Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

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 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

17 Jun 1996 : Column 30

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

17 Jun 1996 : Column 31

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

17 Jun 1996 : Column 32

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

17 Jun 1996 : Column 33

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.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page