Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord McConnell: My Lords, I begin by saying that I deplore violence and terrorism in all its forms, no matter by whom it is committed. There has been great resentment over the past few days about the part that the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic has played in interfering in Northern Ireland, and--if newspaper reports are correct--of being somewhat abusive to our own Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has said--again I go by press reports--that Northern Ireland is as much a part of the United Kingdom as Surrey. Would he like Mr. Bruton, or any other prime minister, to interfere in things that happen in Surrey? It should be made plain that that kind of interference should not be tolerated in the future, despite the notorious Anglo-Irish Agreement. I agree with what has been said by two noble Lords; namely, that great resentment is felt at concessions being made to the excessive demands of the IRA. That destabilises the majority population in Northern Ireland. I also felt rather ashamed when I noted that the Government said that they could not do anything about the events of the past few days or the past week because that constituted an operational decision of the chief constable. Admittedly there are many events that call for operational decisions but, when a situation becomes so grave, the Government have to take responsibility for governing the country.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, I stress to the noble Lord that part of the Statement where my right honourable and learned friend said that he intended to take the next meeting with the Irish Government as an opportunity to rebut very firmly the quite unjustified and unwarranted criticism of the Government and the RUC. There can be no doubt that in the past we have seen co-operation between the security forces of north and south and the support of the Taoiseach in condemning violence and taking all the necessary steps to ensure that the situation is kept in that way. I say to the noble Lord that concessions are not being made to the IRA. We are trying to work for the people of Northern Ireland to bring forward their own solution to their future.

15 Jul 1996 : Column 645

Lord Stallard: My Lords, I recognise that time is running short. I welcome the Statement and I sympathise with those who expressed concern about the victims killed and injured in the upset of the past few days. However, I should like to have heard a little more self-criticism in relation to the major obstacles to whatever progress will be made. In relation to progress on peace, we ought to be critical of our own Government and ourselves for frittering away 18 months of a ceasefire when we were told at the very beginning that if it lasted three months there would be peace talks. It lasted 18 months before there was any move. But in between, one obstacle after another had been raised to make sure that the peace talks did not take place. We were then faced with the current situation.

On the recent events in Drumcree, the whole world saw on television how the Orange Order gradually overruled whatever decisions were made by chief constables or governments, resulting in the surrender at Drumcree. The whole world saw how the RUC then lashed into the Catholic population of men, women and children with batons and other weapons to make sure that the Orange Order's decision was maintained. That was a disgraceful state of affairs. We ought to be critical of it and not try to excuse it.

Thirdly, I welcome the Taoiseach's remarks in southern Ireland. I understand his frustration and the anger that is felt among the Catholic population in the whole island. Of the 32 counties, he governs 26 counties where Protestants and Catholics live and work in peace together. Noble Lords on the other side shake their heads. I have forgotten more than they will ever know about the situation. It is about time that we were a little more self-critical. Then, we could become constructive.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield: My Lords, it is possible for Catholics and Protestants to live together. It is possible for people who do not box themselves in by their religion but treat each other as people to live together. We have not frittered away the time. We have taken many actions in the 18 months of peace which we hope will stand in good stead. We have treasured that. We do not wish to see the efforts now ruined by intemperate language and criticism. We build for the future.

Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill

Proceedings after Third Reading resumed on Clause 1.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede moved Amendment No.2:


Page 1, line 7, at end insert (", and where such arrangements are made, the Secretary of State, or a person exercising functions under section 2, shall take all practicable steps in liaison with persons to whom grants are payable to secure that parents about whom information is not available through the use of social security information to which Schedule 2 applies are contacted, to enable their children to have the opportunity to benefit from such education.").

15 Jul 1996 : Column 646

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the purpose of this amendment is to place a duty on the Government or agency to find parents who are not on the DSS database and to ensure that they receive full nursery vouchers. There is widespread concern that many of the most vulnerable children will not receive nursery education as a result of this legislation because their parents are not registered with the Child Benefit Agency and so will not receive an offer to apply for a voucher.

Reference was made earlier to the research done by the DfEE. It showed that, despite the large amount of publicity, including posters, leaflets, advertisements in the local press, advertisements on supermarket trolleys and a helpline number, the main source of information about the voucher scheme was the provider itself, and the main burden was on the provider. That research went on to find that some 60 per cent. of parents believed they had too little information. In the case of Westminster, it was 73 per cent. of parents. Parents also believed that the information was at the wrong level.

This weekend I received a helpful letter from the noble Lord, Lord Henley, in which he made it clear that every effort would be made to ensure that eligible children do receive a voucher. He made clear his intention; however, the purpose of the amendment is to place an obligation on the face of the Bill to ensure that all children receive a nursery voucher.

We are talking about the most vulnerable children. It is likely that those who do not receive a voucher are the children of feckless parents, of parents seeking asylum or of parents who may recently have moved. Such children are likely to be very vulnerable. It is right to place an obligation on the face of the Bill to require the Government, through their agencies, to ensure that all children have the opportunity of nursery education. I beg to move.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I agree that it is vitally important that parents, should they wish, apply for vouchers for their children and that children benefit from the scheme. It is also important that schools, nurseries and playgroups receive the grant to which they are entitled.

However, I do not believe that it is necessary or workable to place on the face of the Bill the requirement that contractors and providers must pursue those parents who do not apply for vouchers, as the amendment suggests.

It may be useful, since I wrote to the noble Lord, to remind the House of the measures the department and the contractor have already taken to ensure that eligible children receive vouchers. The vast majority of parents in phase 1 areas received an application form automatically from the child benefit database. I think the House will agree that most children will be on that database, as most parents will be claiming child benefit. Those who did not have been made aware of the opportunity to apply for vouchers through an effective information campaign in the phase 1 LEAs using a range of media.

15 Jul 1996 : Column 647

Most parents who want their child to attend a nursery provider will seek guidance from a local provider and we have ensured that all providers in the scheme have both general information about the scheme and information about how parents should apply for vouchers. And the information we publish for parents stresses the need for them to apply for vouchers and submit them to their chosen provider.

On the whole, these measures have been highly successful. In Norfolk, 97 per cent. of the estimated number of parents with eligible children have applied for a voucher. In Wandsworth, the figure is 95 per cent., and overall it is 91 per cent. For various other reasons I accept that it is somewhat lower in the other two areas, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster. But we can learn from the pilot in the phase 1 areas and make sure that we reach the Norfolk levels in phase 2. In the exceptional cases where these measures fail, headteachers of maintained schools are able to apply for vouchers on behalf of children whose parents have been unable to do so.

To return to the meaning of the noble Lord's amendment, it would be helpful if he had indicated how voucher contractors are to contact parents they know nothing about. It would also be helpful if we could hear how providers are to discover these unknown parents to fulfil their role under this amendment. Surely advertising, on the one hand, and informing providers, on the other, are the most effective ways of contacting such parents if they are not on the child benefit database. Obviously, if they are not on the database, it cannot be used in order to contact them.

Bearing those difficulties in mind, and bearing in mind the assurances I gave in my letter to the noble Lord and the assurances I have given on earlier occasions and this afternoon in the House, I hope the noble Lord will agree that the amendment is unworkable and unnecessary. I hope he will feel able to withdraw it.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page