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Column 390

Rowe, Andrew

Rumbold, Mrs Angela

Ryder, Richard

Sainsbury, Hon Tim

Sayeed, Jonathan

Scott, Nicholas

Shaw, David (Dover)

Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')

Shelton, Sir William (Streatham)

Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)

Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)

Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)

Shersby, Michael

Sims, Roger

Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)

Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)

Soames, Hon Nicholas

Speller, Tony

Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)

Stanbrook, Ivor

Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John

Steen, Anthony

Stern, Michael

Stevens, Lewis

Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)

Stokes, Sir John

Sumberg, David

Summerson, Hugo

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Taylor, Ian (Esher)

Taylor, John M (Solihull)

Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)

Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman

Temple-Morris, Peter

Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret

Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)

Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)

Thorne, Neil

Thornton, Malcolm

Thurnham, Peter

Townend, John (Bridlington)

Tracey, Richard

Tredinnick, David

Trippier, David

Trotter, Neville

Twinn, Dr Ian

Viggers, Peter

Waddington, Rt Hon David

Wakeham, Rt Hon John

Waldegrave, Hon William

Walker, Bill (T'side North)

Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)

Ward, John

Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)

Warren, Kenneth

Watts, John

Wells, Bowen

Whitney, Ray

Widdecombe, Ann

Wiggin, Jerry

Wilkinson, John

Wilshire, David

Winterton, Mrs Ann

Wolfson, Mark

Wood, Timothy

Yeo, Tim

Younger, Rt Hon George

Tellers for the Noes :

Mr. David Lightbown and

Mr. Michael Fallon.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 33 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

Mr. Speaker-- forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.


That this House notes with approval that the Government is providing over four and a half billion pounds for child benefit this year and that it has carried out its statutory obligation to review the level of benefit each year ; and welcomes the additional resources to be provided from April for low income families with children.

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Pre-school Education and Child Care

Mr. Speaker : I must announce to the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

7.13 pm

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn) : I beg to move,

That the House welcomes the First Report of the Select Committee for Education, Science and Arts, on Educational Provision for the Under Fives ; believes that it should be the objective of both central and local government to ensure the steady expansion in provision of nursery education until it is available to all three and four year old children whose parents desire it for them ; calls upon Her Majesty's Government to ensure a thorough survey of the existing demand for the various forms of provision for under fives and to improve co-ordination between government and local authority departments ; welcomes the important contribution of the voluntary sector, including the playgroup movement ; and calls for higher provision for under fives in future public expenditure White Papers, and for the speedy implementation of the Select Committee's recommendations.

In December 1972, the Prime Minister, then Secretary of State for Education and Science, published a White Paper on education called "Education : A Framework for Expansion". It launched what it called a

"new policy for the education of children under five".

The White Paper said that it was

"the first systematic step to offer an earlier start in education".

It went on to say :

"The value of nursery education in promoting the social development of young children has long been acknowledged ... we now know that given sympathetic and skilled supervision, children may also make great educational progress before the age of five".

The White Paper spoke about the 1967 report by the Plowden committee which had estimated that provision for 90 per cent. of four-year-olds and 50 per cent. of three-year-olds would be sufficient to meet demands. The White Paper said that the Government aimed that within the following 10 years

"nursery education should become available without charge within the limits of demand estimated by Plowden, to those children of three and four year old whose parents wish them to benefit from it." The White Paper said that circular 8/60--that infamous circular which prevented local authorities from expanding nursery education save where it was linked to returning teachers--would be withdrawn. It is now not 10 but 16 years since the publication of that White Paper. During that time the Conservative party has been in power for 11 years and Labour has been in power for five years. However, Labour in central Government, and since 1979 in local government, has sought to implement the Prime Minister's 1972 pledge, while the Conservative party, nationally and locally, has sought systematically to ignore it.

The question of what resources and commitment we as a community should give to the education and care needs of children under five is highly political. It is a test of any party's approach to the sanctity and cohesion of family life. The contrast between the record and commitment of the Labour party and the record of the Conservative party could not be more telling or more stark.

Nationally, the significant growth in the number of nursery places took place between 1975 and 1980 when Labour was in office and responsible for spending. During that period the proportion of under-fives with nursery places doubled from 10 per cent. to 20 per cent. There has never been a greater growth before or since, as table 2 of

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the Select Committee report shows. In the eight years since 1980, the proportion of local authority nursery places has risen by just 3 percentage points to 23 per cent., less than a quarter of the annual rate of growth that the last Labour Government achieved.

It is perhaps a mark of the difference between the Labour party and the Conservative party that many of my hon. Friends are here for the debate while there are few Conservative Members. Apart from the parliamentary private secretaries and members of the Select Committee, there are just two free men on the Conservative Benches. Today a child in a Labour area has twice the chance of under-five care or a nursery place than a child in a Conservative or an SLD area. The number of overall nursery and under-fives places has increased over the past nine years by 100,000, but that still leaves a shortfall of 200,000 on the Prime Minister's target of what amounts today to 700,000 places.

