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Lord Tope: My Lords, I rise more in sorrow than in anger, as they say. I am sad that what I think the noble Lord, Lord Morris, described as the powers that be in the Labour Party have decided not to pursue this matter further. The noble Lord, Lord Morris, explained carefully and clearly why that is. I understand why the Labour party in particular would have an interest in ensuring that what he described as the conventions of the House--I think they are more correctly described as the conventions between the two Front Benches--should not be upset at this time. I do not want to say any more about that. I do not want to embarrass the noble Lord, Lord Morris, any more, because he and I have worked closely on this Bill. I have come to respect his views and I think I know what his views are.

However, it is not just a matter of personal sorrow and regret that we cannot take this matter any further. It may be no consolation to the noble Lord to know that he was not the only one whose telephone was disturbed. I, too, was tracked down at home. Perhaps, unlike the noble Lord, I have an answer machine which helps in that it refers people to my secretary, who was also tracked down. We received the same lobbying. Someone went to the considerable trouble of finding a fax number to send me a fax before the weekend. It is not someone from my part of the world or someone I have ever heard of before. As far as I know I have not heard from this person before although, like many other noble Lords, I have received so many letters I may well have done so. The fax was sent to me immediately after the decision in another place. It stated:

I think that person speaks for a large number of people. That certainly has been the reaction that I have encountered since last Thursday. Sadly, she concludes the fax by stating,

    "Excuse my interference when I am only a parent but we feel so strongly".
This Bill is all about parents, and their children who are as yet too young to hold their own independent views. For that reason I am sad that we are now coming to the end of the process.

I wish to say just a few words about what the Minister said in his opening remarks. He accused us of using the amendment as a delaying tactic. The amendment may

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have caused a short delay, but that was not its principal purpose. Its principal purpose was as stated; namely, to ensure that there is a full evaluation. People out there who describe themselves as "only parents", people who teach in the schools, head teachers, governing bodies, local education authorities and even those within large parts of the voluntary sector, simply do not understand why the Government have set themselves against your Lordships' amendment to undertake an evaluation after a full year. It seems to them to make no sense whatsoever to have a pilot phase in the first place if it is not then to be fully and properly evaluated.

We have said all this before. I do not wish to take up valuable time in saying it again. However, as we have not fully debated evaluation in this House, certainly since the amendment was defeated, I hope the Minister can say a little more about what sort of issues the further evaluation he has now promised will cover. I hope he will say when it will be available and where it will be available. I am sure it will be available in this House but it needs to be more widely available. I conclude as I began by professing more sorrow than anger. I am sad. This is a sad end to a sorry business. Above all, I believe this whole voucher scheme is an enormous wasted opportunity to bring about an end which all of your Lordships wish to achieve but which this scheme will not achieve.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley: My Lords, I too find this a deeply disappointing occasion for many in the education service. Of course I do not like the mechanism of vouchers as a way of increasing provision because, for all that it involves choice of a kind, it serves to fragment and complicate the system and move even further away from the concept of a local community of schools. I believe that this has served us better than most current commentators will allow, and that it would have been the better route by which to increase publicly-funded provision.

But it is not as if we were attempting to wreck the voucher scheme. In Committee we sought, as the noble Lord, Lord Tope, emphasised, to ensure that this would not be one of those reforms that, in common with others in recent years, would have to be remodelled later in the light of experience, by providing for a proper evaluation period so that the thing was more likely to be right first time.

I cannot believe that this is a bad principle. The Minister said he wanted to bring in vouchers as quickly as possible. How often have we heard that ill-advised phrase in recent years? I am often horrified at the neglect of sound evidence for the basing of educational policy. Dogma, hunches, reference back to one's own golden school-days, are not good guides to what is best for the citizens of tomorrow. I do not say that the present party in power is uniquely prone to these, but the sheer volume of its reforms means that we have had our fill of them in the last 16 years.

The Government, as ever, are convinced they are right on the issue in front of us. I only hope for the sake of the children that the scheme will work out for the best.

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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I too express regret that here is an objective on which everyone in this Chamber could have agreed; namely, that it is desirable that all children of four years whose parents wish them to have access to a variety of nursery provision should have that access. However, the golden opportunity has been lost because the Government have decided on the means of achieving that provision in the face of overwhelming criticism from over 80 per cent. of parents whose children in this age group already attend their local schools and who have exercised that parental choice for which this Government claim credit; namely, choice in access to nursery education.

For those parents who would prefer not to exercise that choice, the Government could have introduced a scheme. The only change that this voucher scheme introduces is giving money to those who choose an alternative, for example a playgroup in the voluntary sector, or those who choose to pay for private provision. For once I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, who has said that if we have limited public funds they should be targeted at those most in need. For those parents who want access to their local maintained, voluntary aided or voluntary controlled nursery school, the £1,100 will not pay for that. The opposition has not come from Members on these Benches, but from hundreds of people involved in pre-school provision for four year-olds. Letters have been received from dozens of people representing thousands of others who have expressed deep concern. There is agreement that four year-old children should have such access if their parents wish; and that that access should not damage the existing provision for three year-olds or the quality or quantity of the range of education on offer at present.

Vouchers are not popular. I have yet to meet a parent in the pilot area whose four year-old child goes to the local school who has a good word to say for vouchers. The parents who believe that vouchers are popular are those who do not have access at present and believe that the voucher is a guarantee of a place. I hope that in the coming few months, the Government will not put forward a voucher as representing a place. It does not. If the local school is overcrowded and there is no provision, the voucher is worthless. One cannot exchange it for the provision that one desires.

There is, too, the messing about with local government finance. During various stages of the Bill, one of the Minister's supporters from the Benches opposite, in response to a challenge about changes in local government and local government finance, said rather proudly, "Yes we did pass all that legislation; and, yes, it was all necessary". I refer to the poll tax. The poll tax was a much worse mistake. There is strong hostility to the proposal in the Bill.

The second golden opportunity that has been lost is the failure by the Government to recognise the benefit of partnership between central government and local government but, more importantly, at local level to ensure that all children's needs are met. Market forces do not meet the needs of the child who may be difficult to provide for, or the child in an out of the way place. It is sad that governors and teachers up and down the country, the people of Wales who have expressed objections, and

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(I suspect, although I cannot prove it) the people of Northern Ireland where all four year-olds are in school, are being consulted about extending the voucher scheme. A full year will be necessary to consider the effect on local government finance, and the problems that the proposal creates for the very governors to whom the Government have handed the responsibility of the funding. Why do the Government not listen when concerns are expressed about what is being provided?

My worry among others is this. Let us consider Wales, and Northern Ireland where the Government are consulting at present. The vouchers are still being brought in in areas where all children are in schools. I am deeply suspicious that it is the beginning of a thin edge of the wedge. I cannot see any reason to be pleased that the Government chose to claim privilege as a reason. I accept the legitimacy of the other Chamber. I accept that finance is involved in the Bill. But we could have been celebrating one of the few achievements of partnership, unanimity and consensus. Instead I take part in the debate on the Bill with a heavy heart. If I had been told even three years ago that this Government would come up with a proposal for nursery education that brought in new money and that it would leave me with a heavy heart I should not have believed it. Perhaps I should have believed anything of this Government.

6 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, I have not taken part in the discussions although I have listened to them all. Perhaps I may say one thing. The sad aspect is that even if the voucher scheme is the most enormous success, and enormously popular, should the Labour Party ever be elected, it will abolish it.

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