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Lord Elis-Thomas: My Lords, the Minister gave himself away in his peroration when he talked about the Government believing that certain educational initiatives should take place in Wales. He referred to the thriving independent grant-maintained school sector. I am afraid that I have never seen it. There is a minute grant-maintained sector. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, said that in the amendment we propose some unique intervention in education legislation, but we have on the statute book under previous education legislation an organisation to which I referred at Committee stage affectionately known as the "Welsh Schools Funding Council". It has not been brought into effect. It is capable of it by order in the same way as we propose the institution of the experimental schemes and the nursery voucher scheme. It has not met and will not meet because there is no demand for it. At the moment, the powers rest with the Welsh Office and the Secretary of State

Therefore, we are dealing with the position where the Department for Education and Employment and the Welsh Office have decided to implement a certain policy. I believe that the policy is still unacceptable in Wales. I shall, of course, with my colleagues, consider the assurances given, but I am not satisfied that they go far enough to ensure that there is a monitoring of the effectiveness of the scheme which would be independent of the Welsh Office, the local education authorities and the independent providers. In our view, any monitoring scheme should assess the extent to which the nursery voucher scheme should increase the numbers who receive full-time nursery provision and whether the scheme adds to the effectiveness of the current level of provision. It should monitor whether the standards of education, both bilingually and generally in Wales, are being maintained by the new scheme.

For those reasons, therefore, although at this stage I may wish to withdraw the amendment, I shall take it for further consideration with my colleagues and the department. I ask the Minister to agree to discuss again with the department the views that have been expressed.

I neglected to declare an interest as chairman of the Welsh Language Board, and I speak in this debate on that count as well. It is a statutory board responsible, not only under the legislation of this House but also of the Welsh Office, for the provision of bilingual education. I would not wish to see any change in legislation which damaged the quality of provision in either language for any pupil in Wales. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment, with the

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clear warning that we shall return to the issue. Incidentally, the Minister has still not responded to the question asked by his noble friend.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Tope moved Amendment No. 5:

Page 1, line 19, at end insert--
("( ) Education falling within subsection (2) above shall be given in premises conforming to such common standards as to space and facilities as the Secretary of State shall by regulations specify.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of Amendment No. 5 is to require the Secretary of State by regulations to lay down minimum space standards for the provision of nursery voucher-funded education for four year-olds. This is a subject we debated at Committee stage and I make no apology for returning to it. I do so, first, because it is an important subject and, secondly, because we debated it on an occasion immediately after your Lordships had passed a significant amendment and perhaps the concentration of some noble Lords may have been on other matters than space regulations.

The amendment which we debated in Committee sought to lay down minimum standards not less than those prescribed in the recently revoked 1981 regulations. Amendment No. 5 backs away from that; it makes no reference to what the minimum standards should be. It states simply that there should be minimum standards which are for the Secretary of State to lay down. We hope and expect that he would have reference to the requirements of the Children Act and other standards and would set standards that were high rather than low. However, the specific purpose is to ensure that there are some minimum standards.

When we debated the matter in Committee it was suggested that we had a passion for regulation. That is a strange accusation to level at a Liberal, almost by definition. I cannot see how a requirement for a minimum standard represents a passion for over-regulation or can in any way to be said to be over-regulation. Surely minimum standards are minimum safeguards. That is what we are discussing.

In Committee I pressed the Minister to say what had changed since 1981 that meant that while in 1981 we required minimum standards, now we do not. I hope I do not misquote him. He said that the principal change was the introduction of LMS. I very much welcome the introduction of LMS. One of the features of LMS was that it was the schools themselves that campaigned most strongly against the revocation of the minimum standards laid down in the 1981 requirements. Schools want the safeguard and surety of minimum standards. I reject any argument that may follow that, because we have LMS, we no longer need minimum standards.

My principal concern, which I know is shared by other noble Lords, relating to the need for some minimum standards to be laid down, is a recognition that the value of the voucher is not sufficient in most cases to cover the cost of provision. It is certainly not sufficient to include any capital costs, training costs and

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so on. There must inevitably be pressure upon providers to reduce standards, to reduce costs, to keep expenditure as near as possible to the value of the voucher and to have as little additional contribution as is necessary, whether from the LEA or from parents.

That makes it even more necessary for minimum standards to be laid down. That is what this amendment seeks to explore. Children need space in which to learn, play and grow. It is our duty to ensure that we include in the Bill a requirement that minimum standards are laid down for children. I beg to move.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, we on these Benches support all that the noble Lord said. I endorse his remarks about the strength of feeling among governors and governing bodies and among all those from local education authorities of all political persuasions and none. The parents are always on the horns of a dilemma. There is always pressure where buildings are inadequate for the number of children for whom demand exists. It is fair to protect children from that. It is unfair for the Government to release themselves from any statutory level of duty to ensure that adequate capital funding is available to help governors meet both parental choice and the minimum standards necessary for young children.