The expansion in good quality provision has occurred principally in areas served by Labour authorities. The best 24 education providers for three and four-year-olds are all Labour-controlled. The 24 councils whose provision is poorest are either Conservative or Democratic, or are controlled by no single party. A child in Salford, Manchester, south Tyneside or Walsall has seven times the chance of a nursery or rising fives place than a child in Kent or west Sussex. Some Conservative-controlled authorities do better, and I pay tribute to them. However, other Conservative-dominated authorities have cut the number of places for the under-fives in the last eight years. They include Harrow, Kent, Havering, west Sussex, and Hereford and Worcester. Where are those areas' Members of Parliament?

Conservative local authorities have taken their lead from their party's national administration, whose record in respect of the under-fives has been of consistent and wilful neglect. The 1979 Conservative manifesto pledged support for family life. Just nine months later, that pledge was overturned by a insertion into the Education Bill 1980 removing the qualified duty placed on local education authorities under the Education Act 1944 to provide nursery education, and replacing it with a discretionary power so that, in the words of the First Report of the Select Committee, LEAs are under no duty

"even to have regard to providing education for under fives." That change was pushed into the law in 1980, not to encourage expansion of nursery education but to facilitate its annihilation. Conservative-controlled Oxfordshire county council, for example, proposed, as a result of public expenditure pressures, closing all 12 of its nursery schools and 16 nursery classes. The then Attorney-General advised that such action would be unlawful and outwith the authority's duties under the 1944 Act.

Faced with that situation, the Government--as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition pointed out at the time--had a choice between removing any vestige of duty and imposing a clear cut duty within the constraints of limited resources. They chose to remove that duty altogether. At that time, the present Secretary of State for Education and Science, a Back Bencher verging between sycophancy and rebellion, chose sycophancy and voted with the Government. Every year since then, local authorities have been set tighter and tighter financial guidelines by Ministers, including the right hon. Gentleman when he was Secretary of State for the Environment. It is no coincidence that there are among the

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24 best local authorities for educational provision many that have been rate-capped--punished financially for caring about the under-fives.

In 1987, the Government decided to tax the benefit of private workplace nurseries, making it virtually impossible for any more to open. Last year, the Government signalled the end of any positive nursery education policy, for there was nothing on that aspect in the Education Reform Bill. On 22 March 1988, at the Bill's Report stage, Labour sought to remedy that by introducing a new clause giving effect to the Prime Minister's pledge of 1972 and repealing the infamous section 24 of the Education Act 1980. No right hon. or hon. Member advanced any argument against the proposed new clause, but the Government voted it down. I regret that every Conservative Member of the Select Committee went into the Lobbies with the Government.

Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury) : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the Select Committee's report, but it is improper to debate it without making any reference to important comments made by the Committee as to the reasons why certain local authorities have done much better than others in terms of quantity of nursery provision. The report points out that when social factors indicate a high level of need, that is likely to lead to a high level of block grant for that authority. It points out also that it was an objective of the 1972 White Paper that growth should be most rapid in areas of greatest need. We know that, by and large, Labour- controlled authorities serve those areas of greatest need, and they accordingly receive the largest block grants and assistance under urban development programmes, and so on. The hon. Gentleman cannot ignore that.

Mr. Straw : I do not ignore it, but the most important factor in determining whether a child has a good or bad chance of receiving nursery education is whether the local authority is Conservative or Labour- controlled. Does the right hon. Gentleman dispute that? Bristol is an area of great social need, as it was during the 1970s. Then, a Labour Government offered Avon county council, which was Conservative-controlled, hundreds of thousands of pounds to expand nursery education, but Avon refused to take a penny. Many other Conservative-controlled authorities would not take the money that they were offered in the 1970s, even though they served areas of acute social need.

The day after every Conservative Member voted down our proposed new clause to the Education Reform Bill, the Earl of Arran, speaking for the Government in the House of Lords, produced an epitaph for any suggestion that the Government support nursery education. He said : "This objective, which was adopted in good faith in 1972, has long since been abandoned."-- [ Official Report, House of Lords, 23 March 1988 ; Vol. 495, c. 178.]

Tonight's motion has been drawn in its entirety from the Select Committee's recommendations, and is designed to put the authority of the House behind them. If Conservative Members of the Select Committee mean what they say-- and I believe that they do--it is incumbent upon them to vote with us. The Government amendment, by deleting all reference to the Select Committee's recommendations, seeks to reject them. It avoids making any mention of a financial support target.

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