Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Lyell: My Lords, I did not attend the session described by the noble Lord, Lord Sempill. He made one or two points towards the end of his remarks about rural areas, and I can think of places like Sutherland, Argyll and Inverness where there are enormous open spaces. My noble friend and neighbour Lady Carnegy and I live in Tayside, an area which was not mentioned by the noble Lord but which is broadly similar to Grampian, which is well known to the noble Lords, Lord Sewel and Lord Ewing of Kirkford. In Kirriemuir and Northmuir--my neck of the woods--there is adequate provision for children, but Clause 23 could give assistance to parents where I live. It is helpful to have the facility of the option provided by Clause 23.

I was interested in the opening remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Sempill. When the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, winds up he may be able to enlighten me about the questions of divisiveness and, above all, timing. He described two children going to school side-by-side, with one leaving at the end of the morning

13 May 1996 : Column 336

and the other at the end of the afternoon. Many people on these Benches think that I am going back to my youth; that is not necessarily so, but I know the span of children's attention at the age of four. I have to tell the noble Lord, Lord Sempill, that it is interesting that, as noble Lords are aware, in Scotland, at the start of the school year in August, at lunchtime--12 o'clock--one cannot get near schools. For the first six or 10 weeks of a child's school career it is considered reasonable for the child to attend only in the morning. If that is the pattern in primary and infant schools, I wonder whether the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, about divisiveness and one child leaving in the morning and another staying on in the afternoon are relevant. Perhaps he will be able to enlighten me when he winds up.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Goold: My Lords, as I said at Committee stage, I am surprised at the pessimism of noble Lords on the Front Benches opposite. At present in Scotland only a minority of children enjoy pre-school education. For every child who, according to the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, may leave and go to the private sector with a topping up fee, I believe that, if the local authority nursery education is good, several will go to the local authority nursery schools. Parents will be given a voucher; they may never previously have had any encouragement to send their children to a pre-school nursery. They will want to use the vouchers. If the schools are good, I believe that the local authorities will gain far more. Yes, new private schools may well be set up, but I believe that more people will want to send their children to established local authority schools if those schools are good.

I too attended the meeting in Glasgow and had the honour of chairing the splendid Select Committee. I heard the opposition that came from local authorities, but we must realise that there is always opposition to anything new or radical. Many of the best ideas that have come from the Government over the past 15 years have been fiercely opposed by the Opposition. Yet they are now accepted by New Labour as policies which it would wish to follow. The voucher system for nursery education is the same. It should receive a fair trial, and I believe that the outcome will be beneficial to all pre-school children in the country.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, I did not sit on the Select Committee in Glasgow, any more than the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. However, I have read the evidence and noted that one argument was that the sum of £1,100 a year was inadequate to fund a nursery school place for a child. Therefore, either the local authority would be out of pocket or private suppliers would not be able to afford to start up. Alternatively, parents would have to top up the voucher and therefore it would be nursery education for the well off and no education for the poor.

I have a grandson aged four who lives in Edinburgh. He goes to nursery school for three hours a day, five days a week. For that, the fees are approximately £520 per term. According to my arithmetic, that works

13 May 1996 : Column 337

out at £1,560 a year and, also according to my arithmetic, at that fee £1,100 a year would provide either 2.5 hours a day--which is as long as some children are able to concentrate--for four days a week or 3.5 hours a day for three days a week. As I understand it, the scheme was not intended to provide full-time education. At the outset it was only intended to provide part-time nursery education. Apart from the problem of disabled children who have learning difficulties, it is possible that £1,100 may be perfectly adequate.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, I have slipped unobtrusively from my seat on the Front Bench to where many noble Lords consider I should be, a seat on the Back Bench. I am not sure that the leader of my own party does not consider that to be my place. It is important that I should make my position clear at this stage.

The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, is right: Clause 23 is the crucial, central feature of the Bill. Throughout our debates I have argued strongly from the Front Bench against the proposal to introduce a voucher scheme for nursery education.

