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Column 875Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. Timothy Wood and
Mr. James Arbuthnot.
Question accordingly negatived.
.--(1) A local authority may, by amending a scheme for the establishment of community councils under section 52 of the 1973 Act or in proposing a new scheme under section 22 of this Act, make provision for the exercise by a community council of any of its functions in the area covered by that community council.
(2) It shall be competent for a community council to undertake any activity which it reasonably considers to be in the best interests of the residents of the area covered by the community council, except to the extent that the function has been statutorily assigned to another body and has not been included in a scheme in pursuance of sub-section (1) above.
(3) It shall be competent for a community council to own heritable property in Scotland, and title to such property shall vest in the chairman, vice- chairman and clerk of the community council, ex officio and trustees.'.-- [Mr. Wallace.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
and about the proposed number and powers of future community councils within their area.'.
Mr. Wallace : The purpose of the new clause is to stress the importance of community councils in the government of Scotland. As constituency Members, many of us know that they play an important role in the community, particularly in channelling the views of communities to their local Members. That is certainly the case in my constituency. Since the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, there have been developments, not only in rural areas, but in a number of urban areas, and very often areas where, without community councils, it would be difficult to focus on a community view.
The purpose of the new clause is not in any way intended to limit the purpose and functions of community councils set out in section 51(2) of the 1973 Act. Indeed, it seeks to take community councils further than that. It would recognise that functions, which, under statute, are primarily the function of the new unitary authorities, could be discharged by a community council. That already happens in some areas--for example, some recreational responsibilities and the upkeep of cemeteries, and that is a way in which community councils can raise additional income. The new clause also seeks to have a power of general competence to supplement the current statutory responsibilities of community councils. In that way, I would hope that they would become a much more potent power in their own areas and that they would have an increasing opportunity to make representations to a number of statutory bodies. The Government have acknowledged that community councils should at least be consulted on the decentralisation proposals in the Bill.
Amendment No. 6, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D.
Column 876Steel), proposes that there should also be statutory consultation with community councils on their number and their powers in a given area in future. As the scheme presently stands, while there is a general responsibility on the new councils to consult the public about the creation of community councils in their area, there is no statutory requirement to consult existing community councils. My right hon. Friend's amendment would strengthen that position and give existing community councils a role with regard to consultation when new schemes for community councils are proposed.
There are other areas, too, in which it is important that community councils are involved. There is to be a statutory requirement to be involved in planning decisions, licensing applications, and proposals that might come from the Forestry Commission and the new water and sewerage authorities. I hope that the steps taken in the Bill to extend the statutory right of consultation can be taken further. We wish to clarify the position that community councils can hold heritable property. Why should not they buy premises if they have the funding to do so, or hold premises if they are bequeathed to them ? Why should not the officers of a community council in some parts of the highlands be allowed to hold that property on a trust basis for the community rather than having it done by the central council, perhaps many hundreds of miles away ? That is a simple point, but it would help to establish community councils more firmly in our scheme of arrangements for local government. They provide an important channel for the views of the communities that they represent. The new clause gives the House an opportunity to express its support for the network of community councils throughout Scotland.
Mr. Stewart : There will be a great deal of sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace). My first point, however, as I am sure he will recognise, is that not all community councils are capable of taking on an extended role. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent work in my constituency of many community councils, including Neilston, where I live, under its excellent chairman, Mr. Bill Reid. The role of community councils does vary, but we recognise, as does the hon. Gentleman, that local authorities must make the best use possible of the valuable resource that exists in the form of community councils. That is why we have given them, as the hon. Gentleman has recognised, new powers under the Bill : the statutory right to be consulted on draft decentralisation schemes ; and the statutory right to be consulted on local planning issues.
Guidance will be issued to the new authorities, encouraging them to keep community councils informed about local licensing issues. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman, however, that we do not see community councils as an alternative mechanism for service delivery. That is why I cannot recommend the new clause to the House.
On the hon. Gentleman's proposals in subsections (2) and (3), there is no legal bar to community councils being involved in those areas. I can confirm that to the hon. Gentleman. I understand the point of the subsections, but suggest that, in the light of the advice that I have given to him, they are unnecessary.
Mr. Wallace : With regard to subsection (1), in which I refer to functions currently exercised by councils, does the Minister accept that there may be occasions when some of the functions are carried out by community councils, such as maintenance of cemeteries, and that that already happens quite legitimately ?
On amendment No. 6, I have looked at the present legal position under the 1973 Act and clause 22 of the Bill. I believe that the provisions in the statute and the Bill adequately achieve the objective of ensuring that community councils have the opportunity to review their numbers and powers.
