from Essex—I regret that I forget his name—

Lord Henley

I believe that the noble Lord refers to my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith.

Lord Monkswell

I thank the Minister. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, suggested that the nursery voucher scheme was an example of subsidiarity. A rather better example of subsidiarity is the mechanism put forward by this amendment. We need to recognise that while there may be some advantages for individuals receiving nursery vouchers, there will be disadvantages in terms of the withdrawal from local education authorities of funding which is currently spent on nursery provision. We need to recognise that factor. We need to recognise, too that local people should be able to judge the balance of advantage and disadvantage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young, spoke of everyone wanting to become grant-maintained but being prevented from doing so by adverse propaganda, pressure and so on. I do not believe that anything could be further from the truth. I suggest that one of the reasons why there have been no opt-outs in, for example, Manchester, is that the local population has considered the balance of advantage and disadvantage and made a judgment locally that it is better off within the local education authority provision rather than opting out. To argue that it has been coerced is absolute nonsense. People make a judgment locally.

While the Government provide the facility for individual schools to opt-out of local education authority administration within the area—effectively going from LEA administration to national administration—it is surely only right that the local community should be able to make that judgment about the provision of nursery education within its area—whether it should be funded and provided through the LEA or through the voucher scheme. Surely it is only right that the Government should allow that sort of local discretion. It would enable the local community to accommodate the situation that will pertain in the local area.

Perhaps I may give two examples of how that situation might be variable. At one end of the spectrum a local education authority, having received the revenue support grant funding for nursery provision which the Government are intent on withdrawing, may make up that funding from other areas within the budget: from the council tax or by diverting funds from other areas of revenue support grant. At the other end of the spectrum the perspective could be completely different. Not only will the situation vary from one local education authority to another; it will also vary over time. Among other provisions, this amendment would enable those who will be subjected to the regime to make a decision, probably year by year, which on balance will be to their advantage. I hope the Committee will recognise that as a very sensible and logical provision to make within the Bill.

Baroness Hayman

I support the amendment. I see it as a way of limiting, at least in some cases where parents participate in these ballots, the transaction costs that worry me in relation to the implementation of the scheme. I share some of the concerns expressed on the Benches opposite in relation to ballots of parents; namely, that a particular group of parents at a particular time will shape policy in their area for the future. This issue has been of particular concern in relation to grant-maintained status. As the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin of Bewdley, said, there is the difficulty of going back when perhaps a different group of parents concerned with the same school take a different view about how they want the school organised.

My anxieties about the transaction costs involved in the nursery voucher scheme are such that I believe we ought to take any opportunity to limit those costs. As I said at Second Reading, I have had the bitter experience of working in the health service, and seeing the introduction of markets and pseudo-markets in the provision of a public service. I have seen the costs that come with that. I have two concerns in relation to this particular scheme. The first was argued by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. It relates to the number of layers of transaction costs that will be involved in recycling the money back into the local education system where the majority of nursery education is being provided. I should much prefer to see a scheme whereby local education authorities were able simply to provide, with targets set for them, the most suitable and necessary education in their particular areas through whatever providers—voluntary, public or private. It is a waste of public money to enter into the sort of transaction costs that are proposed.

The other issue is whether schools and local education authority nursery schools will be able to reclaim the money owed to them, as it were, for the pupils whom they already have on their books. The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, referred to the difficulties involved.

We underwent a similar exercise in the National Health Service, when we changed from funding provider units directly to a system of capitation funding through purchasers. It was called the "template" exercise. The object was to look at what hospitals were doing, see where the patients came from, see what every treatment cost, and then divide up our budgets. The money would then be reallocated to all the purchasing authorities for them to provide a purchase service on behalf of patients and come back to the hospitals through a different route. That was to be called "steady state"; and there was to be no difference in the funding. Seven years on, we are still arguing about the inaccuracies in the template as it was first set up. It makes me extremely wary that this scheme will simply plough back to those already providing the service the funds necessary to do so. For those reasons, I very much support this amendment.

Lord Sewel

The Bill and the amendments provide an interesting example of the tensions between individual decision-making and collective decision-making. It could be reasonably argued that individual decision-making is an appropriate form of decision-making where there is a clear alternative, and collective decision-making relates to either something or nothing at all.

In the scheme before us, people do not have the opportunity anywhere in the elaborate decision-making process into which they are almost entrapped, of saying, "No, we don't want a voucher scheme". They can make a choice as to whether to go down the public or the private route thereafter. But that choice is already open to them, and will remain open to them under any circumstances. The difficulty is that the Bill does not give the individual a choice in terms of saying yes or no to the voucher scheme per se. My noble friend's amendment tries to achieve an opportunity for parents to say, "No, we don't want a voucher scheme. We will exercise our choice between different forms of nursery provision, completely separate from a discussion about provision through vouchers".

Lord Tope

Before the Minister replies, I wish to comment briefly on the points made by my colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, in suggesting that under this amendment the electorate is perhaps drawn a little too narrowly. As I am sure he knows, the basis of the electorate mentioned in this amendment is exactly the same as that currently used for grant-maintained schools. If he wishes to argue that the electorate for a ballot to opt out and assume grant-maintained status should include prospective parents, particularly from feeder primary schools in the case of a secondary school, and from neighbouring schools that would be affected if the school were to opt out, I should have much more sympathy for his argument.

The purpose of this amendment is simply to base the electorate on the same basis as that chosen by the Government in dealing with primary and secondary schools that wish to opt out of the system. That is the point. In addition, in this case we are talking about parents and schools having a change imposed upon them which they may feel they do not wish to accept. We are saying that they should be given an opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not they wish to adopt this scheme. In other words, we give them freedom of choice.

Lord Bowness

Perhaps I may respond to the noble Lord on that point. Clearly, he did not understand the difference between the ballot for the opting out of a grant-maintained school and the proposal in the amendment. If parents vote to take the school out of the direct control of the local education authority into the grant-maintained system, free education still exists, whether in the grant-maintained sector or the local authority maintained sector. Parents within the area of the local education authority can put their children, if they feel so strongly about it, into a local education authority directly maintained school.

In this situation, however, if the amendment were carried, parents who could not get their children into local authority maintained nursery education would be denied the right to the voucher, which they might find particularly useful, given that for a number of reasons, not just to do with resources as I outlined in my previous remarks, there may not be sufficient places. Such a vote by such a closed community would deprive a larger number of people of the benefits of a national scheme. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, there is a significant difference.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Henley

I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Bowness for making that point. I had intended to assure the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that he was wrong. I shall come to that in due course.

I find this the most extraordinary amendment in many ways, first because we now see the party opposite espousing opt-outs. I seem to remember the one-time Opposition education spokesman in another place, Mrs. Ann Taylor, telling a Labour Party conference, "We oppose opt-outs in principle because it is wrong", but we have seen further changes today.

The reason I find the amendment totally extraordinary is its wording and its wholly defective nature: first, because it does not do what the noble Baroness is setting out to do; and, secondly, because of its extraordinary lack of precision or definition. First, the amendment draws absolutely no boundaries for the areas which might opt out of the scheme, merely referring to: any area of the local authority". How would that be defined? Would that be the parish? Would it be a parliamentary constituency? Could it simply be one borough within the LEA or one district? The matter is not defined at all. Secondly, the amendment specifies that only parents of children attending maintained nursery schools—I emphasise that, and that is what the amendment says—would be eligible to vote in such a ballot. As I think the noble Baroness will be aware, there are some 550 maintained nursery schools in England, but they are not spread evenly throughout the country. There are a number of LEAs with no maintained nursery schools at all. In those LEAs all the maintained nursery provision is made in nursery classes attached to primary schools or in reception classes. They are excluded from the noble Baroness's amendment.