The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, said that the £1,100 is meant to purchase approximately two hours of nursery education. In her words, that is all that a child can stand in any case.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will give way. I said two-and-a-half hours a day four days a week, or three-and-a-half hours a day three days a week. Children vary as to their concentration span.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, as I understood her, the noble Lady was arguing that, by and large, that was what a four year-old child could accept. If that is the case, why on earth is there a provision in the Bill to allow parents to send their children to private rather than local authority nurseries? That is a noteworthy point. A provision in the Bill allows people sending their children to private nurseries to top up the £1,100. They can therefore choose to send their child to a private nursery not for two-and-a-half hours a day four or five days a week or three hours a day for four days a week, but for five or six hours a day for five days a week.

The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, will say that that is a matter for parental choice. I suggest a simple solution to the whole question. If we want to give parents real choice, let us leave it to them to decide whether they want the voucher. Let us leave it to parents to apply for the voucher. But of course that is not part of the scheme; parents do not have to apply.

In advertisements throughout the national press for a company to run the scheme, the scheme is quite clearly defined. Parents of every four year-old in this country will have a voucher sent to them whether or not they want it. That is not parental choice. This suggestion was laughed off in the beginning, but I challenge the Government. If we want to give parents a genuine choice let us leave it to them to decide whether they want the voucher. Let them decide whether they turn to the local authority in areas where, as the noble Lord,

13 May 1996 : Column 338

Lord Sempill, said there is adequate provision. For example, in Fife and Lothian, where there is over 96 per cent. provision, parents could decide whether to go to Fife central headquarters or Lothian council headquarters or their outfield offices to ask for a voucher. The Government will not do that of course. It would be a negation of the very principle they seek to introduce.

As the noble Lord, Lord Goold, said, a number of areas throughout Scotland have inadequate provision. The Islands are a very good example. Anybody who believes that a voucher scheme will cure the problem of inadequate provision in those areas completely fails to understand, first, the culture and, secondly, their rural nature. By and large, because of the widespread nature of communities, children have to travel very long distances between home and school even for primary and secondary education, let alone nursery education. A £1,100 voucher will not persuade a mother or father in the Western Isles, the Outer Hebrides or the Orkneys and Shetland to send a four year-old child between 20 and 50 miles to a nursery class. The suggestion is ludicrous. Yet that is what the Government pretend.

I do not believe the Government themselves think the scheme will be implemented. I do not believe for a minute that sensible people such as the noble Earl the Minister, who has the unfortunate task of trying to pilot this Bill through the House, think that that is a sensible proposition. The problem in the rural areas of Scotland is not linked to the councils. It is not that councils do not want to supply nursery education. It is simply a matter of the distance children have to travel to reach the facilities provided.

The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, made a constitutional point; namely, that the Opposition's suggestion that Part II of the Bill should not stand part would "take the guts" out of the Bill; it is a wrecking amendment when the Bill has not been before another place. Of course it has not been before another place--it started its passage here in this Chamber. It is not a defence for a government supporter to say that if a Bill begins its passage in this place we should not make any fundamental changes to it because it has not been to the other place. If the Bill is so fundamental, it should have started its passage in the other place.

I believe with all my heart and say in all sincerity that the voucher scheme is destined to failure even before the four pilot areas are tested. There is no guarantee whatsoever from the Government that if the experiment in those four areas should fail, they would then withdraw the scheme. I do not believe that they would, and for one simple reason. They have ignored all the evidence given to the Select Committee of this House which met in Glasgow (of which I was not a member) and have gone ahead, head down, determined to implement the scheme. There is little hope that if the pilot project is a failure, the Government will withdraw the scheme. They will not.

To the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, I say with great respect that there is a fundamental difference between those who sit on these Benches and the Government's supporters. This whole question has

13 May 1996 : Column 339

absolutely nothing to do with the provision of nursery education. It has everything to do with dogma. No professional educationist the length and breadth of the country--some of whom must be Conservative supporters--supports the measure. It may well be that such people are very reluctant to come out and declare their support for the Conservative Party. I have a great deal of sympathy and full understanding for them in their very difficult position. However, not one has supported the proposal. Had there been any support, the Government would have trumpeted it from the rooftops.

As I have told the noble Earl the Minister, he can make a name for himself. All right, he will be sacked; but we will look after him! He can stand up, accept this amendment and get rid of this absolutely madcap idea. In that way he would write himself into the educational history books of Scotland as having done something for our four year-olds. This proposal is an absolute disaster. I urge my noble friends to test the opinion of the House on this issue. It is crucial to the future of nursery education in Scotland.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page