Baroness Fisher of Rednal: My Lords, perhaps I may intervene briefly at this point. We must bear in mind that a school near Birmingham suffered tragically yesterday from an incident in the playground involving nursery school children. And we still have in mind what occurred at Dunblane. The noble Lord's remarks are important. People will not only have to look after facilities inside the school; they will also need to pay attention to what happens outside the buildings. If those working inside are not qualified teachers, and if there is not an adequate number of supply staff in ordinary nursery schools and classes, that may put some children's lives in jeopardy. I ask the Minister in replying to consider that point, following the remarks the noble Lord made in moving his amendment.

Baroness Young: My Lords, when my noble friend comes to reply, perhaps he will confirm the position as I understand it; namely, that anybody seeking to provide nursery education is required to register with local social services departments in accordance with the Children Act 1989, which has presumably superseded the previous Act; and that as a condition of registration providers' premises must comply with a whole range of health and safety requirements such as that of the premises regulations to ensure that children are properly protected.

As I understand it, the school premises regulations and the relevant guidance under the Children Act contain important requirements relating to essential areas of health and safety, including washing and lavatory facilities, etc., and in particular fire safety. These are all very serious matters.

No school could ever be expected to imagine the occurrence of terrible, tragic events that took place yesterday, about which we all feel deeply distressed. It

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is very difficult to assume that anything could be done to protect schools from somebody who can only be described as a madman entering the premises in those circumstances.

For the purposes of this piece of legislation we are discussing the need for schools to be adequately protected by the regulations which I understand are in force; and also by the powers that governors and schools under local management have to consider the adequacy of the provision that they contemplate making.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher of Rednal, that I referred to the tragic events in Wolverhampton earlier today. However, I did not go on to say that I believe it would be wrong for me at the Dispatch Box to offer any knee-jerk reaction. I remind her that, following the tragic murder of headmaster Mr. Philip Lawrence late last year, we set up a working party to advise on security in schools. That received a further impetus, if I may put it that way, following the unbelievably tragic events at Dunblane.

The working party has now reported. It has produced a large number of recommendations, virtually all of which we have accepted and will act upon in due course. Whether further review is needed following the incident at St. Luke's is another matter.

As my noble friend Lady Young made clear, it is very unlikely that we could ever arrive at a position whereby schools were totally and utterly secure. To turn them into fortresses would have quite undesirable effects. No parent would like to see that happen. However, obviously there are certain actions that we can and will take.

I now turn to the amendment. It is important that I put this point across, because it is important that a House that prides itself on being a revising Chamber should get its amendments right. The amendment tabled by the noble Lord would require all pre-school providers of nursery education, not just voucher redeeming institutions, to meet the same standards in terms of space and facilities.

I do not intend to raise questions as to whether this amendment therefore falls outside the scope of the Bill. That is for others to advise upon. However, I doubt whether it would be appropriate to include such a wide-ranging power, which would affect those schools that do not wish to become voucher redeeming institutions, in a Bill that is simply designed to give a power to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to make grants to fund nursery provision. Anyone seeking to press such an amendment must think very long and hard about the precise wording. I also do not believe that it would be appropriate or sensible to impose the same premises requirements on all pre-school providers of nursery education.

Schools in the maintained sector cater mostly for children of four years of age and upwards, whereas Children Act registered providers cater for children of four years and below. Both require a premises regime which is suitable for the age ranges they make provision for, while at the same time ensuring that the quality of provision is not affected.

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As noble Lords will know, the maintained sector will be required from September this year to adhere to new regulations--the Education (School Premises) Regulations 1996--which were laid in February. I make no apologies for the fact that they are a more liberal set of regulations than those that they replace. I explained the reasoning for that at an earlier stage.

The new regulations will not specify minimum requirements for teaching accommodation or recreation areas. That is because we believe governors and LEAs are in the best position to decide how to administer their school premises. We shall, however, be publishing guidance later this year to help schools and LEAs make informed decisions.

As I have already indicated, unlike in the maintained sector, pre-school providers in the private and voluntary sectors will be providing day care for very young children, even babies. I confirm to my noble friend that they are required to register with the local social services department in accordance with the Children Act 1989. I assure my noble friend that as a condition of registration providers' premises must comply with a range of health and safety requirements which, like the premises regulations, ensure that the children in their care are protected.

Both the revised school premises regulations and the relevant Children Act guidance contain important requirements for essential areas of health and safety, like washing facilities, lavatories and, for example, fire safety.

I believe, therefore, our policies address fully the issue of premises' standards for institutions that will be redeeming nursery vouchers, while recognising the important differences between sectors. In both cases I believe that the health and safety of all children attending these institutions will, so far as is humanly possible--bearing in mind the tragedies we have seen--be protected. I therefore hope the noble Lord will see fit to withdraw his amendment.

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