I shall give the noble Baroness a few examples which will be close to home for her and for the others who put their names to this amendment. Lancashire, which the noble Baroness knows well, has more maintained nursery schools than any other English LEA. I am advised that in January 1996 there were 39 maintained nursery schools. Sutton, which the noble Lord, Lord Tope, knows as well as the noble Baroness knows Lancashire, had only two maintained nursery schools in January 1996, although Sutton does make extensive provision for children under five, but in nursery classes, not in nursery schools. Perhaps I can turn to Oxfordshire, although I see that the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin of Bewdley, is not in his place. I regret I do not have the figures for Leicestershire, with which he also has connections. Oxfordshire has some 18 nursery schools but has a relatively low overall participation rate for the under fives. A final interesting example would obviously be Solihull, which the noble Baroness mentioned, and there was much debate in another place, as the noble Baroness will be aware, about that particular LEA. Solihull has no nursery schools at all, so there would be no parents eligible to take part in the ballot because their provision is made not by means of nursery schools but by nursery classes or reception classes.

Thirdly, one has to look at who is being asked to take part in that ballot. I merely ask why parents of children in maintained nursery schools should be able to determine whether or not all other parents in an area should be able to benefit from the new grant arrangements. That certainly is the effect of the amendment as it stands.

We want to give parents of all four year-olds the opportunity to choose the type and nature of the nursery education which best suits their child. When we say "all", we mean all of them and not only those currently fortunate enough to have secured a nursery education place. That is why we believe very strongly in parental choice, and the voucher effectively allows every parent to express his or her view about local provision across the board. If that local provision satisfies the parents' needs, the maintained schools and LEAs have nothing to fear and will lose nothing whatsoever. We also want to offer opportunities to those who have not yet secured a place for their children or who would prefer a different sort of place. Let us be quite clear that if a local education authority wants to continue to provide the same number of places to the same children, it will be absolutely free to do so and will not lose out. If an LEA continues to recruit the same number of children in the same pattern, it will be no worse off. I have heard no allegations from the noble Baroness or others that the kind of provision which local authorities are making is not satisfactory and that individuals will not wish to make use of it. Good provision, from whichever sector, that is meeting the needs of the parents has absolutely nothing to fear, and I hope therefore that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

The Minister, in his response to the debate, appeared to indicate that were certain phrases or words in the amendment not to be used the Government would be quite happy. He appeared to imply that if the wording of the amendment were to ensure that parents of children in nursery units and classes and reception classes in Solihull were also able to vote, the Government would be happy to satisfy that request. The Minister appeared to be saying that if the franchise were to be widened he would recognise that too.

The objections that have been raised by the Minister to the drafting of the amendment appear to be of more concern to him than the principle. The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, referred to finding a way to simplify the system. Surely the simplest way to make the system easier is for those who are satisfied now to be able to opt-out of having to have a voucher. It is a very strange comment from a Conservative Minister that, on top of the wasteful, bureaucratic cost of paying for what parents already have (and which is funded through the revenue support grant, Government income, the national non-domestic rate, the local council tax, redistribution and the allocation of grant) the Government want to add a procedure whereby, the LEAs have to get the money back through eight different systems, in order that parents continue to have the provision they already have and with which they are satisfied. The Minister says it is perfectly all right: the Government are finding the money from somewhere else. I am sorry. My experience of the people of Solihull and the way they view local government expenditure is that they will not be satisfied by the Government saying that it is perfectly OK, they will make sure that the additional bureaucratic costs come from somewhere else. My experience of parents is that they look at the size of the primary school classes and say, "Thank you very much, Government. We would rather spend the money on teachers than on jumping through eight new bureaucratic hoops".

The amendment enfranchises only parents with places in the current system. That is the Government's comment. But these are the parents who are most concerned about what they have now being imperilled as a result of the vouchers being imposed. The electorate is exactly the same as that which would apply in the case of a GM ballot. The Government seem to say: "There are parents, parents and parents. When it suits us we will take only the parents of children in a school. When it does not, we will not." Obviously, if the Government were able to support the principle of the amendment and take it away and look at it, we from this side would be prepared to withdraw the amendment at this stage and await the Government meeting the request of parents for parental choice. I see the noble Lord the Minister shake his head against that, and therefore I have no alternative but to seek the opinion of the Committee.

5.40 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 3) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 88; Not-Contents, 111.

Division No. 2
Addington, L. [Teller.] Lovell-Davis, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L. McGregor of Durris, L.
Baldwin of Bewdley, E. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Berkeley, L. Mackie of Benshie, L.
Blackstone, B. McNair, L.
Borrie, L. McNally, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L. Mallalieu, B.
Carter, L. Mar and Kellie, E.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L. Mayhew, L.
David, B. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Dean of Beswick, L. Meston, L.
Desai, L. Methuen, L
Diamond, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Donoughue, L. MonsksWell, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Morris of castle Morris, L.
Dubs, L.
EatWell, L. Nicol, B.
Elis-Thomas, L. Ogmore, L.
Ewing of Kirkford, L. Palmer, L.
Falkender, B. Perry of Walton, L.
Falkland, V. Plant of Highfield, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Prys-Davies, L.
Fisher of Rednal, B. Redesdale, L.
Gallacher, L. Robson of Kiddington, B.
Geraint, L. Rochester, L.
Gladwin of Clee, L. [Teller.] Seear, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Serota, B.
Greene of Harrow Weald, L. Sewel, L.
Grey, E. Shepherd, L.
Hamwee, B. Smith of Gilmorehill, B.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Hayman, B. Strabolgi, L.
Hilton of Eggardon, B. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Hollick, L. Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Tope, L.
Hooson, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Hylton-Foster, B. Varley, L.
Jay or Paddington, B. Wallace of Coslany, L.
Jeger, B. Warnock, B.
Jenkins of Hillhead, L.
Jenkins of Putney, L. White, B.
Judd, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Lockwood, B. Williams of Mostyn, L.
Longford, E. Winston, L.
Aberdare, L. Jenkin of Roding, L.
Addison, V. Kimball, L.
Alexander of Tunis, E. Leigh, L.
Astor of Hever, L. Lindsay, E.
Balfour, E. Lucas, L.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Blatch, B. Lyell, L.
Boardman, L. McColl of Dulwich, L
Bowness, L. Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Mackay of Clashfern, L.
Brabazon of Tara, L. [Lord Chancellor.]
Brentford, V. Mackay of Drumadoon, L.
Brigstocke, B. Marlesford, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Bruntisfield, L. Merrivale, L.
Burnham, L. Mersey, V.
Butterworth, L. Miller of Hendon, B.
Cadman, L. Milverton, L.
Campbell of Croy, L. Mottistone, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Mountevans, L.
Carnock, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Chalker of Wallasey, B. Munster, E.
Chelmsford, V. Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Chesham, L. [Teller.) Napier and Ettrick, L.
Clanwilliam, E. Nelson, E.
Clark of Kempston, L. Norrie, L.
Cochrane of Cults, L. Northbourne, L.
Coleridge, L. Northesk, E.
Colwyn, L. O'Cathain, B.
Courtown, E. Orr-Ewing, L.
Cranborne, V. [Lord Privy Seal.] Park of Monmouth, B.
Dean of Harptree, L. Peel, E.
Denham, L. Pender, L.
Denton of Wakefield, B. Pilkington of Oxenford, L.
Dixon-Smith, L. Rankeillour, L.
Downshire, M. Rawlings, B.
Eccles of Moulton, B. Renwick, L.
Ellenborough, L. Romney, E.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Elton, L. Selsdon, L.
Feldman, L. Sharples, B.
Ferrers, E. Shaw of Northstead, L.
Flather, B. Skidelsky, L.
Gage, V. Stewartby, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Strathcarron, L.
Gray, L. Strathclyde, L. [Teller.]
Gray of Contin, L. Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.
Harding of Petherton, L. Swansea, L.
Harmsworth, L. Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Harrowby, E. Trefgarne, L.
Henley, L. Trumpington, B.
Holderness, L. Ullswater, V.
HolmPatrick, L. Vivian, L.
Hooper, B. Wise, L.
Howe, E. Wyatt of Weeford, L.
Inglewood, L. Wynford, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.48 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 4: Page 1, line 7, at end insert ("except where any such arrangements would have the effect of reducing the resources available to any local education authority in the first or subsequent financial years of the operation of those arrangements by comparison with the last financial year before such operation").

