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Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, is a leading and distinguished figure in the Association of County Councils. She knows what she is talking about and noble Lords will always listen to her on this subject with great respect. However, apart from the problems mentioned by my noble friend Lord Goold, it will not be possible for the pilot scheme to assess all the broad issues which will take time to develop as the voucher scheme expands. Surely the pilots are designed to discover the wrinkles in the detail of the scheme and iron them out. The pilots will be important in that respect and account will be taken rapidly. However, some of the broad issues which the noble Baroness mentioned cannot be taken into account in the pilot schemes.
One of those issues must be children with special educational needs. I do not know whether the noble Baroness has been able to read the evidence and the replies that the Minister gave to the Select Committee and in Committee. Those replies and the printed information that we have received suggest that local authorities will have a large measure of flexibility in the funding of their nursery provision. Only £1,100 multiplied by the number of children currently in local authority education will be topsliced from a local authority's budget. That will be returned to the authority while the parents send their children to its nursery schools. The rest of what the authority spends will still be available, including extra provision for children with special educational needs.
Likewise, it will be difficult to ascertain from four pilots the extent to which parents who now pay 100 per cent. of the fees for private nursery school education will avail themselves of the voucher scheme. It seems likely that they will. If they do so that will, on balance, be of enormous benefit to rural areas because nursery schools which at present are only potentially viable, or barely viable, because insufficient children can attend are handicapped. If every child of four, where the parents so wished, was able to attend a nursery school, more schools would be viable in rural areas. That is most important in Scotland, in particular in Angus where I live and in the Highlands and the Borders. I do not know how important it is in the areas where the pilots are being conducted.
The amendment is not entirely about the importance of the pilot schemes, although they are important. Noble Lords opposite who do not want the voucher scheme and who are too fearful of it have tabled the amendment as a way of stopping the scheme in due course. The amendment would not be necessary if the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrat Party were certain that they will win the next election because they have said that they will scrap the scheme. They indicated that by the way in which they voted in their attempt to wreck this part of the Bill. They do not know that they will be elected and they might have a change of heart if they were. Therefore, they have tabled the amendment as a failsafe mechanism so that they can, if necessary, stop the Bill by arguing that various aspects of the pilot schemes, which are in fact details, are major issues. The amendment probably has two purposes, one of which is at a rather deeper level than the other. I hope that your Lordships will not accept the amendment.
Lord Sewel: My Lords, given the untried nature of the voucher scheme, it is appropriate and necessary that it should be subject to evaluation and that the pilot authority should be evaluated. I give credit to the Government for setting up that evaluation. Indeed, the Government have put great store by the evaluation process. As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, indicated, in Glasgow the Minister, Mr. Robertson, went out of his way to indicate that lessons would be learnt from the evaluation of the scheme. He said:
But let us turn to the timetable for implementation. The pilot scheme will run in the year 1996-97 with the full scheme starting in August 1997. The Minister has been very helpful in providing us with a copy of the specification of the evaluation and there is much in that which is to the credit of the Government.
How is it possible to learn from any of the mistakes; to sort out any of the glitches to which the Minister referred? How is it possible to carry out a proper assessment and review in the Scottish Office on the basis of the findings of the evaluation when that evaluation report will be due only in August, the very same month that the scheme is to be implemented nationwide? I am afraid that it is necessary for the Minister to make it clear how that process is to take place and how any changes and modifications which may be necessary can be implemented within, at best, two weeks if the report is published at the beginning of August and the schools return in the middle of August. Or is it perhaps that the cat is already out of the bag?
First, perhaps I may deal with the generality of the amendment. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and others who support the amendment genuinely wish to see a rigorous evaluation and there is very little between us on that. My noble friend Lady Carnegy suggested that other motives may be involved; that is, somehow to delay or to put an obstacle in the way of the application of the scheme. If that is true, then there is quite a lot between us. But I believe that the Government share many of the concerns and objectives of those who spoke to the amendment in that we all want a first-class evaluation scheme.
Before I turn to the amendment specifically, perhaps I may deal with two general issues which were raised by noble Lords. The first point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Ewing. He referred to quality. I believe that I addressed the quality issue in replying to the previous amendment. But I remind the noble Lord that quality really is at the centre of our efforts behind the Bill and behind the nursery voucher scheme. The delivery of education can come in different forms. We recognise that there can be quality in the playschool situation and also in a more formal nursery school situation. It is for
HMI will be responsible for quality. There will be no possibility of providers being approved under this scheme unless they have fulfilled the quality criteria, and we shall insist upon that. The evaluation will not concern itself greatly with that aspect. That is an aspect which will be pursued rigidly by the inspectors.
