Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, we on these Benches fully support the amendment. We can add nothing to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, in his admirable description of the need for the provision.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I hate to pour a bucket of cold water over these matters but we cannot accept the amendment. As the noble Lord made clear, it requires the Secretary of State to specify in regulations standards for space and facilities to which all voucher-redeeming pre-school providers of nursery education must conform.

As the noble Lord, Lord Tope, said, we have been over this ground before both at Committee and at Report stages, and perhaps I can explain once again why we have different regulations and requirements for different settings.

We believe that there are some important differences between the maintained and non-maintained sectors. The former offers education; the latter offers day-care facilities as well as education and can cater for very young children. Those differences require different regulations prescribing different standards and requirements.

The new school premises regulations (which come into force in September this year) will not specify minimum requirements for teaching accommodation or recreation areas. That is because we believe that LEAs and school governors are in the best position to decide how to administer their school premises. The new regulations will give governors and LEAs increased flexibility over their accommodation arrangements. The guidance we shall be publishing later this year will help schools and LEAs make informed decisions.

Perhaps I can make it clear to the House that both the revised school premises regulations and the relevant Children Act guidance contain important requirements for essential areas of health and safety--a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Tope. Our policies fully address the issue of premises' standards for institutions that will redeem nursery vouchers while recognising the important differences between sectors. I hope therefore that on this occasion the noble Lord, slightly happier than on previous occasions, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

15 Jul 1996 : Column 652

Lord Tope: My Lords, I cannot claim to be any happier than I was on previous occasions. However, we have gone as far as we reasonably can in trying to reach a compromise with the Minister's concerns. I have said--on too many occasions now--that guidance, though useful, is not a requirement as such.

We have expressed our anxieties. I am sorry that the Minister has not seen fit to include on the face of the Bill anything other than that which is already there in relation to this extremely important issue. I do not intend to take the matter further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Elis-Thomas moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 1, line 19, at end insert--
("( ) No arrangements for the issue of vouchers in respect of nursery education shall be made in relation to Wales until the Secretary of State has consulted the Welsh Joint Education Committee on the arrangements and on the implications of the report of the Secretary of State evaluating the operation of any grants for nursery education made during the financial year 1996/7.)"

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in the course of our debates on the relevance of the Bill to the Welsh education system, my honourable friend and myself moved a series of amendments where we sought to include on the face of the Bill assurances about the implementation of the scheme in relation to Wales. So far we have not succeeded. But being an optimistic nation we never give up hope and it is with those thoughts that I tabled Amendment No. 4.

This is a simple attempt to put on the face of the Bill the indication that we were given both at Report stage and by letter from Mr. Jonathan Evans, the Under-Secretary of State for the Welsh Office--the MP in another place--on 11th July, that the department is prepared to consult with the Welsh Education Committee on the implementation of the scheme in Wales.

The reason for putting the provision on the face of the Bill is simple. We have failed to have any success in obtaining from Ministers, apart from a few cursory references, a recognition of the distinctive expression of education policy in relation to the current nursery system in Wales. We have also failed to obtain from the Minister and the department an indication that they will seriously and independently monitor the effects of the scheme.

We make the next point as strongly as we can in view of the petition that was presented again last week to the Welsh Office by supporters of the current system of nursery education. This scheme is being implemented with the universal hostility of the teaching profession, parents, school governors and communities throughout Wales. There has been no demand in Wales for this scheme and there is still no demand for it. My concern is that we have got to a position where the Government are prepared to legislate on this issue without regard for public opinion in Wales. That is not normal, even for Conservative Governments, which have not had a majority in Wales in living memory.

15 Jul 1996 : Column 653

In moving this amendment I request that even at this late stage the Government have a full review of the operation of the nursery voucher scheme and not the kind of review indicated in the letter from Mr. Jonathan Evans to me and what he described as "an on-going review" of the development of the nursery voucher scheme being the right one. An on-going review is of course necessary and we expect the department to do that. But we want a full review, with an interim report at the end of the first year and a more detailed, final report at the end of the second year. That review should be a formal exercise. We say that because there has been no pilot scheme. The Government will explain that away by saying that nobody volunteered. But that is not sufficient justification for not having one. Therefore, we argue that a review should be undertaken by the office of Her Majesty's chief inspector in full consultation with ACAC, the curriculum assessment body, the WJEC and the Welsh Language Board in which I have an interest and which I now declare.

That review requires that the scheme should be evaluated from the point of view of whether it has ensured an increase on the current figures in the numbers receiving nursery education; whether the system established to administer the scheme in Wales is both effective and efficient; and whether the new system does not adversely affect the provision of quality nursery education throughout Wales, and in particular the value and quality of Welsh bilingual education.

Not to do that would be to put at risk the achievements that have already been recorded in the nursery sector in Wales, and in particular the achievement recorded by Mudiad Ysgolion Meithvin, the voluntary body concerned with the pre-school age and the Pre-School Playgroups Association in Wales, and all those who have been involved in the statutory sector of reception classes in developing the very effective language teaching and bilingual policy. More than anything else, it has effected a turn around in the numbers who speak Welsh among the cohort of school age and enabled us to talk realistically of having a bilingual nation within the foreseeable future.