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 4, 5 and 86 are grouped together. For the convenience and, I hope, intelligibility of this group, I shall move Amendment No. 4 and leave Amendment No. 5 to the noble Lord, Lord Tope, with the certain knowledge that my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies will be able to enlighten the Committee on Amendment No. 86.

The purpose of Amendment No. 4 is to prevent the loss of resources to authorities with high levels of provision through the system of financing vouchers chosen by the Government. It is intended to press the Government on their justification for imperilling existing provision in a number of areas. The issue was raised at several stages in another place, notably and strongly by the Conservative Member Mr. lain Mills on behalf of his authority of Solihull.

I have this day received a letter which was wrapped around a large box. I cannot, of course, exhibit the box in any way, but it is a marvellous box and I believe that it is in order for me to refer to it. It contained 1,200 (give or take a few) hand prints from children in the schools in Solihull that would be affected by the Bill. Although I cannot exhibit anything in the Chamber, if at any time Members of the Committee would like to see the kind of artwork that takes place in those marvellous schools—there are some wonderful ones in Solihull—the box is available for their inspection in my room.

The letter is addressed to, Dear All Lords and Ladies, re. nursery vouchers". It says that they are sending the 1,200 sets of handprints from the children of Solihull, because in Solihull they have an excellent education system for pre-school children which has taken them a long time to build up and which would take only a short time to destroy if the nursery voucher scheme were to be implemented as compulsory. They beg us to consider giving Solihull and many other authorities the chance to opt out of the scheme and continue with their excellent provision. The box was presented to me just after midday today by a lady acting on behalf of the Solihull Parent Action Group. I thought it might lighten the proceedings a little if I were to refer to it.

The method by which the Government propose to fund the larger part of the voucher scheme is, in our view, flawed and of great concern to a wide number of people. Most of the finance will be taken from local authorities in a way which will affect them very differently, and that is the point. Some of the highest providers will lose not only what they spend on four year-olds, but also a great deal of what they spend on three year-olds. In other words, the introduction of vouchers will not only place existing provision for four year-olds in doubt it will impede progress towards expanding nursery education for three year-olds.

In biblical terms it is a case not so much of "Unto him that hath shall be given", but of "From him that hath shall be taken away everything that he hath, especially if he has got rather a lot". Or, to use another parable, the wise virgins are going to be punished and the foolish virgins are going to be given a considerable handout.

The reason that could occur is that the majority of the funding for the scheme is to be deducted from local education authorities and under the Bill redirected to the making of grants equivalent to the value of the voucher. The problem is that the amounts to be deducted per child bear no relation to the actual cost of providing a place in a specific area. The largest deductions will be made from those LEAs with the highest provision.

The Government will claim that the money lost will simply be regained if parents with vouchers again choose the LEA schools. But that is a simplistic attitude to the problem. We have already heard from my noble friend Lady Farrington of the paperchase—the way in which the vouchers money will go from one end of the LEA to the other and back to where it started in an extremely difficult bureaucratic scheme. It also ignores the impossibility of planning and budgeting for services for which the funding is wholly uncertain until after the start of the financial year.

I hope the Committee will agree that we are not running a corner shop. We are running more than 106 LEAs, and they are running a highly complex and difficult financial operation. Not to be able to plan forward—to have one's forward planning vitiated in this way is extremely serious. The financing method threatens to destabilise existing nursery provision at the price of expansion in areas with fewer places. Not only is that unfair, a more logical system would better deliver expansion in nursery education: if the additional resources which are being created were simply made available to LEAs for the expansion of the public and private sectors in partnership.

Of the £750 million intended to be spent on the voucher scheme in 1997–98, £565 million will be deducted in advance from the revenue support grant payable to local education authorities. Thus £165 million will be new money. The money deducted from LEAs represents over half of the £1 billion which the Government consider authorities should spend on nursery education. But in the case of the high providers such as Solihull, with high levels of provision for both four year-olds and three year-olds, 95 per cent. of the money which the Government consider they ought to spend will be removed to fund vouchers in this circular system. It may or may not end up back with them. What a way to run a railway!

The system is inefficient because the process of passing vouchers from hand to hand involves administrative costs which the Government have conservatively estimated at £20 million of the total. There is no provision in that for the training of staff, or for capital spending on buildings and equipment. Therefore, before the expansion has started, resources are being frittered away for the sake of this ideological experiment. Nor is this experiment one that has been followed through in practice since already in the inner city pilot areas, authorities, we are told, have waived the distinction between children whose parents do and those who do not actually produce a voucher. That must be done apparently in order to cope with the number of parents whose first language is not English and the number of deprived families in the areas concerned. Otherwise we just penalise the children.

In practice therefore the money is not following the voucher-bearing child, calling into question the need for the associated bureaucracy and for vouchers at all. A more sensible Bill would enable providers to claim grants on the basis of the numbers of four year-olds for whom they provide, without having to present all over the place bits of paper which some parents, for good reasons, cannot produce.

The core difficulty with the mechanism which the Government need to explain is that the deductions will be made according to the number of four year-old children in part or in full-time education in the area rather than the total number of children in the area. That sounds technical. It is. But that technical requirement leads automatically to the highest deductions in the highest providing areas, and that is unfair. The Government need to explain—please, will they do so—why deductions are not based on the number of four year-olds in the population of each area. For example, in Wales the deduction is to be made on precisely that basis, so it is not impossible.

The Government will argue that there is a distinction in that in Wales individual authorities do not have a standard spending assessment for education. That is a technical smokescreen, since the SSA for education authorities in England is drawn up on the basis of four year-olds in the population, and it would be quite straightforward to make the deductions on the same basis. It would produce a proportionate burden all round and avoid removing grant which is being spent on provision for three year-olds.

