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Lord Prys-Davies: It is relevant to raise the question of the application of this Bill to Wales as there is an enormous desire in the Principality that the present nursery provision should not be imperilled. I have today received a petition signed by 200 parents from Carmarthen expressing their strong opposition to the application of the Bill to Wales.
I do not propose to go over the ground which I covered on Second Reading, but would like to express my thanks to the Minister for his letter of 12th June commenting on the matters which I raised on Second Reading. Nevertheless, I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who is relying on the advice of the Welsh Office, that I am not satisfied with what the letter says--and neither are my colleagues from Wales who have seen it. With the greatest respect, I do not believe that the Minister or the Welsh Office advisers have understood the Welsh point of view as developed by the noble Lords, Lord Elis-Thomas and Lord Hooson, in this Committee.
First, the Minister claims in his letter that there is parental misunderstanding in Wales of the voucher scheme. That claim requires considerable amplification, if not correction. Although some parents and organisations may still be unclear about the issue and the redemption of the voucher--I can fully understand that--there is no misunderstanding of the adverse effects of the scheme.
In his letter the Minister acknowledges that Welsh LEAs have a good record in nursery education. Indeed, he said earlier that there was far higher provision in Wales and less variation than in England. Undoubtedly, there are areas in Wales (possibly some rural areas) where the LEAs may not as yet have achieved the 90 per cent. level of provision which is the Welsh average--just as there are other parts of Wales that have exceeded that 90 per cent. level. The Minister will be aware that there are transport difficulties in many isolated and remote villages.
The Minister claims that the quality of the provision could be improved in certain parts of Wales. The Welsh LEAs have always stressed the importance of improving the quality. It seems to me that the Minister has failed in his letter to provide good reasons for imposing in Wales an untested scheme which puts the whole nursery system, which is of good quality, at the risk of being seriously impaired.
For years we have been told repeatedly by this Government that additional resources, when available, should be targeted on those areas of greatest need. Wales is a small country. Surely it should be possible for the Welsh Office to address local problems in the provision of nursery education where they exist without the need for the extreme and potentially damaging solution proposed by the Bill.
I believe that the Government's principal aim in Wales is the expansion of parents' choice. That was one of the chief points raised by the Minister in his speech at Second Reading, and he returned to it repeatedly in his letter of 12th June. We have not been given evidence of dissatisfaction with the present system on the part of parents in Wales; we have not been given evidence of a demand for an alternative provision. Nor have we been given an estimate of how many parents are likely to opt-out of the LEA provision and how that might affect existing services. The Government simply insist on the principle that there must be room for choice. There is another principle which matters in a free society. The
This is a simple amendment. This afternoon there was debate as to whether an amendment was a wrecking amendment. This is a compromise. If the compromise is acceptable to the Government it will go a long way to establish whether or not our fears are justified. It requires the Welsh Secretary to proceed carefully and to undertake the experimental scheme to evaluate the impact of the voucher scheme on existing provision. For all of the organisations and parents in Wales with a special interest in nursery education that evaluation is very important. It will show whether our fears are justified. If so, it will be hard for any government to ignore the warning.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: I support this amendment, which is not a wrecking amendment. In its relevant part, it is a wrecking Bill. As my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies and the noble Lords, Lord Hooson and Elis-Thomas, have pointed out, there is general satisfaction in Wales with the scheme as it is presently operated. Earlier I listened to the words of the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin of Bewdley. He said that it might be of benefit--I respectfully concur--if we proceeded in these matters on a substratum of measurable facts. We know the measurable facts. The noble Lords, Lord Elis-Thomas and Lord Hooson, and I do not always agree on everything. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and I always agree on everything. The one thing that is known by everyone who has any connection with the education system in Wales is that at the moment the public provision is extremely popular. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, said that this was a marvellous scheme and it would prove to be immensely popular. We have an immensely popular scheme at the moment.