The hon. Gentleman asked me a specific question about community councils' ownership of property. I assure him that there is nothing to prevent them from owning property. I hope that that reassurance will be helpful to him. I do not think that there is any dispute in the House about the importance of community councils and the role that they can play. I think, however, that it is, and can be, variable and, in the context of the general good will towards community councils, which extends to all Members, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel able to withdraw his new clause.
Mr. Wallace : The Minister has gone a long way in clarifying those points, and there is much common ground between us. I have one query, which, perhaps, could be looked at in another place. The Minister said that community councils would have the opportunity to comment on any proposals for new councils. We were looking for a statutory right to be consulted, but that is something that can be looked at before the Bill is completed.
With those comments, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion. Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn .
(1) For section 1(2) of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, there shall be substituted
"(2) The duty imposed on an education authority by subsection (1) above shall include a responsibility to secure that educational provision is available for pupils between the ages of three and five years, either by
(a) the provision of nursery schools or nursery classes, according to guidelines issued by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools, or, where the authority considers the provision of such schools or classes to be inexpedient,
(b) it shall be their duty to manage the provision of pre-five educational services in other establishments such as day nurseries, pre-school playgroups, independent nursery schools and daycare centres within their area, with specific responsibility for securing the quality of staff training, accommodation and resources according to guidelines issued by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools, (c) any additional expenses incurred in pursuit of this duty shall be paid by the Secretary of State out of money provided by Parliament.".'.-- [Mr. Wallace.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
It shall be the duty of each local authority to draw up a scheme for the statutory provision of pre-five nursery places for all eligible children in that area and to specify a date for the implementation of such a scheme which will be submitted to the Secretary of State for final approval.'.
I think that it is generally agreed that there should be more nursery provision in Scotland and, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom. Last December, the Prime Minister stated his ambition "over time to move to universal nursery education".
Welcoming the publication of a statistical bulletin last month, the Under- Secretary, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas- Hamilton), said :
"The Government is committed to an extension of nursery and other pre- school provision in the public, private and voluntary sectors to allow a full range of options for all parents of pre-school children."
That motivation--which I suspect is shared by all parties--is well founded. In recent months, reports of United States studies have shown that those who have had a nursery education are less likely to be unemployed or to resort to crime in later life. Every £1 spent on nursery education today gives a sevenfold return in years to come. Apart from the benefits to society as a whole, nursery education provides individual children with an important benefit, unlocking a potential that can develop and blossom in future years. It gives them a different type of educational experience from that provided by school--a type more appropriate to their age. It may well also give an early warning of learning difficulties or other behavioural problems, thus allowing such problems to be tackled more effectively when the child is younger. It can also lay the foundations for a sound education, contributing in due course--we hope--to higher levels of numeracy and literacy.
Although those are all worthy objectives, one of the problems is insufficient provision. In a written answer to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mrs. Fyfe) on 3 May, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) said :
"It is estimated that 57,600 children under five years had places in local authority education or day care establishments at 31 March 1992."--[ Official Report , 3 May 1994 ; Vol. 242, c. 489 .] That was only 18 per cent. of children under five. As for the levels of provision of state nursery education in the member states of the European Union, it appears that only Portugal has a lower level than the United Kingdom.
Mr. Wallace : The hon. Gentleman should not tempt me too much. Provision in Scotland differs widely, from more than 51 per cent. in Lothian and Glasgow to only 16 per cent. in the Highland region and 3.3 per cent. in Argyll and Bute. There is no provision at all in the Western Isles : I thought that I had better add that information before the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) jumped to party conclusions. That suggests that access to the current range of nursery education is little more than a lottery, depending on where people live. From the earliest
Column 879age, children in Scotland are given unequal opportunities. The new clause would impose a statutory duty on local authorities throughout Scotland to address the problem.
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he accept that, in the imperfect world in which we live, there is one certainty--that nursery education should be available to all children with special needs ?
Nursery education is not the only means of serving young families and the educational needs of young children. There is a consensus that there should be a range of provision--playgroups, workplace nurseries, private child care and nursery arrangements and creches. All those have a contribution to make. Again, however, we need only look at different parts of Scotland to observe wide variations in provision, in terms of both availability and quality. The new clause addresses that aspect of pre-school education : it would give local authorities a statutory duty to manage the range of opportunities that should be available. I hope that, in that way, we could establish throughout Scotland the quality and availability of places for under-fives that are widely agreed to be necessary to get them off to a good start.
