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Page 1, line 7, at end insert ("except in any area of a local education authority within which a majority of parents of children with places in maintained nursery schools, voting in a ballot organised in accordance with regulations, has voted that arrangements under this Act should not be applicable to that area").

The noble Baroness said: Opting out has been a theme of government policy since the passing of the Education Reform Act 1988. That Act was intended to give parents the opportunity to vote to establish a different system of governance in their children's school, with funding direct from the Government. Later, an element of selection was introduced.

This amendment follows precisely that logic in providing that parents should determine whether vouchers should be introduced in their area. In many parts of the country, most notably Solihull in the West Midlands--an authority under Conservative control where provision was made available for all parents of four year-olds who wished their children to avail themselves of that provision--local parents are clear that the mechanism of the voucher scheme, as enshrined in this Bill, will bring no benefits to their area. In areas with a high level of provision such as Solihull the removal or raiding of local authority finances to provide the base of the funding for the scheme is imperilling existing provision in an area where the local authority has made that provision widely available and where it is widely used. Parents in Solihull are increasingly puzzled as to why vouchers are necessary. I await with interest the Minister's reply.

In the debate on the previous group of amendments the noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to the level of success as being measurable by the number of parents who claim their vouchers. However, that is the only way that parents who are satisfied with what they have now, and with the resources that are available to the local authority, can ensure that the system may continue. However, the huge bureaucratic nightmare of red tape and the cost involved in those parents in Solihull and elsewhere having to claim the money through a different route is bewildering to those parents and to most people involved in the education service in England and Wales, and in Scotland where the Government can hardly claim that their proposals have met with universal welcome. Parents ask why, if they are satisfied with provision now, they should have to claim vouchers through this costly, bureaucratic, red-tape nightmare in order to continue to receive what they now have.

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These are not assertions or criticisms of the legislation. This amendment accepts that the Bill will proceed, but provides that it should do so as a measure empowering parents rather than imposing a scheme upon them. It would require the Government to bring forward regulations to set up a system of balloting, not dissimilar to the system established by the Government under the 1988 Act (and revised in 1993) for opted-out schools. Where a majority of parents with places in maintained nurseries voted that arrangements should not apply within that LEA area, they would be exempted from the voucher paper chase.

The Government claim that the system they propose to introduce is universally popular. I can find no evidence of that. People in areas such as Solihull can find no one to speak in support of the scheme. Surely the Government ought to judge the legislation they propose on the basis of their past philosophy and logic. If the Government believe that there ought to be parental choice, why cannot those parents collectively express that choice? Why on earth should we waste public money to ensure that parents apply to obtain what they have now, and why should we have to pay for seven, eight, or ultimately even nine bureaucratic hoops? I have seen the Government's statements about the cost of the scheme. I remain totally unconvinced on that point. We on these Benches believe that if the Government are being consistent they will support this amendment. I beg to move.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley: I also support this amendment. Parental choice is an important principle, and the Government do not have a monopoly on it. The difficulty has sometimes been in persuading them to apply it in cases where the result might not be to their liking. The classic example of this was in our debates three years ago (I was re-reading some of them last night) over the rights of parents to opt back in from grant-maintained status if circumstances later changed--a right which the Government were not prepared to grant. That was apparently a choice too far.

Here we have a situation where it is clear from our postbags that in certain areas, notably those where nursery education is already thriving, parents see real problems in the patchwork arrangements this Bill seeks to impose. They should be able to opt out if that is their majority wish. There is no reason in logic or practice why a scheme of balloting should not be devised which gives effect to such a choice. I would urge the Government to look favourably on this amendment.

Lord Tope: I rise briefly to support this amendment, which is also tabled in my name. The points have been well made by the two previous speakers. In my experience--I speak as a leader of a local education authority and our party's Front Bench spokesperson--not only have I not received a single letter from anyone supporting this scheme so far, and certainly no letter from anyone castigating my authority for not taking part in the pilot schemes, but the overwhelming majority of letters have been from parents who simply do not understand why, when they already have good provision for their four year-old child, they will have to go through this enormous paper chase and great

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bureaucratic tangle. They do not understand why we shall have to spend, by the Government's estimation, £20 million--although some of us suspect it will be rather more than that--administering a hugely bureaucratic process which simply takes them back in the end to where they are now, or something worse. It must be entirely consistent with the Government's education policy over the years not to impose a national scheme on parents who do not wish it, but to allow them the choice to opt out if they so wish. That seems entirely consistent with government policy and practice. I find myself a little uncomfortable in supporting it, but on this occasion I believe that it is right to allow the opt-out. I am pleased to support the amendment.

Lord Bowness: I am sorry that I was not present for the whole of the Second Reading debate. I am even sorrier in many ways to find myself not in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington. They are local authority colleagues of many years' standing, albeit from the other side.

I understand entirely that Members of the Committee opposite may approach the question from a point of view and direction different from that of the Government. Indeed, as a former leader of a local authority I can understand some of the problems and worries expressed about the paperwork involved. I have no doubt that the Minister will consider whether, in the light of experience, the process can be streamlined in some way.

However, in the context of this Bill, I find the amendment incomprehensible. The proposal goes further than that urged upon us by local authority associations in their briefing to Members of the Committee. The amendment does not even propose a scheme to be adopted at the discretion of individual local education authorities. It proposes a vote among those people who currently have a benefit in a particular sector as to whether or not a similar benefit should be extended to those who currently do not enjoy it.

There is no proposal to seek the views of those parents who do not enjoy the benefit. During the course of this afternoon's debate, there has been an assumption that all parents who put their children into nursery education in the private sector can do so without hardship. Yet I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, will know from their local authority experience that local authority leaders are frequently told that if the provision of nursery education is inadequate in their area, for whatever reason, it causes many people considerable hardship. But those parents suffer financial hardship in order to put their children into nursery education in the private sector, either because they believe passionately in nursery education, or because it is necessary to have some kind of childcare to enable a parent to go to work.

The ability of an education authority to provide nursery places is not limited solely by the question of resources. It relates to the physical constraints, the location where places can be made available, the size of the sites and the suitability of the schools. To say that the amendment carries forward the principles of opt-out proposed in previous legislation for grant-maintained

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schools is not true. There one consults the parents in one school at a specific time about the future of that school. That does not deprive other parents within the area of the opportunity to put their children into local authority maintained schools. If parents were against grant-maintained status, and a ballot goes against them it does not prevent those parents putting their children into local authority maintained schools.

However if the amendment were agreed, it would enable parents with a vested interest at the time the vote was taken--those with children in maintained nursery schools--to prevent the proposals in the Bill being made available to other parents.

While the question presumably would be prescribed by the regulations referred to in the amendment, who will explain to the parents concerned the implications of voting yea or nay? I do not believe that one can draw a parallel with this proposal. It is not appropriate to go to one small sector of the community--parents who happen to have their children in maintained nursery places--to decide whether or not other parents can take advantage of a national scheme which is put forward to increase the number of places available. I oppose the amendment.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness David: The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said that some people will be put at a disadvantage by the amendment. But the parents of those already in nursery schools will be the major part of the electorate who will be involved in the scheme. No doubt in areas such as Sollihul, with about 95 per cent. of children in nursery schools, the major part of the electorate of that area will be affected. I am strongly in support of the amendment. I believe that it follows the case of grant-maintained schools where parents have the choice. I do not see why parents should not have the choice as regards this scheme. I have received a vast number of letters asking for this amendment to be put forward. Since the Government make such a thing about parental choice, I believe that those voices should be listened to. I hope very much that the Government will look kindly on this amendment. I strongly support it.


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