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Lord Sempill: While I agree with many of the sentiments that have been issued regarding some of the concerns, specifically those relating to fraud and the validity of the test, I wish to reaffirm a very strong observation which I had of our experience in Glasgow. It is that the whole concept is seriously flawed and certainly does not have the support of the people whom we interviewed. We wish to reaffirm that point.

5.15 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsay: I am grateful to Members of the Committee who raised issues in this area, starting with the noble Lord, Lord Sewel. My noble friend Lady Carnegy produced by far the most practical explanation of why a one-year pilot will be very effective and very successful. In addition to the points that my noble friend made about the practical problems which will be highlighted and can be solved, I believe that I can completely reassure the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Lord, Lord Sewel. The opposition of principle voiced by the noble Lord, Lord Sempill, was discussed at length on Second Reading. Therefore, while it is suitable to have this continued opposition on the record I shall not return to the Second Reading defences of why we believe in parent choice and greater diversity of nursery education.

We are anxious that the voucher initiative and the consequent expansion of pre-school education should be introduced in all parts of Scotland as soon as possible. The voucher system, as your Lordships will be aware, is to be piloted in areas within four new unitary authorities from August this year. The operation of the initiative in the pilot year will be closely studied by the Government, by the pilot authorities and, most importantly, by the independent researchers appointed for that purpose. The remit of the independent evaluators will be to study the system's operation in all its aspects and to report on their conclusions and

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I believe I am in a position to send the exact specifications of the remit to the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, as he requested.

I believe that some may have seen the remit of the operational evaluation of the pilot year and it is indeed very wide, broad and testing. So the categories and issues which the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, seeks to have scrutinised and evaluated will indeed be scrutinised and evaluated. The level of provision is absolutely essential. The impact of vouchers on the provider market; the volume, type and distribution of places; and indeed parental views will be sought by the evaluators.

Quality will be the job of Her Majesty's inspector. So that will be done in any event by that body. The Government set great store by this evaluation: we are intent that the voucher system should deliver the best possible results for its ultimate beneficiaries, namely children in their pre-school year. I stress to both the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, and to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that the findings of the evaluation will be emerging over the course of the year. If, in the scenario the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, paints, the evaluation only starts at the end of the school year, data having been gathered over that school year, and is then rushed, with conclusions being sought before the start of the next year, I would agree with the noble Lord that one is working to a very tight time-frame. However, we are talking about ongoing evaluation and ongoing assessment. We intend to share the ongoing assessment and the ongoing evaluation with providers and consumer interests as we go along. We shall not be sitting on information as it emerges. It will be available for all those who are involved to discuss and to evaluate themselves. Any glitches in the operational systems will be put right as the pilot year proceeds. The conclusions of the evaluation will also influence how the voucher system is applied nationwide from August 1997. The central point, which I hope meets the valid concern of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, is that the evaluation and the assessment are ongoing and therefore continuously arising and continuously open to discussion.

The Government are not careering ahead. We are moving steadily and with care to achieve the objective of expanding provision for the pre-fives. By August 1997 in Scotland, with the results of the pilot evaluation assimilated, we will be ready to extend the system nationwide. I see no justification for another year's delay in implementation. The only effect would be to deny another cohort of pre-school children the expanded pre-school provision from which they could benefit. We know they could benefit: that is why we are determined that the voucher system that we intend to implement through the pilot year and then nationwide is the right way forward in terms of increasing the diversity and the quantity of good pre-five nursery education. I hope that with the real assurance that I have been able to give to the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, about the actual process and timetable of evaluation, he will be able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Sewel: I thank the Minister, particularly for his assurance that we can have the specification, which would be very helpful. I am afraid that I find difficulty

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in accepting his optimism that the pilot and the evaluation will be done, and satisfactorily done, in order for the scheme to be implemented on the present timetable. I have to tell the Minister that the Government will find it very difficult, if they are to stick to this timetable, to assure us that they are taking both the pilot and the evaluation seriously. That is a worry. However, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Addington moved Amendment No. 19:


Page 11, line 16, after ("may") insert--
("(a) make grants for the purpose of pre-school education to any parent of a child who--
(I) has not attained school age and
(ii) has not commenced attendance at a public primary school by virtue of Section 32 (4) to (7) of the 1980 Act,.
and who satisfies such conditions as he may by order prescribe; and
(b)").