Nothing should jeopardise these achievements. I am not assured that the Government's response so far has indicated their concern for that. Therefore, I ask the Minister to ensure that, either here at this late stage or in the other place at an even later stage, in his response to the representations made to him he will announce the Government's intention to organise a proper review of the implementation of the scheme. I ask the Minister to tell his honourable friend in the other place, Mr. Jonathan Evans, that, although we like to receive letters from him, they have to be a little bit better than the one of 11th July. We welcome him to the Welsh Office as a Minister and we hope that he will do better. To tell me and my noble friends, the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Hooson, as he did on the 11th July, that,

    "the Welsh Office is taking steps to ensure that the Welsh dimension is taken fully into account",
is no more than it should do. It is one of the functions of the department, and that is within government policy. But that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about the implementation of that so-called dimension being taken into account as regards this scheme.

15 Jul 1996 : Column 654

For those reasons, it is high time that we had a clear indication from the Government that they are going to respond to Welsh public opinion on this issue. It is not enough to give us assurances that legislation has flexibility and that the Welsh Office may or may not introduce separate arrangements and regulations. It should be on the face of the Bill that we have here a distinctive education system, with its own distinctive provision. The publication of the results of the effects of nursery education in the annual report of the chief inspector is not enough, even though over the years they have provided a strong and independent voice in assessing the education system. We need a proper and clear independent review. I beg to move.

Lord Prys-Davies: My Lords, I speak to this amendment, although I shall not go over the ground that has been so ably covered by the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas.

The Bill has two objectives. We heard about them at Second Reading. They are to extend nursery education to all four year-olds whose parents want it and to enhance parental choice. In Wales we start with the fact that the investment in nursery education is well advanced, although it is not without shortcomings. But instead of building on the best of existing Welsh experience, with an eye particularly to remedying the defects that there may be in the system, the Welsh Office has pressed the facts of Welsh life into the Department for Education mould and emerged with a model that does not fit the Welsh situation or meet the needs of Wales.

In Wales it appears that the overriding objective of the Bill is to enhance parental choice. That comes out very strongly in the evidence of the House of Commons Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. I shall not weary the House with reading extracts from the report, which can be found between pages 3 to 21. But if we concede just for the moment that the wider policy--it is described as such--succeeds in giving more opportunities for some parents to exercise choice in nursery education, what will be the price? That is the question being asked in Wales.

It was a unanimous report from the Select Committee. It did not divide on party lines. The report concluded that the application of the scheme could do a great deal of damage to existing nursery provision in Wales and impede the development of nursery provision for three year-olds. That provision is now available to 40 per cent. of three year-olds. That is the fear that has been expressed in countless letters which I and other noble Lords from Wales have received from parents, teachers, governors and their representative organisations.

If the Bill is introduced and applied in Wales, Welsh nursery education, which has been built up for many decades by Welsh local authorities, will become vulnerable. That risk deserves special consideration, yet nowhere in the evidence from the Welsh Office to the Select Committee or from elsewhere is there any reference to this risk. It appears to us that it has just been ignored.

The Welsh Office Minister, Mr. Jonathan Evans, in his letter of 11th July to the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, refers to the on-going review of the

15 Jul 1996 : Column 655

development of the scheme. One might concede that it is a very small step in the right direction, but it does not satisfy the representative organisations I have spoken to and I hope that it will not satisfy your Lordships.

The Welsh Office failed to evaluate the risk inherent in the Bill. We say that the Bill must now reflect that risk. That is what the amendment is about. The letter from Mr. Jonathan Evans says that there will be an ongoing review undertaken by Welsh Office education officials--with their present convictions. That in no way allays our anxiety. There is no undertaking that there will be a report within 12 months of the completion of the 1996-97 schemes. If we are to place any reliance at all on that letter, we must press for an independent review and for the involvement of the Welsh Joint Education Committee in the task of evaluating the grants made during the 1996-97 financial year.

Members of the House who come from Wales will know that the WJEC has had a fine record of service to Welsh education for the past 50 years. It has detailed knowledge and experience of the Welsh education service and it is independent of the Welsh Office. More importantly still, it enjoys the confidence of the Welsh public. We ask the Government to accept the amendment and to allow the WJEC to undertake a review of the scheme before it is applied in Wales. It is a small concession and I trust that the Minister will be able to accept it.

5.30 p.m.

Viscount St. Davids: My Lords, one of the great virtues of Welsh culture is the high regard in which education is held. That includes pre-school education. As I have said before in your Lordships' House, we have long known that the route to the classless society is through the classroom. We have long known that the pathway to personal fulfilment is through academic achievement. Nothing must be done to endanger that.

I ask my noble friend why the Government insist on a common provision across England and Wales when the conditions that prevail in England are very different from those in Wales. I find quite a lot to commend in the amendment, but I await my noble friend's reply.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page