There's the rub--by which I mean finance. I quoted the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West earlier. He also said :
"These ambitions . . . must be tempered by reality and can only be brought about as resources become available. "
Some 20-odd years ago, Baroness Thatcher--then Secretary of State for Education--made a similar commitment, but did not will the resources. It is well known that my own party has not only made a commitment but been prepared to say that funds should be available to ensure that it is realised.
Mr. Dalyell : Earlier this month, many of us received hospitality from the Scottish Pre-School Play Association in the Members' Dining Room. One question was foremost in the minds of the association's members : what would happen to pre-school and nursery education if the regions ceased to exist ? How will the Minister answer that question ?
I think it very sad that previous local government legislation removed the statutory duty on local authorities to provide nursery education. We are attempting to ensure that local authorities give priority to such education.
The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) referred to special needs. As you well know, Madam Deputy Speaker, and as other hon. Members also know, I have a special interest in the matter. I believe that the early recognition of problems that children may have could best be ensured by making statutory provision for nursery education in all our local authority areas and by providing qualified and trained personnel to support children with special needs.
Column 880My training in special needs was on how to deal with children who were perhaps in their teens. It has always seemed to me--I think that this has been borne out by subsequent research--that if a child's problems are spotted early enough, that child will not become one of the difficult teenagers with whom many teachers must now deal. I believe that, as well as providing nursery education--particularly for children with special needs--we should ensure that those working with them receive the necessary training and support.
Of course, I should like every child to have the chance of nursery education. Very young children are like little sponges, absorbing a good deal of information and education and then blossoming. I agree that youngsters should go to school as early as possible and that the necessary facilities should be provided. We must also recognise that we live in a changing society. In my area, and, I suspect, in many other parts of Scotland, women are now often the family breadwinners because of the lack of employment. Therefore, it is important to provide nursery education so that women can reach out to their careers and become breadwinners. At present, far too many are on low wages and cannot afford private nursery facilities. We must remedy that problem in general. Women have an important role to play and the support of nursery education is important to them in terms of their family life.
Money has been mentioned, and the Government always say that we cannot afford nursery education. Yet yesterday we saw a paper on defence saying that we must crash ahead and buy as many Trident nuclear warheads as possible, as fast as possible. Yet in Scotland we cannot provide nursery education for our children. I ask the Government in all seriousness, "What are your priorities--nuclear warheads or children ?" We have already argued today about the need for a children Act for Scotland and the need to recognise the problems that children face, yet the Government's priority appears to be spending our money on the weapons of death.
Finally, I remind the Minister of what the Prime Minister wrote in his document "Access and Opportunity". He said :
"Scotland has a long and proud tradition of academic excellence. It is on this firm foundation that the Government have sought to build their reforms of education and training. We have backed these reforms with greatly increased resources. As a result, parents and their children now have opportunities that were simply not available to previous generations of Scots."
Those words ring hollow.
Mr. Davidson : It would be appropriate if the Minister said that he intended to move towards universal pre-five provision rather than, as I suspect will happen as a result of the reorganisation, cuts in pre-five services. The effect of the reorganisation will be that local authorities will be obliged to cut all the services that are not statutory. In those circumstances, the pre-five service, which is an important part of the provision in many areas, will be reduced. The Government should now publicly recognise the importance of the value that children get from pre- five provision.
Many hon. Members have touched on the subject, but I shall concentrate on the support that pre-five services provide to parents, especially single parents. Over the past year or so, the Government have spent a great deal of time lambasting single parents for being a charge on the community as a whole. Many single parents desperately want to work, but cannot make child care arrangements that would enable them to do so.
Column 881In my area, nurseries have been provided as part of the Govan initiative project, which has enabled many single parents who would otherwise have been unable to do so to go to work and to support their families, thus avoiding being a charge on the community. The Government should consider the cost of the reorganisation and ask themselves whether the people of Scotland would prefer that money to be spent on providing universal pre-five services or on a reorganisation that nobody wants. I believe that Scottish people would rather have pre-five services for all the children who need them.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked about pre-school provision after the reorganisation. The funding allocated for nursery education in the local government financial settlement is based on the numbers of children of nursery age in each authority area. So provided that the new authorities give the same priority to nursery education as do the existing authorities, there is no reason why they should not continue the service. Clearly, maximum continuity is desirable.
The Scottish Office position is that we seek an extension of nursery and pre-school provision. Our long-term goal is a full range of options to satisfy the requirements of all parents of pre-school age children. We have a good track record, but our ambitions must be tempered by reality. They can be brought about only as resources become available. We have to report considerable achievement. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) will realise, since the Government came to power the number of children attending nursery schools has increased from 31,700 to more than 48, 000--an increase of 52 per cent. Moreover, taking under-fives provision generally--I include nursery schools, day nurseries and pre-school playgroups in that grouping--authorities could, should they wish to target a particular age group, cater for almost 80 per cent. of the three and four -year-old population in Scotland.