The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, brought all her experience to bear and raised a number of wide-ranging issues. I remind the noble Baroness--and, indeed, the House because I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Sempill, raised this issue and I did not reply to it specifically on the last amendment--of what happens to those children who require special services or who have special needs. The moneys which authorities already spend on full-time places for younger children with special educational needs will remain untouched by the calculations which surround the voucher system. Therefore, we recognise that certain categories of children remain priority categories in terms of continued local authority provision. We have no intention of disrupting that in any way. That will be something which the evaluators will seek to identify. They will seek to assure themselves that children with special needs are in no way disadvantaged by the scheme.
Secondly, I shall supply the noble Baroness with a copy of the letter about the complex local authority finances and how they mesh with the financing of the nursery voucher scheme which I sent to other noble Lords who spoke in Committee. It may be of interest to her to read the explanation which is given in that letter.
In essence, we believe that where local authority provision remains the same as it was before, then local authorities will be no worse off after the introduction of a voucher scheme. However, it is our considered view and the view of some of the local authority watchers with whom we liaise that most if not all local authorities will benefit from the extra £30 million worth of purchasing power which is being introduced into the pre-school education market. Local authorities, especially in Scotland but across the UK, have a tremendous reputation for providing that education. In many instances, they are the main providers. Therefore, they will be the major recipients and beneficiaries. Nevertheless, I shall send the noble Baroness a copy of the letter which has been distributed to other noble Lords.
From an early stage, the Government have pledged to share the results of the evaluation of the voucher system's pilot year as openly and fully as possible. I should perhaps explain to the House that the evaluation of the pilot year is essentially being conducted at two levels. There will be a national evaluation conducted by an independent contractor appointed by the Scottish Office. The contractor for the evaluation will be appointed shortly and its work will be monitored by a research committee, including representatives from all three sectors of providers; namely, the public, private and voluntary sectors.
Throughout the course of the evaluation, we hope to arrange a number of conferences which will bring together providers, parents and other interested parties. In other words, we want to be totally open about the information which arises from the evaluation during the pilot year.
Those sessions will serve a dual function of informing the evaluation--that is, gaining responses from those who have an interest--and allowing an early dissemination of results. The proposal for conferences represents another demonstration of the Government's commitment to a thorough and open evaluation of all the workings of the voucher system. We are at one across the House as to the need for a thorough evaluation. We shall make available in the Libraries of both Houses any written reports of the evaluation, whether for these conferences or otherwise published, as and when they come forward. I hope that that addresses the central point of the amendment.
The work of the national evaluation will be informed and supplemented by local evaluations conducted in each of the four pilot authority areas. Indeed, one of the prerequisites that the Government set for councils' participation in the pilot year was a commitment on their behalf to a thorough local evaluation. While the pilot authorities will take the lead in their respective evaluations, we have encouraged them to involve other providers and interested parties in a manner similar to that proposed in the national evaluation.
So far as concerns the national evaluation, we made it very clear in the specification, as many noble Lords will have seen--especially the noble Lord, Lord Sewel--that we require the results to be brought forward by the researchers as they arise and not left until the end of the study. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Goold pointed that out to the House in remarkably succinct language which I can hardly rival.
My noble friend Lady Carnegy referred to the objective of ironing out the wrinkles as the scheme progresses. That is an extremely important part of the exercise--that is, the continuous assessment of the scheme--as is the fact that the interim reports will bring to light and predict some of the major conclusions both on the generality of the scheme and, indeed, on all the minute details regarding the workings of the scheme. Therefore, although there is but a short time between the end of one school year in the early summer and the mid-August start of the next school year, I hope that I can reassure the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, and the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, that the fact that one has received interim reports throughout that school year will mean that one is moving a long way towards one's final evaluation at the end of that school year.
The noble Lord, Lord Sewel, has been in both academia and local government for long enough to know the value of continuous assessment and interim reports. I do not believe that is as doubting and cynical as he suggests. The early dissemination and availability of findings will enable us--and, indeed, everyone else--to reflect any conclusions of the evaluation in the system's national implementation from August of next year.
Finally, more specific questions were asked about the exact agenda of those who will be carrying out the evaluation. I can tell noble Lords that those concerned will be looking at the impact of vouchers on the provider market. They will also be looking at the volume, the type and the distribution of places which are prompted by the voucher scheme. Further, they will be looking at parental views, the views of those who have been providing and also the views of those who will be tempted to provide for the first time because of the increase in demand. We shall gain a very clear idea of the enthusiasm which comes through parental choice.
In essence, we shall be looking at the entire workings of the scheme, except for the quality aspect. I should like to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, that we believe that the assessment of quality is best done by those who are experts in quality assessment--Her Majesty's Inspectorate. I hope that my response will be reassuring to those who have tabled the amendment. We want to achieve exactly the same objectives as they do. We want the information to be available in the Library of this House and we want the assessment to be continuous. On that basis, I believe that the amendment is not strictly necessary.
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