This is not the easiest thing in the world to follow, which is why I read carefully from my brief. It is important that we understand it and get it right. What it all adds up to is that the Government need to explain the difference between the position in England and in Wales. Further, they need to recognise that a more effective way to expand nursery provision would be to start from the existing base, using LEAs to secure extra places in both the public and private sectors. The new moneys available should be allocated directly to expansion with a strong lead to LEAs being given in national guidance. There should be no bureaucratic or other wastage of scarce additional resources in this very crucial area. I beg to move.

Lord Tope

The noble Lord, Lord Moms of Castle Moms, indicated that I would speak, in particular, upon Amendment No. 5. I shall do as he suggested. However, we support fully what he said in regard to Amendments Nos. 4 and 86 which we believe to be extremely important.

In the Second Reading debate I expressed some anxiety about the effects of a flat-rate voucher scheme, currently suggested as £1,100. That was intended to cover capital costs as well where appropriate, and certainly no separate provision has been made. If, as stated, one of the principal aims of the scheme is to expand nursery provision as the noble Lord, Lord Morris, said, it is particularly important that we attempt to target resources on those areas which currently have less or low provision.

If we are to see an expansion, then, by definition, it will not come in those areas which are already well provided for and where the need for additional capital expenditure will be less. If we are to see an expansion, it will come in areas of low provision where there will inevitably be considerable capital costs both in terms of premises and in terms of new equipment in order to run the nursery provision. The purpose of this amendment is to try to draw that out and to enable a scheme to be set up which can target resources where a high level of capital expenditure will be necessary in order to achieve that expanded provision.

I have an additional concern that the present approach will disadvantage local authority providers as compared to providers in the private sector. Local authorities are subject to stringent capital expenditure controls imposed by central government, whereas private providers will be free to borrow to finance capital expenditure, presumably on the security of the expanded provision they will then be able to provide and the income they will get in order to resource their debt.

The purpose of the amendment is to try directly to target any new resources on areas where expansion is necessary and thus to make better use of scarce resources to achieve the object of the Bill, which is the expansion of nursery education.

6 p.m.

Lord Skidelsky

The purpose of the amendment is to prevent any local authority losing resources but the purpose of the Bill is that local authorities should lose resources if the pre-school provision they provide is not approved of by parents. That is precisely what is meant by freedom of choice. There will be £150 million of new money going into this provision in the first year. All of it, minus administration costs, will go to local authorities if parents decide that it is to local authority schools they wish to send their children. How one can complain about that and say that the Bill will deprive local authorities of resources I do not know. If they are doing the job that parents want them to do, that will not happen. If we believe in freedom of choice, as do noble Lords on this side of the Committee, and we accept that local authorities which are not efficient in providing what parents want should lose resources and others which are efficient should gain resources, the total effect will be the expansion of pre-school provision. But we do not believe that local authorities should have a monopoly of that provision irrespective of the standard of service they provide. This is a wrecking amendment because it cuts out the primary purpose of the Bill.

Lord Prys-Davies

Perhaps I may deal briefly with Amendment No. 86 which is grouped with Amendments Nos. 4 and 5. I have little to add to what my noble friend Lord Morris of Castle Morris said in his speech in favour of the other two amendments. The purpose of Amendment No. 86 is to clarify and make explicit in the revenue support grant settlement for local authorities each year the basis on which deductions will be made to fund the voucher scheme. It also draws attention to the different methods being used for England and Wales, but I am comfortable with the situation in Wales as far as the methodology is concerned.

As I understand it, in England the deduction, as my noble friend Lord Morris indicated, will be calculated in each local authority area according to the number of four year-olds in nursery places rather than in the population. On the other hand, the basis of deduction in Wales will be the number of four year-olds in the population. The Government claim that this is for a technical reason: that Welsh authorities, unlike English ones, do not have a separate standard spending assessment for nursery education. However, I am glad to acknowledge that a fairer basis of deduction has been positively adopted in Wales.

I would refer in particular to the Welsh Office document entitled Pre-school education: Implementation of the voucher scheme, which was published on 8th July last year. In that document the Welsh Office examined both options and concluded that the first option—the deduction by the number of four year-olds in the population—appeared more equitable since it would not penalise those authorities that had traditionally made a particularly high level of investment in pre-school provision. The nursery SSA for English authorities is calculated on the basis of numbers of four year-olds in the population and therefore it can be argued that the deductions consistent with that should be on the same basis.

The amendment would require the Secretary of State to set out in the RSG report laid before Parliament each year the basis of the grant deduction and the effect on the distribution to each authority through the SSA mechanism. That would enable Parliament to decide whether it considered that the basis was fair and consistent between the authorities and, I suppose, between England and Wales.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

I should like to add my voice to Amendment No. 5, with some slight surprise that it is linked with Amendment No. 4 because we seem to be slightly jumping between topics here, and reinforce the point about some of the problems there might be. I saw today in my post from the Pre-school Learning Alliance, which has done a study of the four pilot areas, quite strong evidence that there will be a problem among its members on the capital element of expanding provision. As has already been noted, if there is a problem on the private side, there will be even more of a problem on the LEA side. So this business of capital costs, which it is hard to see will be satisfied within the £1,100 flat rate, looks like being a real problem.

Lord Henley

I offer my apologies to the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin, if he thinks that the grouping of Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 is not appropriate. I can assure him that myself and my team and the noble Lord, Lord Morris, and his team, went to considerable trouble to try to get the grouping right. It is always a difficult matter but it probably assists the work of the Committee, or of the House at Report stage, if we can group as much as possible in order to try to speed up the process of debate and try to bring together matters that ought to be brought together. I think that we can have a perfectly useful discussion on these three amendments even though they are all on slightly different subjects. I hope the Committee will therefore bear with me if I go through the three amendments in much the same way as the noble Lord, Lord Morris, suggested we should, first dealing with Amendment No. 4, then going on to Amendment No. 86 and then coming back to Amendment No. 5.

Perhaps I may deal with a couple of misconceptions of the noble Lord, Lord Morris. First, he said that what is proposed is likely to affect provision for three year-olds. I must remind the Committee that no deduction will be made in respect of three year-olds. Only the voucher value in respect of four year-olds already in maintained schools, all of which can be regained if recruitment of four year-olds remains the same, will be deducted. Three year-olds will not be affected in any way. If parents choose the maintained places, as they do now, maintained schools need have nothing to fear.

Secondly, he made the point, which again I do not accept, that it will be virtually impossible for the LEAs to plan forward. Again I would have to say, as others have said on previous occasions, that that is not the case and that they are in no different a position from either the private or the voluntary sector.

The essential principle behind the voucher scheme is that grant should follow the pupils. Neither the noble Lord, Lord Morris, nor myself would want the LEAs providing good quality provision—I am grateful for the stress that my noble friend Lord Skidelsky placed on that—to be financially disadvantaged. But under the funding mechanism proposed for the voucher scheme such LEAs will not be disadvantaged. We have already been told just how good much of the LEA provision is. No LEA, both high and low providers alike, will lose funding if they continue to recruit the same number of four year-olds. So the only LEA provision that is threatened by the voucher provision, as my noble friend Lord Skidelsky, made clear, is poor provision and provision to which parents do not choose to send their children. To me, that suggests that those who talk about schools of their acquaintance losing funding have relatively little faith in the quality of those schools.