I am not normally the recipient of unsolicited correspondence, but I have had an enormous postbag of petitions and individual letters, which are not the usual mimeographed letters nor single letters written in red ink and underlined in green. They are sensible letters from people who know what they are talking about and who are passionately concerned about the nursery education of their children. The figures have been given by the noble Lords, Lord Elis-Thomas and Lord Hooson. They provide extremely powerful ammunition.
I regret to say that we are faced with the triumph of dogma, or a kind of unreconstructed Stalinism, which implies that the centre always knows best. This is not a party political argument. The fact is that there are six Conservative Members of Parliament in Wales at the moment who have majorities which range from 19 to
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: We on these Benches support the amendment. I plead with the Minister to take away and consider the need to work with the brand new local education authorities in Wales. What better example can the Minister have of an opportunity to work co-operatively with those new authorities? The Minister referred to the fact that authorities had not come forward. There was an enormous upheaval in Wales. Why not extend the spirit of partnership and co-operation?
Lord Henley: I start by assuring the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, that we keep in close touch with colleagues in the Welsh Office. Colleagues in the Welsh Office were actively involved in the Bill. The noble Lord will be aware that when the Bill was introduced in another place my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales was one of those whose name was attached to that Bill. The Welsh dimension has always been important. I also assure the noble Lord that we will continue to discuss these matters very closely where they relate to Wales or to Welsh matters. I assure him that my right honourable and honourable friends in the Welsh Office will read very carefully all that has been said on this occasion and take note of it.
I do not argue that any of the amendments debated this afternoon have been wrecking amendments. I said that one was partially wrecking, and that it was only partially wrecking for those with children who would be four next year. Nor do I believe that this is a wrecking Bill. We have no desire whatever to damage good provision in any way. We very much hope that we will not damage good provision. We simply wish to extend choice. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, I believe that we can extend choice without undermining the collective rights of those who do not wish to make use of that choice.
What we have before us this evening in this amendment is a call for the scheme to operate in Wales on a trial basis first. The Welsh Affairs Committee made a similar recommendation. However, I do not believe that there is a need for this. The initial phase in four authorities in England is testing the mechanics and the administrative arrangements. There will be a full evaluation which will include consideration of the effectiveness of the operational arrangements and so on, as we discussed earlier this afternoon. Clearly, that evaluation will inform the scheme in Wales as well as the scheme in England. I believe that a separate experimental phase would only serve to duplicate. The Welsh Affairs Committee
The Welsh Affairs Committee indicated that the absence of a Welsh pilot phase is seen by many as symptomatic of a lack of regard for the distinctiveness of education in Wales. As I stated in my letter to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davis, the Welsh dimension is not being ignored. Far from it. It will be taken fully into account. The Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales (ACAC) has given quite separate advice on desirable educational outcomes in Wales. Its advice is being considered by Welsh Ministers but the consultation document was well received. There will be bilingual vouchers and a specific helpline for parents in Wales.
The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, asked me to expand on the funding arrangements for deductions for local authorities in Wales. The total cost of the scheme in Wales is expected to be £43 million and will be funded from a mixture of additional provision and the deduction from local authorities. Final decisions on the level of funding and the amount of additional provision in Wales will be taken in the light of public expenditure discussions in Wales. Local authority funding arrangements are different in Wales and there is no hypothecation of resources to particular services as there is in England. There is no specific SSA for education in Wales. Accordingly and recognising the higher level of nursery provision in Wales, my colleagues in the Welsh Office have decided there will be a transfer from local authorities at the all-Wales level and before distribution of local revenue settlement to individual authorities.
It would be invidious now for the Welsh Office to hypothecate funding in respect of education for four year-olds and there is no justification for setting aside longstanding arrangements which have been agreed with local authorities. The authorities that responded to the consultation paper issued by the Welsh Office favoured the all-Wales approach. That approach should ensure that authorities with a high level of discretionary spending are not disadvantaged. The precise sums to be transferred have yet to be decided but colleagues in the Welsh Office have given an assurance that it will not exceed the value of a voucher for a four year-old in a maintained school and, therefore, they should not lose out.
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