The Government have declared their intention to explore ways of adding still further to the choice available to parents. We are determined that that will
Mr. Wallace rose
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : No doubt the hon. Gentleman wants to ask me about resources. Those are under consideration. Clearly it is a matter of top priority that the matter be considered most carefully.
We are determined to extend choice not only in the public but in the private and voluntary sectors. We have to guard against the danger that by favouring one element we may cause another to fall by the wayside. I know, for example, of the Scottish Pre-School Play Association's concerns that that should not happen.
New clause 28 refers to the report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of schools published on 21 February. That report supports our policy of choice and gives advice on the education of children under five in Scotland across the full range of provision. I believe that it will set the tone for pre-five education in the future and I commend its conclusions and recommendations to all parents and professionals involved in the education of young children.
The report provides a range of options, and does so with a specific intent. It leaves providers to decide what is most appropriate for their area. It would certainly not be appropriate to respond to that report by limiting the flexible
Column 882use of the advice given in the report by imposing a statutory provision that it must be followed regardless of particular circumstances, as the new clause would do.
Moreover, the effect of new clause 28 would be to make education authorities responsible for the management of educational services provided in establishments in the voluntary and independent sectors--in playgroups and private nursery schools. As I have said, our aim is for diversity and choice. New clause 28 recognises that that is a correct approach and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. However, safeguards through the involvement of education authorities under the Children Act 1989 and through the inspectorate report mean that the position is well protected as things stand. I should also make it clear that new clause 28 is defective in that it talks in terms of "educational provision" without clarifying what that means.
New clause 31 is defective in that it does not specify the meaning of "statutory provision", of "pre-five nursery places" or of "eligible children". It would also place the duty on the local authority as a whole rather than on the education authority--a somewhat unusual proposition. More important is the fact that the purpose of new clause 31 is obscure. Arrangements for the provision of nursery education by education authorities are flexible and can be provided for all children whatever their age. As I said earlier, decisions on such matters are very much for authorities to make in the light of local circumstances. Why, then, should we provide only for "eligible children ", whatever that may mean, or for the intervention of the Secretary of State ?
I find that strange
Mr. Wilson : Surely the Minister must accept that there must be some statutory minimum, so will he specifically address the point that I raised ? I am not arguing the case for children with special needs as against that of other children, but surely it must be right to make some provision in law for the children who are clearly most in need of pre-school education. Surely the Minister cannot maintain that there should be no statutory obligation to provide for any children at all.
"secure that there is made for their area adequate and efficient provision of school education and further education".
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : That is a matter of resources, as well as of the good will and intention of the authorities. A variety of different types of provision is presently on offer. As has been made clear by the Scottish Pre-School Play Association, it is in the public interest that the provision that they give should continue.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : I was about to deal with the hon. Lady's new clause. She wished to involve the Secretary of State in local decisions. It is strange that she should want to do that, unless she believes that the Secretary of State knows as much as education authorities about the need for nursery schools in particular areas,
Column 883having regard to such considerations as the availability of other forms of pre-school provision, or the specific needs of certain parts of an authority's area.
For those reasons, I invite the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland to withdraw his new clause and the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) not to press hers.
In the context of the provision for children with special needs in every community in Scotland, is the Minister satisfied that adequate provision is being made and resources provided to ensure that there are speech and occupational therapists and all the various groupings that are required to ensure that each child has his or her needs met ? I am certainly not satisfied, and I suspect from the tone of the arguments of other Opposition Members that those needs are not being met anywhere in Scotland.
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton : Social education needs are extremely important, and we have enormously expanded the resources for those with learning difficulties and acute learning difficulties. We acknowledge the importance of the support services in this connection and we expect that many authorities will wish to retain a comprehensive range of services within their own boundaries. In other cases, authorities may take advantage, for example, of the options for provision by joint arrangements with another authority, or through contracts with the voluntary sector.
It is clear, however, that the duty will remain with the education authority to whose area a child belongs. With regard to the size of authorities, Borders is a smaller authority than many, but it has an excellent record in that connection. We have not decided whether that will be the situation in the future in relation to children with special educational needs.
Mr. Wallace : We have had a useful opportunity to get the Government's position clearly on record, and we have had a lot of pious expectations and statements. Clearly, the point is that there are no resources, and authorities will not be able to deliver in anything like the way in which they ought to. I do not think that we will achieve anything by putting the matter to the vote, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.