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Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I apologise for interrupting him. As I read the Bill, it is absolutely clear that there is no cost to public funds. It goes on to state:
That is hardly an indication of additional resources from the Government. Normally, legislation contains an indication of any additional resources and charges on public funds and staff. There is nothing about that in this Bill.
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I am pleased to enlighten the House. It is a matter to which we can return at later stages of the Bill. We expect that more than £30 million of new public money will go to nursery education through the voucher system. I believe that that will be universally welcomed. It will also enable more money to flow into local authorities which, through vouchers, manage to increase the provision of pre-school education.
The assertion that the whole of Scotland was up in arms against the voucher system was also misleading. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, said that only four local authorities had expressed an interest. In fact, the number is eight. I shall not detail them tonight but I can in correspondence detail which they are. We are encouraging others to come forward--and there is considerable interest--to ascertain whether they wish to become part of the pilot scheme.
Noble Lords asked why we are introducing the clause in the first place, given that there is an existing power under the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 to cover the nursery voucher system. I said in my introductory speech that we are offering Parliament an opportunity to debate this new initiative. Although there has been little thanks for the opportunity which we have provided for noble Lords, it has flagged up some of the concerns which exist. Under the present legislation, there is a general power to give grants. We wished to bring this forward merely to encourage greater debate.
Lord Monkswell: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. Perhaps we may return to the contribution which he says that the Government will make to pre-school provision. He mentioned a figure of £30 million. In the preamble to the Bill, a figure of £71 million is mentioned for payments under Clause 23 for 1998-99. Do we read from what the noble Earl said and from what is written in the preamble that the Government will be taking £40 million from the local authorities, putting in £30 million and then distributing that £70 million? Is that a correct reading of the situation?
The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I think that we are making progress; that is a correct reading of the situation. That is why new money is coming into the system. Through the voucher system, new money will go to all providers of education whether they are in the private, voluntary or local authority sector.
My noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour asked about the powers of school boards and why we are not increasing them. The changes reflect responses to the consultation paper. School boards remain free to seek delegated functions from their education authorities where they wish. We are not changing that.
The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, asked about the absence of a curricular framework for the providers of pre-school education. The basis for a clear curricular framework was set out in our publication for pre-fives' education. That was prepared earlier this year by Her Majesty's Inspectorate and was summarised in the August consultation paper. Details will be worked out in the approach to the pilot scheme. That will involve much of the excellent work already done throughout Scotland but especially by some regional authorities--and I have mentioned Strathclyde in particular.
Quality is central to pre-school provision. I urge all noble Lords to concentrate on the emphasis which I placed on quality in my opening speech rather than merely going back over the same ground again. We are determined that quality should be assured and that parents and taxpayers can be confident about that.
The pilot scheme will be properly evaluated, which will reassure the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael. It is meant to be an illuminating exercise which should point to the solutions needed where problems arise. I should say also to the noble Lord that access to the child benefit register is necessary only for the names and addresses of those families with eligible children. No other information will be passed on to any agency from that register. Therefore, any details about the finances or economic status of those families will not be part of the information transferred. The information is needed only to identify those families which have eligible children.
The subject of special educational needs was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. That is an area of Scottish education which we take very seriously. No change is currently planned for the present arrangements. Children with special educational needs will remain with the same priority rating which they have today. However, if we can persuade a higher proportion of four year-olds into education, we should be able to spot earlier than would otherwise have been the case some of the children who fall into that category. That will be a continuing area of consultation. It is certainly an area in which we anticipate local authorities being able to provide us with a very useful response to the consultation.
The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, was concerned about his sister-in-law or another close relation on the west coast and the various options which she has for her child. We plan to make the voucher scheme sufficiently flexible to enable parents to buy a mix of places; for example, in both play groups and nursery classes, if that is their preference. Therefore, the scheme will cater for people in those circumstances. It underlines the fact that we want the scheme to meet the demands and needs of the parent rather than the whims of the providers.
The noble Lords, Lord Carmichael, Lord Taylor, and the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, asked why we are bringing together elections in all schools across Scotland. The 1988 Act was intended to lead to that happening but that has proved not to be the case in practice. Clause 28 seeks to rectify those matters and the proposal has been widely welcomed in consultation.
The overall purpose of Part III is to save public expenditure and to enable education authorities to run elections more efficiently and therefore more cheaply. That will provide them with more money to spend on education rather than on bureaucracy and the mechanics of elections.
That alteration is not intended to increase a board's powers to remove a member of the board. Rather, it is in recognition of the fact that this House has in the past in another context criticised references to incapacity by reason of physical or mental illness as being offensive to people with disabilities.
I should now turn to Part IV. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, that the suggested changes have been brought about as a result of pressures across Scotland and not merely from in and around one school or one constituency.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, suggested that we should reserve a minimum rather than a maximum number of places. That would merely restrict choice for parents who seek to place their children outside their own immediate area. A balance must be struck between the families of children moving into an area and those families with children living outside the area but who want their children to be educated within that area. The objective is that the Secretary of State will set maximum numbers and the local authorities, education authorities and providers will be able to make an assessment of what, in normal circumstances will be the number of places which need to be made available.
The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, fears that we may be discriminating against urban schools by specifying the distances which apply in relation to equivalent schools. That is just common sense. In an urban area there is often an alternative school within reasonable distance, whereas in a rural area that may not be the case. I should make a general point as regards placing requests: 270,000 requests were made and 90 per cent. of them have been met. That is a very successful proportion, which illustrates the importance of introducing choice into education.
For many authorities which have already made plans to expand their provision of education for under-fives, additional voucher values will represent grant aid towards the costs of expansion. Vouchers are not as hostile to public provision as has been suggested by various noble Lords. We are offering providers an approach based on partnership and collaboration which has been the basis for many of the Government's successful education reforms in Scotland. The challenge to providers, and especially to local authorities, is to work with government to secure lasting benefits for
The Bill reaffirms our continuing commitment to Scotland's distinctive education and training system. The future prosperity of Scotland relies on a good education and training system. The Bill takes forward proposals to enable our present system, with its high and improving standards, to cater for the challenges which lie ahead. I hope that those challenges do not include what the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, anticipates in the form of some sort of devolution. In fact, we would have a worse economy and fewer jobs. The basis of the Bill is to produce a better workforce for a better economy. I am convinced that the provisions in the Bill will bring benefit across all areas of Scotland and to all families in Scotland.
The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael--and other speakers--said that he was looking forward to a long Committee stage. To begin with, I should point out that we shall very shortly be publishing Notes on Clauses. Therefore, I hope that that will shorten the length of the Committee stage to which the noble Lord said he was looking forward. I trust that the noble Lord will come to see the error of some of the assertions that he made about the Bill. As my noble friend Lady Carnegy of Lour said, many measures have been fiercely opposed by the party opposite, only to be welcomed when they have become established and the benefits have become clear. They then become popular throughout the communities of Scotland. The voucher system is just one of those measures which will become popular once we have ironed out the problems.