But why should LEAs have their existing level of funding guaranteed even if the quality of their provision is poor? I refuse to limit parental choice, which that would do, and remove incentives to improve quality by providing a guarantee in primary legislation that the LEAs cannot lose no matter what they do.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris, also asked why deductions are not based on population rather than provision. Deductions from the SSA are made for four year-olds with places to ensure that each LEA can regain its funding, as I have said three times, by recruiting as many four year-olds as they do now. If they do that no LEA will lose out whether a high or low provider.

Noble Lords spoke about the different SSA deduction mechanism in Wales and asked why we had gone down a different route when comparing England with Wales. Overall, there is a higher provision for four year-olds in Wales and less variation between the LEAs as to what the provision is. Therefore, the effect of the "top slice" deduction will be much more evenly balanced than would be the case in England. Moreover, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, made clear, local government funding in Wales is somewhat different to that in England in that there is no specific education budget. I hope that both noble Lords will accept that as a reason for that difference.

I now turn to Amendment No. 86, to which, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, spoke. The amendment seeks to adjust the presentation of two local government finance procedures—the Secretary of State for the Environment's determination of revenue support grant, and local government finance reports. The amendment is based on a misapprehension of the technical workings of the revenue support grant and standard spending assessment processes. However, I am confident that the effect the amendment seeks will be achieved in other ways. Every step will be taken to ensure that the effect of the voucher scheme on local authority funding allocations is transparent.

In summary, the Government will discuss fully with the local authority associations the way in which the SSAs take account of the introduction of nursery vouchers. Individual local authorities will have the opportunity to make representations about the pupil numbers on which their own proposed SSA reduction is based before it is finalised. The effect of the reduction on the final distribution formula for RSG will be notified to each local eduction authority as for 1996–97; and the Secretary of State for the Environment's determination of revenue support grant will show the amount of revenue support grant which local authorities will receive taking into account the reduction in SSA. As usual, the distribution of revenue support grant and so, by implication, SSAs, must come under parliamentary scrutiny. I accept that that is necessarily complicated. I hope that the noble Lords concerned will at least read what I have said in due course before taking matters further.

I now turn to Amendment No. 5, to which the noble Lord, Lord Tope, spoke. It deals with capital expenditure. Clause 1 as presently drafted does not preclude the payment of grant for specific capital purposes to providers in any sector; nor does it prevent providers from using voucher income for capital purposes. The amendment seeks to provide a separate stream of capital funding for nursery education.

We expect the voucher scheme to lead, over time, to an expansion of places. In some cases expansion will not entail capital expenditure because new premises can be leased. In other cases, premises can be converted at limited cost. Where appreciable capital expenditure is required, we envisage equal, but different, treatment for all providers. The private and voluntary sectors will be able to borrow on the strength of voucher income, as is common business practice. LEAs can set their own priorities for capital expenditure and, subject to the passage of this Bill, grant-maintained schools will be able to borrow commercially. Total allocations to LEAs for county and voluntary controlled schools this year will be £458 million, a rise of 7 per cent. on the current year.

Many LEAs have already made nursery education a priority within their own capital programmes. Annual capital guidelines do not represent spending limits on school buildings. LEAs are also able to invest capital receipts and transfer from their revenue budgets if they choose. The maintained sector can also enter into partnerships with the private sector under the new freedoms offered by the private finance initiative. That will bring private sector investment and expertise into the public sector. I suspect that both the public and private sectors will benefit.

Within the department we are currently working with a number of local education authorities to develop pathfinder PFI projects. Although none of the more advanced schemes is in the nursery sector, the department is aware of interest in the PFI approach to nursery proposals. Phase 1 of the voucher scheme I hope will provide an opportunity to develop the potential of PFI in nursery education.

I appreciate that we have taken together three amendments of some complexity. I hope that that explanation will be sufficient and that the noble Lord, Lord Morris, will be able to withdraw his amendment.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

As the Minister said, this is a technical matter. Among the papers that have been showering on me like confetti the Committee may like to know that I have just received another petition against this entire Bill from a primary school in Haringey. The petition is signed by between 180 and 200 parents, saying they are not happy about it. I do not know where the paper has come from or why it is here. But I put that forward as an example of the way in which we are being deluged with concern from people everywhere about nursery vouchers.

Perhaps I may take up a few matters in an attempt to throw some light on what is obviously a difficult situation. I take the point that the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, makes. I shall want to study and think about it. I say to him that what we are proposing here is not in any way a wrecking amendment because it uses the Welsh model to fund expansion; it does not in any way deny that deductions should take place. We are rather more concerned about the way in which those deductions are taking place.

If the highest provision is in Wales, to me that only underlines the need not to imperil high provision in England. The fact that there is no Welsh SSA is not relevant. The English SSA, the grant to the LEAs, is calculated by population. The grant from the LEAs will be by the numbers of four year-olds. It could easily be done in the same way as it is done in Wales as far as we can see. But it is, I agree, a complicated situation. We would all do well to think about it at greater length and come back to the matter at Report stage when we have had time to talk to each other.

Perhaps I may take just a few minutes to put before the Committee a theoretical example which has been presented to us which I think throws a certain amount of light on the way in which the scheme might work at individual local authority level. Let us imagine two local authorities—this is taking me back to what I like doing, which is teaching—authority A and authority B. The SSA for nursery education for authority A is £4 million. The number of four year-olds in LEA nursery places in authority A is 2,700. The number of three year-olds in LEA nursery places is 1,000. The deduction from SSA will be £1,100 multiplied by 2,700 which is £2.97 million. The amount remaining in the SSA of authority A is therefore £1.03 million. Let us compare that with our imagined authority B, which has an SSA for nursery education of £4 million, which is exactly the same as that of authority A. The number of four year-olds in LEA nursery places is only 750 and the number of three year-olds in LEA nursery places is just 50. The deduction from SSA is £1,100 multiplied by 750 which is £0.825 million and the amount remaining in the SSA is £3.175 million. There is a tremendous difference between the two.

On the basis of the figures given for authorities A and B, if it is assumed that all children currently in LEA nursery places redeem their voucher (so the income from vouchers is equal to the deduction from SSAs)—a reasonable supposition—authority A will have an SSA of £1.03 million for making provision for 1,000 three year-olds and for extra provision for special educational needs. It may also have to cope with the financial consequences of providing any new places for four year-olds if the £1,100 voucher income does not cover the full cost of the new places. Authority B will have an SSA of £3.175 million for making provision for 50 three year-olds and for extra provision for special educational needs.

The Government argue that the practical effect of their proposals is that if all the four year-olds currently in local authority schools stay in those schools and redeem their vouchers, deductions will be equal to income and there will be no net effect. However, the difficulty with that argument is that deductions based on actual numbers of children and based on an actual amount (£1,100) are being made from notional indicators of need. These notional indicators of need (SSAs) are related in a very complex way to the amount of grant a local authority actually receives from the Government and is allowed to raise through the council tax by the Government. There is a theoretical possibility that if the Government proceed on this basis, some high-providing authorities could actually end up with negative SSAs for nursery education.

It is clear that authorities will suffer highly differential effects by this operation. Those which are already committed to high levels of provision will, we believe, suffer a financial consequence which will place current provision in a great deal of doubt. That is why we felt that this group of amendments was well worth considering. We agreed to the grouping—I believe that the Government were content—of Amendment No. 4 with Amendment No. 86 because the position in Wales seems so much clearer, granted that provision in Wales is, as the Minister said, much more even because the spread of high providers and low providers is so much less.

