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Lord Tope: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to the Children Act and the requirements therein. As I understand it, the requirements there are simply in guidance, not regulation. Guidance does not have the force of regulation as, indeed, my own authority has had occasion to find out in a slightly different context.

I understood the Minister to say, correctly, that the 1996 regulations will not place any requirement on minimum space standards but that he hopes to deal with that in guidance. I feel that regulation is a much better way to specify what the minimum standards should be than is guidance where guidance implies and, indeed, it has been held, there is a degree of discretion. The financial pressures of the maintained sector, as well as the voluntary sector, must urge people to have at least a different interpretation of guidance.

I am disappointed, although not surprised, that the Minister is unable to accept this amendment and that he is unable to give minimum standards the safeguards that would be enshrined in regulation. But we will look with

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great care and interest at the guidance that is to be issued. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Tope moved Amendment No. 6:


Page 1, line 24, at end insert--
("( ) The Secretary of State shall at such times as may be prescribed report to Parliament on the availability in England and Wales of nursery education to children aged three and four whose parents wish their children of those ages to receive such education.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move Amendment No. 6 standing in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris. The purpose of this amendment is to require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on the availability of nursery education for three and four year-olds.

The Government have stated that this scheme will lead to the expansion of provision for four year-olds. They have also said that they hope to extend this scheme to three year-olds. As I have said on a previous occasion, the extension of nursery provision for three and four year-olds is of particular importance to my party. Therefore, I hope that the Government's intentions are fulfilled, although I think that this is almost the worst way of achieving it.

However, there is little within the Bill to ensure that the current situation of existing provision will be reviewed. This amendment would at least go some way towards ensuring that the Government are made aware of the true availability of places for four year-olds and, until the scheme can be extended, that existing three year-old provision is safeguarded. That point is particularly important. As your Lordships know, there is great concern that this scheme could damage the existing provision for three year-olds. I am sure the Government do not accept that; but that is the concern of those who are well informed on the subject.

There is a common view in your Lordships' House on the desire to expand nursery education for three and four year-olds. There is widespread concern among, not least, the Conservative Education Association, the Audit Commission and many others that this is not the best way to do it and that it could, in some areas, actually reduce the existing provision, particularly for three year-olds.

Whether or not those concerns are justified will remain to be seen. But by passing this amendment we will at least have a guarantee that the Secretary of State must regularly investigate the availability of places for three and four year-olds and report on this to Parliament. If the Government really believe that the voucher scheme will expand nursery provision, they have nothing whatsoever to fear from this amendment. Indeed, they could be putting some statute behind their words by supporting this amendment and agreeing to

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report regularly to us so that we can judge how effectively the scheme is expanding nursery provision. I beg to move.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, sometimes, when the weather is bright and fair, my family and I--three generations of us--walk over the moors to Hathersage. In doing so, we have to cross the river Derwent at the foot of Offerton Moor by means of a set of stepping stones. I have tried to instil in the minds of my grandchildren that it is unwise to step forward until you are quite secure on the stone upon which you are standing. So far, with Thomas and Rebecca, I have succeeded passably well. I only wish I could be so persuasive with the noble Lord the Minister.

The Government have said that this scheme will lead to a great leap forward, to an expansion of provision for four year-olds. They have also said that they hope to extend this scheme to three year-olds. All we want to do is to ensure that the current situation of existing provision will be safeguarded by being reviewed. If it is not, the Minister may find himself up to his neck in cold river water.

This amendment would at least go some way towards ensuring that the Government are made aware of the true availability of places for four year-olds and--until the scheme can be extended--that existing three year-old provision is safeguarded.

I should like to make two points in support of the noble Lord, Lord Tope. First, there has been widespread concern that an allocation of grant via a voucher scheme will not necessarily be an effective way of expanding nursery provision. That concern has been expressed by the Government's own supporters. At the beginning of this year, the Conservative Education Association, whose work I read with great interest, produced a policy statement on pre-school provision which stated,


    "there is a real chance that in some areas parents will receive vouchers but have no provision of the sort that they want available ... In some areas there will be a reduction in LEA provision without a corresponding private sector increase."
Can the Minister, when he comes to reply, explain to us why those fears are groundless?

Secondly, there are other worries about the impact of the voucher scheme on expansion. For example, the low value of the voucher relative to the high cost of quality places or the lack of additional money for capital projects threaten the scheme as we see it. Can he tell us: how does the scheme cut out the cowboys? How does the scheme avoid educational slums? Whether or not such concerns are justified remains to be seen. But a guarantee that the Secretary of State is regularly to investigate the availability of good places for three and four year-olds under these arrangements would go a long way to allay some of the fears that many of us feel.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I thought I dealt with allegations of cowboys earlier this afternoon in response to the noble Baroness, Lady David, and I do not intend to repeat the arguments I put forward on that occasion.

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This amendment would require the Secretary of State to make regular reports to Parliament on the extent to which the availability of education for three and four year-olds satisfied demand. I would like to persuade the House that the amendment is unnecessary.

Of course, we shall all be watching the expansion of nursery education for children of all ages with interest, and also the extent to which there may be any unmet demand. However, there is no need for the Secretary of State to make a special report to Parliament at regular, unspecified intervals in order for information about these matters to be made public.

As part of the assessment of the nursery education voucher scheme, a survey will be undertaken of current use of places by three and four year-olds, and the results will be compared with those of similar surveys in subsequent years. In addition, a commitment has already been made by my honourable friends in another place that data on the numbers of vouchers issued and redeemed, and the number and type of institutions validated to redeem vouchers will be published annually in the departmental report.

I appreciate that in an earlier Bill my noble friend Lord Peyton was dismissive of the departmental annual report. Whatever my noble friend said on that occasion, it puts the information in the public arena and makes it available to all. Further, data on the numbers of three and four year-olds in schools in England will also be published annually in the Statistical Bulletin, as it has been for many years. Again, I appreciate that the Statistical Bulletin may be a document that some consider to be dry reading. Nevertheless, it makes the information available to the public at large and to noble Lords opposite.

I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tope, is now satisfied that mechanisms are already in place to ensure that those matters are monitored; that those mechanisms are perfectly adequate for ensuring that Parliament and the general public are kept informed about the availability of nursery education, and that therefore it is unnecessary to add to what some may argue is a superfluity of documents being produced by the Secretary of State, by demanding that yet one more should be produced. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps he can tell the House what the mechanisms are to which he referred on two occasions. He probably knows that I write to him occasionally about these matters. Perhaps I may mention a subject I raised recently which caused considerable interest in the House. I refer to the sale of playing fields about which people both inside and outside Parliament seem to be concerned.

There is no doubt that there has been an increase in the sale of playing fields and we all know what a major part they play in education. I was astonished, as I am sure were other noble Lords, to find that there is no central register of any kind and no central statistics which show how many playing fields are being sold off. That has happened on two or three occasions.

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The Minister may say, and I would accept, that the other mechanisms are Starred Questions, Unstarred Questions, Questions for Written Answer, or a debate. But that does not take care of the main thrust of the amendment; that is, that there should be something monitoring the situation. This scheme is an innovation in itself, and that alone should be sufficient to warrant information being sought. Presumably it will be debated, it being published in the annual report. But unless we have that level of information the Government will have a big hole in the scheme with which many of us will not be satisfied.


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