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House of Lords

Thursday, 23rd October 1997.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Chichester.

Baroness Amos

Miss Valerie Ann Amos, having been created Baroness Amos, of Brondesbury in the London Borough of Brent, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Baroness Blackstone and the Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde.

Baroness Ludford

Miss Sarah Ann Ludford, having been created Baroness Ludford, of Clerkenwell in the London Borough of Islington, for life--Was, in her robes, introduced between the Baroness Hamwee and the Lord Wallace of Saltaire.

The Earl of Kimberley--Took the Oath.

Nursery Voucher Scheme

3.24 p.m.

Baroness Lockwood asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they are monitoring the residual financial impact on local education authorities of the nursery voucher scheme, which was based on projected numbers; how many authorities have been adversely affected; and whether the financial shortfall to such authorities will be made good.

The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone): My Lords, seventy-six of the 132 English local education authorities received less money from vouchers than had been deducted from their standard spending assessments last term. We have now scrapped the voucher scheme, and put in its place arrangements which better meet the needs of children, parents and local education authorities.

Baroness Lockwood: My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. I congratulate her and her department on the speed with which they have moved on the issue. However, does my noble friend agree that there appears to have been some confusion about the way the earlier estimates of numbers of nursery places were calculated, and that those authorities which were planning to make provision on the basis of those calculations are now likely to lose out? That is particularly so because the earlier deductions for places were made on the basis of population estimates, while the reimbursement of funding for places is to be made

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on the basis of actual numbers in nursery schools and classes. Bradford is an example of one authority likely to lose about £500,000 in that way, despite the fact that it has a very good policy for providing nursery places; indeed, it now provides for some 90 per cent. of four year-olds. Would it not seem that those authorities which have made good provision in the past are now likely to be penalised?

Baroness Blackstone: No, my Lords; no authority will be penalised. However, it is important that every local education authority should expand its nursery provision if it is to be given additional funding to pay for it. I am aware of the particular problem in Bradford. It is the case that Bradford's shortfall was substantially larger than that of most LEAs. I also understand that, since the scheme started, Bradford is the only local education authority to have asserted that its original data was inaccurate. My officials are discussing Bradford's claims with the LEA. I hope that my noble friend will accept that those discussions will be helpful. However, I must also ask my noble friend to accept that we cannot provide additional funding if there is to be no increase in the number of places.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, as the introduction of the voucher scheme was a major change and is now being replaced after only one term by another major, although much improved and welcome, scheme, is it not likely that such a rapid transition could have some unforeseen consequences? Would it not be possible, therefore, to build into the scheme some financial protection for those authorities which might be in difficulties? I understand that Bradford is not the only authority involved and that there could indeed be others.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the local education authorities were extremely keen to get rid of the exceedingly bureaucratic voucher scheme introduced by our predecessors, which involved them in a really rather pointless paper chase. The new arrangements were also developed in close collaboration with LEAs. They will be required to collaborate with others in the community to plan early years services for children in their areas. We believe that that is a productive use of their time and is a process in which many LEAs were already taking part. The local education authorities have taken on their responsibility for funding provision for children in their areas. I believe that most of them accept that it was desirable to scrap this scheme as soon as possible and move forward.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that about 94 per cent. or more of children were enjoying pre-statutory school education when the noble Baroness took up office as education Minister in this House? Will she clarify that a guarantee has been given to provide nursery class education for four year-olds throughout the land in nursery schools, not simply pre-school education? If that is the case, what will happen in a rural school which has only three classes--the first class containing young children of four to seven years; the second class containing children of seven, eight and nine years; and the third class containing

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children of nine, 10 and 11 years--and which does not have buildings attached to it in which to hold nursery classes?

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is not correct in saying that a guarantee was given that every child could attend a nursery class. The guarantee that has been given is that all four year-olds should have access to pre-school education wherever they live. In urban areas it will of course be much easier to make provision in state nursery classes. However, local education authorities have been asked to work in partnership with the private and voluntary sectors. As regards the example given by the noble Baroness, I believe that the right solution will probably involve a partnership with the voluntary sector.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I hope I may ask a related question. That is precisely what happens in rural areas; schools enter into partnerships with local play groups and with those offering pre-school provision outside the state school system. It appears, therefore, that the noble Baroness has only a 6 per cent. shortfall to make up because 94 per cent. of four year-olds were in some form of pre-school education under the previous government.

Baroness Blackstone: My Lords, there is a shortfall to be made up. The problem with some voluntary sector provision is that it can be set up and then a couple of years later the extremely hardworking and committed people who set it up may move on and the provision closes. It is therefore important that we should try to maximise the numbers of secure and permanent places that are available for all four year-olds. That will be done in partnership but there will be an increase in provision for four year-olds. The Government have also made a commitment to extend provision for three year-olds as soon as we are able to do so.

Lord Evans of Parkside: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that as well as having a deleterious effect on many local authorities, the voucher scheme also had a bad impact on many playschools? Is it not true to say that the scheme has been a complete ideological disaster and that the only sensible thing that any government could do would be to scrap it altogether?

Baroness Blackstone: Yes, my Lords.

The National Health Service

3.33 p.m.

Lord Judd asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to reduce bureaucracy in the National Health Service.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I apologise to the House as I am not my noble friend Lady Jay who

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has a commitment outside London, nor my noble friend Lady Gould who unfortunately was taken ill and had to go home this morning.

The Government are committed to maximising the proportion of National Health Service resources devoted to patient care. We are doing this by removing the bureaucratic processes of the internal market and reducing management costs. On 22nd May we announced a programme of measures to make a start in reducing bureaucracy surrounding the internal market and to reduce management costs by £100 million this year. Further target reductions in the costs of managing the National Health Service for 1998-99 will be set shortly. Savings made will be ploughed back into direct patient care.

Lord Judd: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for standing in for his noble friends and answering the Question so fully. Does he not agree that, while efficient administration of the health service is essential, the Government should be confident that they will have the public fully behind them in anything they can do to ensure that not a penny is wasted on bureaucratic inessentials to the detriment of quality of service at the front line? Will he assure the House that in the review of bureaucracy the Government will investigate any waste, duplication and unnecessary expenditure in the administration of budget holding practices as well as considering what is going on in hospitals and other parts of the health service?

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