We should like to return to this matter on Report. We have now got our point on the record, so let us see what happens when we start to think about it. This is a technical and important point and I do not want to bandy figures across the Dispatch Box with the Minister. Having put this on the record, let us think about it before the next stage. That might be a better way to proceed than arguing the toss.

We think that it might be better if something close to the Welsh scheme were adopted in place of what seems to be proposed to cover a situation where there is a wide spread of provision. Having said that, I do not feel that this is an issue on which we should ask the Committee to express an opinion now—not least because several Members of the Committee might not feel that they have total command of all the detail, such as the Minister and I—and obviously several other noble Lords—have had to attain by a process of black coffee and wrapping wet towels around the head for a considerable period of time. I hope that the Committee will agree to return to this on Report. Perhaps we can make some progress with it then rather than now. If that is the feeling of the Committee, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 not moved.]

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton moved Amendment No. 7: Page 1, line 7, at end insert— ("( ) The power contained in subsection (1) above shall be exercised in pursuance of the duty imposed by section (Nursery education duty) below.").

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 7, I should like to speak to some of the amendments in this group and I am aware that other noble Lords would like to speak to others.

The aim of Amendment No. 7 is to require the power to make arrangements for nursery vouchers to be exercised in pursuance of a general duty on local authorities to secure the provision of nursery education. The amendment proposes a new duty on local authorities in relation to nursery education. A previous "duty" on local education authorities to provide nursery education was replaced by a "power" in the Education Act 1980. Nursery education has been expanded (within tight constraints) in recent years, but the creation of a clear statutory duty would strengthen the position.

It is a tragedy to think of the thousands of children who were denied education before it became clear that under the 1944 Act there was a duty, not a power, on local authorities. Sadly, the right of children to have nursery education as a result of a duty being imposed on a local education authority was removed by the Government as soon as it became apparent that it was a legal duty.

The amendments suggest a new context in which nursery education should be pursued within the framework of the Bill. The creation of a voucher scheme should go hand in hand with the restoration of a clear lead in this area so that there is a strong public responsibility for the further promotion and expansion of nursery provision.

Under this amendment, local authorities would have a duty to secure, rather than solely to provide, nursery education. Their duty would thus be to promote the mixed economy in nursery provision which already exists and which the Bill seeks, through vouchers, to promote. The local authorities would be the local leaders of partnerships with the private and voluntary sectors, bringing together the many elements of education, care and recreation which meet the needs of the under-five age group. Local authorities are ideally placed to do that and to take forward the development of nursery education in the future.

There is clearly a role for local authorities and local government in various areas of social policy. I cite only one other example. The Morgan Report asked the Government to place a duty on local authorities with regard to tackling crime in their localities. The Government may say that everything can be left to the free market, that eventually the balance will settle in the right order and that even co-operative partnership planning across the private, voluntary and local authority sectors is unnecessary. It is the experience of almost all in local government that haphazard market forces alone can leave areas lacking provision. Ingenuity, innovation and initiative are required to ensure that children in the most remote localities have access to nursery education. I know of cases where there has been, not wilful, but deep deprivation of children in rural communities. I take the case of a child of three. It was discovered that the child was not speaking. His mother lived alone most of the time in an isolated environment and was depressed and nobody ever spoke to the child. It is that kind of planning to meet real needs which is important. I also cite the example of those children for whom provision is perhaps the most difficult because of behavioural problems. Sadly, one hears of many cases of young children who appear to suffer from deep-seated behavioural problems. Any proper planning of provision must ensure that, while condemning the circumstances in which these children find themselves nowadays, provision is made to meet their needs and something is done about such deep-seated problems. We can all criticise; that is easy.

I believe that perhaps the greatest problem in our society today is what I term "grandfather deprivation". When families were less mobile many small children, particularly boys, spent weekends with their grandfathers. Families are now fractured and often children have little or no contact with adult men and their behaviour may become difficult.

I make no apology for citing these examples. They are precisely those where the needs of individual children may fall through the net of the voluntary, private and local authority provision if no attempt is made, on a consensual basis, to bring together all the partners. It is my experience in the county of which I am a county councilor—Lancashire—that there are many good projects that are improved by widespread co-operation. In tackling the problems it is important to bring in different faiths and partners in the voluntary-aided and voluntary-controlled schools sector and to bring together those in urban and rural communities. Amendment No. 7 is a big step in ensuring that those needs are met.

Amendment No. 19 seeks to remedy a weakness in the existing arrangements. Every LEA would be required to say how in future it would go about making provision available to all three and four year-olds. I should like to make absolutely plain that we on this side of the Chamber do not see nursery education becoming a feature of statutory schooling where parents are informed that the only pre-statutory schooling provision that should be available to meet the need is in the nursery education sector. However, it is clear that there is need for a commitment to prepare development plans in order to see how parents' needs can be met. The voluntary and private sectors have embraced development planning. In considering this Bill, it is important that we respond, for example, to the majority of the Early Childhood Education Forum who feel that this kind of future development planning is important.

There are other amendments in this group, and I know that other Members of the Committee will seek to speak to them. I have pleasure in moving Amendment No. 7. I beg to move.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness David

I have put down my name in support of Amendment No. 53, which is part of the present group. That amendment seeks to amend that part of Schedule 1 which concerns the general functions of the chief inspector. The first duty is recited in paragraph 3: The Chief Inspector has the general duty of keeping the Secretary of State informed about—

  1. (a) the quality and standards of funded nursery education, and
  2. (b) the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of children for whom funded nursery education is provided".
My amendment seeks to add sub-paragraph (c): the availability in England and Wales of nursery education to children aged three and four whose parents wish their children to receive such education". Therefore, under the amendment the chief inspector has to inform the Secretary of State as to the availability of nursery education for three and four year-olds. I believe that it is a follow-up to what my noble friend has just said. If the amendment is passed the chief inspector will have to report on the quantity of nursery education available to three and four year-olds in addition to the responsibilities imposed by subparagraphs 3(a) and (b) and on whether or not it meets the demand. The reference to three year-olds will significantly alter the requirement on the chief inspector.

The Government have stated that the main rationale for the nursery voucher scheme is universal nursery provision for four year-olds and the extension of that commitment to three year-olds. However, the voucher scheme under the proposed legislative arrangements does not guarantee any increase in nursery places. The amendment will go at least some way towards ensuring that the Government are made aware of the true availability of places for four year-olds. The requirement on the chief inspector to report on the availability of places for three year-olds may go some way to safeguard existing three year-old provision. A great many people are very worried that the three year-old provision may be pushed out. There are grave concerns with regard to three year-old provision. Anecdotal reports from areas outside the four Phase 2 LEAs appear to justify those concerns. For example, Hounslow LEA, where every primary or infants school has a nursery class, stands to lose —3.1 million from its education budget when the scheme is fully implemented. The CEO has stated that where the majority of places in nursery classes are occupied by three year-olds they will be forced to close. There are anxieties about this matter. I hope that the general need for nursery education for four and three year-olds will be addressed in this Bill, which is concerned with nursery education. I strongly support my noble friend.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

I wish to address largely Amendment No. 19 in regard to the question of development plans. I support the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady David, about attention to the needs of three year-olds which many people believe are important. Amendment No. 19 also includes a reference to three year-olds.

