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Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 5--Local authorities already providing nursery education--

'Nothing in this Act shall enable the Secretary of State to do anything (whether by reducing any funding however provided or otherwise) which would result, or would be likely to result, in a reduction in the proportion of children receiving nursery education in the area of any local education authority by comparison with the proportion of children receiving such education in that area at the time at which this Act enters into force.'.

Amendment No. 11, in clause 1, page 1, line 6, after '(1)' insert

'Subject to subsection (1B) below'.

Amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 7, at end insert--

'(1A) Nothing in subsection (1) above shall be taken to allow the Secretary of State to make arrangements which have the effect of reducing the resources available, whether in grants or otherwise, to any local authority in the first or any subsequent financial years of the operation of those arrangements.'.

Amendment No. 4, in page 1, line 7, at end insert--

'(1A) Where the Secretary of State proposes to exercise for the first time his power under subsection (1) above, he shall lay before Parliament a report detailing the amount of nursery education available in the area of each local education authority and the likely demand for places in nursery education once such arrangements are made.
(1B) The Secretary of State shall in each subsequent year to the year in which he lays the report under subsection (1A) above, lay before Parliament further reports outlining the effect of arrangements made under subsection (1) on the number of children for whom nursery education is provided in the area of each local education authority.'.

Amendment No. 12, in page 1, line 7, at end insert--

'(1A) The Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament an evaluation of the operation in any local education authority area of any arrangements under which grants are made otherwise than under this Act in respect of nursery education in the financial year 1996-97.
(1B) No arrangements may be made under subsection (1) above which have effect in any financial year commencing on or after1st April 1997 before the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament an evaluation of the kind referred to in subsection (1A) above'.

Ms Morris: The purpose of new clause 3 and the other new clause and amendments in this group is to allow local authorities to opt out of the voucher scheme in certain prescribed circumstances. Before such an opt-out would be allowed, a local authority would have to consult widely with parents, teachers, head teachers and early years education providers and agree an alternative scheme for the development or improvement of nursery education in its area. Further, the new clause would require three quarters of the elected authority members, voting in full council, to approve a resolution. In most cases, that resolution would effectively require a cross-party consensus.

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A similar new clause was moved in Committee.This one, however, differs in a number of respects.In particular, it requires that the

will be likely to be damaged without an opt-out.

Let us be clear about it: this option is likely to be used only by local authorities that are currently high providers of nursery education. Indeed, in Committee, talk about the option became commonly known as "the Solihull amendment". It is sad but true that, despite the best efforts of myself and other Opposition Members, and after weeks of discussions, the Government still fail to understand--or fail to admit that they understand--that this legislation will damage high providers. There is no doubt that the Solihulls, Dudleys and Calderdales, where provision is good, will be losers under this legislation.

Dr. Hampson: The whole problem with what the hon. Lady has said is contained in paragraph (c), which states:

provision, because "it" is the council. The chief inspector of schools has recently said that 40 per cent. of council or local authority primary schools are under-performing. Why should it be at the discretion of "it", the council--which is palpably failing this country--to determine what it thinks is the best form of nursery provision? Why cannot we allow parents and the people to determine what choices they want? If a council such as Solihull is offering a good option, people will choose it.

Ms Morris: The hon. Gentleman should read the new clause, because it makes it quite clear that an opt-out would not be allowed unless the widest consultation had taken place with the people to whom he has referred--parents, teachers, head teachers and those in the wider community. The notion that central Government--this Government, of all Governments--can deal with under-achievement when local authorities, which have been working against massive opposition from the Government, have not been able to do so, is absolutely unbelievable. The idea that the Government have the answer does not ring true. This opt-out would be allowed only after consultation, and it really is a case of trusting local people.

Solihull has been able to provide good-quality pre-school education for 100 per cent. of its four-year-olds and more than 70 per cent. of its three year-olds mainly because it has prioritised such provision, but also because it has been able to estimate its income, project its numbers for the next and subsequent years, and therefore use its staffing and buildings in an economical way.

The Bill pretends to be about extending nursery education provision, but let us make no mistake about it: not to agree these amendments will work against the claimed purposes of the proposals.

There is another, equally important reason for supporting the amendments: to decentralise decision making to the local level. The decision--in consultation with users and other people in communities--on how a local authority should provide nursery places can and should be taken locally.

The Bill represents a massive centralisation of power in the hands of the Secretary of State. If it is passed, the Secretary of State will determine one set of arrangements

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for the distribution, value and redemption of nursery vouchers, and she will determine which provision can be funded and which cannot.

Let us be clear that it has taken 17 years for the Conservative Government even to get round to doing anything about nursery education--they have certainly had a long time to think about it. The idea that, after17 years, they have come up with the one and only way of organising nursery education is preposterous. While the Government have done nothing for 17 years to advance nursery education, many local authorities, both Labour-controlled and Conservative-controlled, have got on and provided it in a variety of ways.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): That is exactly what has happened in Calderdale, where, for 20 years, all the parties have worked together, so that 70 per cent. of three and four-year-olds now receive good-quality nursery education. What the Government propose is authoritarian, bureaucratic and centralising.

Ms Morris: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Calderdale, the teachers, the local authority, parents and everyone else work in partnership. They should be congratulated on devising a system that works for them.I know that my hon. Friend will have been dismayed by the remarks of the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West(Dr. Hampson), who decried the high standards that have been achieved in Calderdale, Solihull and elsewhere.

The Labour party believes that those authorities that have developed their own way of providing nursery education, with no help from the Government in the past 17 years, should be allowed to get on with it. They have proved that it works, so let them carry on. Why disrupt something when it is already working well? Why force a local community down one road when it clearly prefers another? Why switch money from nursery places to paperchases, as the nursery voucher system does?

The Government talk long and hard about decentralising power. Last night, we heard Ministers argue that even building regulations should be left to local decision. They claim that they want to give power and influence to parents and autonomy to schools. If so, the Government should welcome the new clause and the associated amendments.

The new clause is not a wrecking amendment. It will demand the highest standards of local authorities, and require them to produce a plan to show how they will develop and maintain high-quality nursery education in conjunction with the voluntary and private sectors. At long last, the provision of high-quality nursery education is a shared aim of hon. Members. It is nonsense to suppose that there is only one way in which to make that wish a reality.

Mr. Pawsey: Does the hon. Lady not realise that she has just let the cat out of the bag with that sentence? Her own words condemn her. At a time when we are moving away from the idea that LEAs are the only acceptable means of providing education, and moving towards the provision of more and more grant-maintained schools, the hon. Lady would like us to take a massive step backwards. Why do we need to do that?

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