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 19 stands in the name of my noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie. It is a very straightforward amendment in that it removes the bureaucratic process envisaged by the Bill--that is, giving a voucher to parents who will then present the voucher to a local authority or a school or education provider which will then present it to the Government for the money. The amendment reverts to the simpler process of the local authority providing a service for all those children who are attending its schools currently--the status quo for all those who are happy with their present situation. Those who are outside the system at the moment, those who do not have places, will become part of the voucher scheme.

We are saying that those for whom there is satisfactory provision pre-age five now in place will carry on receiving this type of education. Those who find themselves outside would immediately go into the voucher system. It is a very straightforward system which tries to meet the Government halfway. It says that there will be freedom of choice for those who require it and that if people do not choose to enter the local authority schemes the voucher scheme will be there to provide for them in the private sector or elsewhere. I hope the Government see the proposal as fairly straightforward and not totally antagonistic towards them.

The second amendment in the name of my noble friend says that the scheme shall not come into being. However, the process we are going through now makes the amendment inappropriate, because it is an amendment on which one could have picked a fight and discussed matters, seen what was going on, and tested the opinion of the Committee on the scheme as a whole. I therefore grouped it to enable us to have the discussion here and then it could have been dispensed with when the time came. I thought it best that it should be discussed to let people know the sentiment behind it.

A substantive amendment, Amendment No. 19, allows freedom of choice but also enables the Scottish local authorities to carry on doing the very good job

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they are currently doing in large parts of Scotland. It adds an element of choice for those few who are not included. I beg to move.

The Earl of Lindsay: Amendment No. 19 is not antagonistic, but Amendment No. 22 is somewhat provocative. I shall deal with them separately.

Amendment No. 19 would extend the power to make grants under the Bill so that grants might be made to parents as well as to providers of education. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, assumes that we intend to give the power of choice to parents, and indeed so we do. If I hear him correctly, he argues that rather than giving vouchers to parents and using parents to determine what grants should be given to providers, it would be more straightforward to give grants directly to parents so that they could make payments to providers themselves. This is an attractive proposition, especially for those with five children, because the volume of grant to which one might be entitled with a large young family would be a significant boost to the household budget.

There is much to be said for enabling parents to purchase pre-school education directly, but the proposition has one fatal flaw which is that it will not stand the test of public accountability. It is not part of the Government's intention to ask Parliament to approve provisions giving additional resources to parents as parents. We are debating an Education Bill and it is the Government's purpose to further pre-school education.

Our proposals have been carefully worked out with proper safeguards for the public purse. They will not permit money that Parliament intends for good education provision to be spent on poor value provision or on simple childcare, or on the general demands of the household budget or the Christmas shopping list. The noble Lord's amendment is in danger of allowing all those things.

The advantage of paying grant to providers is that, with the aid of a simple and cost-effective voucher system, it enables parents to have the same opportunities for choice as if they received the money directly themselves. Moreover, parents will not have to worry about the complex accountability requirements that might otherwise be needed. They will also have the guarantee they need that there is proper control over the quality of the education their child is receiving.

Amendment No. 22 seeks to prevent a voucher system for pre-school education being established at all, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington suggested. The principle of whether or not we should have vouchers for pre-school education has been debated at length both at Second Reading and briefly today. We believe that it is the best means of securing greater and more diversified provision of pre-school education. We believe that a place for every child in his or her pre-school year whose parents wish it will be provided over time with this system. The voucher initiative will not only facilitate the provision of more places but will also foster quality, diversity and choice.

We are making a substantial investment in this initiative and we are seeking to ensure the welfare of future generations and genuine parental choice. We want

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to encourage provision across all sectors, whether public, private or voluntary. We want to ensure quality in the provision of that education.

This principle will no doubt emerge in later amendments today and perhaps on Report and we can discuss it from a Second Reading angle as and when the subject arises. However, with the certainty that there are benefits for children and with the certainty that we can achieve the right mechanics so that it is a low-cost scheme with robust anti-fraud procedures and it is workable and efficient, I hope that, when we come to it, the noble Lord will not wish to move Amendment No. 22 .


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