It is important to remember also that the local education authorities should have a duty, as proposed in Amendment No. 28, to put forward a plan for providing nursery education in their areas. That idea is welcomed by the voluntary and private sectors. There is a consensus that an expansion of places should build on the good practice that has already been developed in many local authorities in partnership with the voluntary and private sectors.

A plan for providing nursery education would assist the Government to use the money where it was most required. The education authority would not have to provide nursery education, but would have a plain duty to analyse the gaps in provision.

The Government have stated that their main objective is the expansion of availability of nursery education. It is extremely important to know where the expansion is required. It is not enough to say that individuals can use their voucher to secure education: in some areas the likely effect will be no expansion of education because all those children are already provided for in some way; in other areas it will merely assist some parents who are paying for nursery education because they will pay slightly less. The provision will not necessarily be expanded because a number of people may escape through the net, and the money will not be directed to where it is most needed. That is a point I made earlier this afternoon.

If local authorities had the duty to ensure that everyone had access to local authority education, they could tackle another problem with the Bill, which is the lack of provision for capital investment or for any support of teacher training. Those matters will be debated later, but they are scooped up in these amendments, because I am trying to explain that the duties placed on a local authority would lead to a better analysis of gaps and a better ability to support provision with capital and additional training for new staff.

A large number of local authorities is doing precisely what the amendment suggests. Those authorities are spread across the country and view the matter from different political angles. In Buckinghamshire the nursery class provision programme has been reinstated, and large numbers of nursery classes are being opened. It is hoped that that programme, subject to budget availability, will continue next year. That is one local authority which plans to increase provision.

Bradford, which is a totally different kind of authority, is planning to increase provision in areas of greatest deprivation. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, addressed that point and stressed the need to ensure that the money goes where it is most needed for expansion of provision.

Hampshire and Shropshire authorities, which are different from each other and different from the two I have mentioned are both working with the voluntary and private sectors to increase the availability of nursery education to everyone who wants it. Shropshire is one of the most rural of our local authorities. There is a long list of other authorities, ranging from Richmond-upon-Thames to Salford, which have different approaches but where our recommendation is already in place.

It would be ridiculous to interrupt a programme of expanding nursery provision, in many cases undertaken by local authorities with the co-operation of the voluntary and private sectors—a deliberate attempt by local authorities to use non-statutory providers to satisfy a local need—by providing the funds in a totally different way.

The amendment contains some very useful ideas. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply. It attempts to do precisely what he has declared to be one of the main objectives of the Bill. It does not attempt to do so entirely or even principally by local authority provision, but through the co-ordinating powers of a local authority with respect to statutory, voluntary and private provision.

Lord Monkswell

I support my noble friend Lady Farrington of Ribbleton on this amendment. I shall speak to Amendment No. 19 which deals with a local education authority making development plans in conjunction with the Funding Agency for Schools, which is the government national arm for funding the grant-maintained sector, and with other providers.

According to the Government's plans, there will be a precipitate injection of demand into the system by the issuing of vouchers next April. There will not necessarily be an equal and balancing provision of supply. There will be a need for staff and premises and for entrepreneurial activity by the local authority or private providers. There will also be a requirement to obtain planning permission for the physical provision of the facilities that will hopefully emerge as a result of that demand.

The provision of supply to balance that demand will not be available at once everywhere. There will be a patchiness. Where there is a lack of entrepreneurial culture in the local community, private sector providers will not spring up overnight. Even if they did, there would be a requirement for those providers to obtain planning permission for premises that complied with the planning laws and relevant regulations.

Given that scenario, rather than a range of people trying to meet the precipitate demand there should be a sense of co-ordination and bringing together of people. The local authority planning department and planning committee should recognise the likely pattern of demand in its area. That is what will happen next April, according to the Government's plans. Perhaps I may go beyond that and look at the way in which the scheme will develop over time. I am sure that the Government will not argue that the whole Bill is aimed merely at putting £1,000 in the pockets of the relevant parents next April. There will be a longer term perspective on the arrangement for nursery provision which will change as communities and the number of three and four year-olds in a geographical area change. Inevitably, in some localities there will be a decline in the demand for nursery provision and an emerging demand in others. Therefore, we must consider how the private sector and public sector provision will develop over time.

It is sensible to ensure that that changing provision is accommodated and recognised and that there is a mechanism by which people can come together and say that a nursery school in a particular area may have to close because of lack of demand but that it is necessary to open one in another area as a result of increasing demand. I believe that Amendment No. 19 provides a mechanism under which sensible co-ordination and planning can be established. I am not speaking in the rigid sense of centralised planning but, in terms of co-ordination and provision, of ensuring that a gap in one area is filled perhaps by asking a private provider to make provision or for the local authority to expand a local school in order to make provision available.

I hope that, in the spirit of non-partisanship and with a view to providing long-term continuity and a sense of progression, the Government will look sympathetically at Amendment No. 19.

Lord Skidelsky

I wish to tease out the meaning of the curious new nursery education duty, which is the subject of Amendment No. 28. It provides: A local authority shall secure the provision of nursery education within the meaning of section 1(2) above for children within its area". Which children are they? Are they children whose parents want such education for them; children who are deemed to need such education; or all children, whether their parents want it for them or whether they need it? If the duty of the LEA is to provide education for all children in its area, that is simply a way of extending compulsory education.

I am asking some questions and trying to tease out the answers. If it referred all children, that would be compulsory education under a different guise. If the provision related to children who need education in its area, who is to determine their needs? If it relates to children whose parents want education for them, that is already an entitlement of the Bill and therefore the provision is completely irrelevant.

Am I wrong in detecting the cloven hoof of compulsion; that the object of this group of amendments is to force children into pre-school education, whether they need it or whether their parents want it? If not, what is the new nursery education duty which is not already contained in the Bill?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

I hoped that I had made it clear when I said that it was not the position of those supporting the amendments to change statutory schooling. However, nursery education should be available to all parents who wish it for children of three and four. That is the aim of this group of amendments.

Within the legislation as proposed by the Government, while there is an availability of nursery vouchers, the planning or the provision to meet the needs of parents—a freely exercised choice by parents—does not fall on anyone. Therefore, this group of amendments seeks to put in place a planning framework in which the more difficult or intractable problems of provision can be met. I draw on my experience of Lancashire where there are tiny village schools. As a result of the nature of the Lancashire communities and because of parental preference over decades, if not centuries, we have tiny Catholic and Anglican village schools. There is a need to make provision in those circumstances.

I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that none of the amendments is about forcing parents to accept anything. It is my experience that at a meeting about nursery education I have yet to hear an angry parent say, "You are trying to make me have something I do not want". People know that they are not forced to have something they do not want. The amendment is tabled in order to ensure that parents have a range of choices, whatever the circumstances.

Lord Skidelsky

In that case, why does not the amendment provide that the duty relates to children whose parents want education? The duty is to provide education for children and the noble Baroness and others constantly talked about needs. They started talking about wants and preferences only when I asked the question.

Lord Henley

I can explain to my noble friend Lord Skidelsky that I suspect that the thrust behind a number of these amendments is about putting local authorities back in the driving seat in the provision of nursery education. That is why the noble Baroness talked about a "planning framework" and used other such expressions long loved by socialists. The amendments clearly set out two different ways of achieving that but, in essence, both approaches are about preserving the place of local authorities and denying the chance for a real diversity of provision to grow up in response to parents' needs. I cannot say often enough how much the issue of parental choice is our theme. I believe that by introducing parental choice and nursery vouchers we will, over time, stimulate new places to come on stream. Those places will need to respond to parental advance as, under our voucher arrangements, parents will be in the driving seat.

Perhaps I may take the two approaches in turn. First, Amendments Nos. 7 and 28, linked to Amendment No. 92, would place a new duty on LEAs to secure the provision of nursery education for those children within the age range defined by the Bill in their area. In pursuance of that duty, the Secretary of State would be required to make grants in respect of nursery education under the provisions of the Bill. As I said, those amendments would put local authorities in the driving seat; in other words, the duty to provide places would rest with local authorities. While the amendment gives the Secretary of State the scope to issue guidance about how this duty might be fulfilled, it would be local authorities which determine precisely how to fulfil their duty.

Amendment No. 19 places an unnecessary additional requirement on local authorities but does not give them any new powers. Any local education authority can put together a development plan for a particular element of its provision and in doing so can consult interested parties. As there is already legislation ensuring that the provision within an area is being looked at and nothing to prevent an LEA putting together a development plan of any description to inform its own actions and to help parents understand its plans more clearly, the amendment is not necessary.

There is no need for the Bill to require LEAs to draw up a development plan and, indeed, in many ways that would be undesirable. We would not want parents to be discouraged from choosing a provider which satisfied the relevant quality assurance requirements and met their needs and those of their children simply because the LEA had not happened to mention that provider in a development plan. As I said, Her Majesty's Government believe that the manner of the expansion of nursery education should be determined by parental choice and not by the LEAs.

I should now like to say a few words about Amendment No. 53, to which the noble Baroness, Lady David, spoke. As I understand it, the amendment seeks to place on the chief inspector a requirement to report on the number of places that are available for three year-olds. That is how the amendment is worded on the Marshalled List, but I assume it to be a misprint. I see that the noble Baroness shakes her head. I imagine that the noble Baroness meant it to refer to three and four year-olds. However, the point is immaterial and I merely make it for the sake of the record.

I believe that it would be inappropriate to ask Her Majesty's chief inspector to report on the availability of places for just three year-olds or, indeed, three and four year-olds. It goes very much beyond his remit as a guardian of education standards. Rather, we should look at the effect of the scheme on the number and type of places available for both three and four year-olds as part of the evaluation. We have in mind a special survey of parents to take that forward, but I would expect any such effect to be discernable over a longer time-scale than Phase 1.

As we are now on the subject of Her Majesty's chief inspector and as there are official spokesmen for the Opposition sitting opposite me, one of whom will no doubt reply to the debate, perhaps I may take this opportunity to invite them to deny the allegations that were reported in the Mail on Sunday yesterday; namely, that the current Chief Inspector of Schools, Mr. Chris Woodhead, would be sacked by an incoming Labour Government. I believe that to be a quite reprehensible suggestion, especially as it applies to a public servant who has provided the most excellent leadership in the world of education and who is doing much to see that standards are raised. When the noble Baroness winds up the debate, I hope that she will be able to deny the report that such allegations have been made. I also hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

7 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

I should like to begin by reminding the Minister that I have been in local government for too long, first, to believe everything that I read in newspapers. Secondly, I believe slightly less of anything that I read in The Mail on Sunday.

Lord Henley

Do I take it that the noble Baroness is denying that report?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

Thirdly, I should point out to the Minister that my experience in local government has taught me that it is unwise ever to refer to an individual public employee by name in public; and, indeed, to rely on someone else's account. I have absolutely no doubt that the Minister is being scrupulously fair in the prét he has given me of the article. However, I cannot be 100 per cent. sure that he read it clearly and carefully. Even the Observer some three or four weeks ago described my honourable friend in another place, Peter Mandelson, as a "former spin-doctor". Therefore, I cannot comment further.

I return now to the issue under discussion.

Baroness Seear

I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness, but I wonder whether she agrees with me on my following point. The next election will probably not take place for another nine or ten months yet. Are we really going to have electioneering in the debates on every Bill that goes through this Chamber? It is taking an enormous amount of time and it is extremely boring. Could we not have an agreement to cut such electioneering until at least three months before the election is due?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

I bow to the greater experience and distinguished record of the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. I shall seek to do as she suggested. Indeed, I shall be delighted if the noble Baroness can tell me exactly when three months before the next election will be.

I am afraid that the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, inhabit a different world from the world of local government in which it has been my pleasure and honour to work and from which I have derived my experience. I do not know where the parents are who are told what it is that they require. However, my experience is that none of them lives in Lancashire. From the experience of colleagues across the political spectrum—whether it is the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, or the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith—I know that parents are not backward in coming forward. The idea that a local education authority could gather together the voluntary sector, the Churches and everyone else and thereby instruct parents as to what they should say they want for their three and four year-old children is a nonsense.

Planning is not a dirty word; indeed, it is not just a socialist word. It is a word that Conservatives in local government have used to secure adequate places to meet the needs of rural communities. I shall read the Minister's response most carefully. I do not propose to divide the Committee on this issue at this stage. I merely say that I do not know from where the Government receive their information regarding the behaviour of the public or of local government. But, in my experience, it certainly does not come from my neck of the woods in Lancashire. We work together and parents say what they want. We actually endeavour to plan to ensure that no child slips through the net. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Lord Dormand of Easington

Before the amendment is formally withdrawn, I should like to say a few words about Amendment No. 53 which the Minister included in his response. I really want clarification on something that the Minister said. He referred at least once to standards, but the thrust of the amendment is availability. I believe that the Minister will agree that one of the functions of the inspectorate is to draw the Government's attention to, say, bottlenecks, or the short supply or over supply of certain items; for example, the number of playing fields in schools or, perhaps, the shortage of science teachers. All those matters are part of the normal function of HMIs.

I should have thought that "availability" as referred to in my noble friend's amendment, to which the noble Lord, Lord Tope, has attached his name, ought to be drawing the attention of the Government to what might be a shortage of nursery education for children aged three whose parents wish their children to receive such education. I believe that to be an absolutely normal function and, as it happens, a most important one especially in the context of this Bill. It is possible that the Minister meant to refer to availability, but he actually referred to standards. I should like to emphasise the fact that the amendment is not primarily concerned with standards: it is concerned with availability.

Lord Henley

I am afraid that the noble Lord misheard what I said. I was trying to make clear the fact that I believe that looking at the availability of places goes beyond the actual remit of Her Majesty's chief inspector, as that is not his proper role. However, as regards the availability of playing fields, and so on, I look forward to debating that matter with the noble Lord some time later this week. I was simply making clear that the number of places available for three and four year-olds was not appropriate to HMI's remit, but that there are other ways that we can look at the numbers. I promised that the department will look into the matter.

Lord Dormand of Easington

In that case, what are the "other ways" to which the Minister referred?

Lord Henley

Again, I thought that I had made it clear that we would look at, say, a survey of parents to examine availability. I do not believe that Her Majesty's chief inspector is the appropriate person to look at the numbers of three and four-year olds. That is what I was trying to make clear.

Amendment No. 7, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving the Motion, perhaps I may suggest that the Committee stage begins again at ten minutes past eight.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.