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Ms Morris: The hon. Member is respected on both sides of the House for his efforts in education, but he should listen

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carefully and read the new clauses and amendments. I said clearly that local authorities would be expected to develop a plan and work in conjunction with the voluntary and private sectors to ensure that high-quality nursery education was provided and its standard maintained. There never has been any suggestion--on Second Reading, in Committee, or even now, on Report--that the future for nursery education lies only in local authority provision. The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) would like us to return to those dark ages.

The new clause is designed to put on the agenda our desire for top-quality nursery education. It also acknowledges the wealth of experience and skill of local authorities, which have done the job and provided nursery education despite the Government. Under the new clause, those authorities would be allowed to make a local decision to opt out of the voucher scheme and, according to their discretion, produce a plan to do the job as they see fit.

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley): I am from Calderdale. In 1977, I was chairman of the education committee that devised the system that has just received such praise from the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris). I do not think that the Bill will do anything to damage that system. In fact, I am sure that it will enhance it. The local authority can still devise a plan to work with the private sector, as the hon. Lady has suggested. Calderdale has not, however, yet devised a plan to work with the grant-maintained sector.

Many working women want more flexible nursery provision than can be provided by the maintained sector. If the hon. Lady thinks that the Bill could have been framed differently, she and her party should have encouraged representatives of Calderdale to sit next to the Secretary of State and advise her. In fact, her party drove Calderdale away from consultation. The authority should have been party to the voluntary consultation.

In an effort to be brief, I put the following questions to the Minister. Can he allay the fears of my constituents about the loss of income? As far as I can see, the Bill will provide for increased income--one more child means 1,100 quid in the kitty. Can he allay their fears about the ability to plan forward? Given that the current system operated by Calderdale is so well run and maintained,I cannot see why such fears have been expressed. Can he allay their fears about the registration system being sufficiently flexible? People will then know their rights when they come to register and take their chits to the headmaster promptly. Will my hon. Friend meet some of my constituents to discuss the finer points of the scheme?

Mrs. Mahon: Before I state my specific reasons for supporting new clause 3, it is worth while commenting on the extraordinary behaviour of the Secretary of State in the media today. She said that those who are against nursery vouchers were "pathetic". I do not think that the people of Halifax, the local education authority or people up and down the country deserve that insult. We are expected to believe that the Secretary of State is the moderate, sensible voice in what is increasingly becoming an authoritarian party. She told millions of listeners today, however, that she favoured the nursery voucher system because it gave parents "choice"--something which she accused Opposition parties of wanting to deny to them.

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I am receiving dozens of petitions, almost daily, from people of Halifax and Calder Valley--the very constituents of the hon. Member for Calder Valley(Sir D. Thompson). They state clearly in their petitions that they want to exercise choice. One such petition states:

    We therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education to exempt Calderdale from the Nursery Voucher System altogether, as Calderdale is already a high provider of good quality Nursery and Reception education. We believe it would be more appropriate to concentrate on providing adequately funded state nursery and reception places for all children."

Those are not my words or the words of any political party. The petition was from a group of parents whose children attend the Shade primary school in the Calder valley, which I am sure is well known to the hon. Member for Calder Valley.

Petitions are coming in from all over Halifax and the Calder valley. Parents are saying loud and clear,"We demand the right to choose what is best for our children." We should challenge the Minister to give them that choice by supporting new clause 3. I am slightly disappointed that it seems that the hon. Member for Calder Valley will not be joining us in the Lobby tonight. The Secretary of State and the Minister can hide behind warm words for only so long. The people of Britain are telling them loud and clear what they want.

6.30 pm

In Calderdale, all children are entitled to a year of full-time schooling in the school year in which they have their fifth birthday. A local organisation, Schools Against Vouchers in Education--SAVE--has produced an excellent fact sheet, which is being posted through every door. I shall quote it at some length, as I want to put the facts on record. It states:

that is a very high figure--

SAVE is not a political organisation. Its supporters come from all political parties and vote across the spectrum. It continues:

That is clear from the fact sheet. It then explains some of the costs in Calderdale:

    The voucher will be worth £1,100. This is not enough for a full time place. It costs £2,256 per child"--

Mr. Pawsey: Top-up.

Mrs. Mahon: The hon. Gentleman says, "Top-up."I wish that he would come and see some of the schools in my constituency, where there is all-party support for extra funding.

Mr. Pawsey: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Mahon: No. Anyone who makes that kind of sedentary intervention clearly does not have the good of children at heart. It was a ridiculous intervention.

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The document continues:

    For most children in Calderdale the £1,100 voucher is not new money."

As SAVE makes clear:

Local people are telling the Government that they do not want the new scheme. They are happy with what the council is doing, and they know that the council is working very hard to improve nursery provision from70 per cent. to 100 per cent., as is available in Solihull.

Head teachers, teachers, governors and councillors of all political parties are campaigning to stop vouchers being introduced in Calderdale. Similar campaigns are being set up by schools all over the country. We believe that Calderdale and other local authorities should be allowed to opt out if they wish to continue providing an excellent service.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Mahon: I am sorry, but time is short, and I want to conclude. I am making the case for Calderdale on behalf of the people who are launching the SAVE campaign. The facts are all there. It has taken 20 years, using ratepayers' money and getting all-party agreement, to provide a high standard of nursery education.I challenge the Minister to listen and learn, and the Government can do that by accepting new clause 3.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington): I hope to astound you by my brevity, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am grateful for having been called to speak. I come rather late to the debate on the Bill, and I apologise to the House for that. On the other hand, I have taken an interest in education for almost as long as I have been adult and sentient, and that interest has not yet departed from me.

One of my first ever speeches in the House, when my party was in opposition, was sceptical, if not critical, of a move towards vouchers in state education. That was in 1976. In one sense, I have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing, but in another I have clung to a sceptical view on the matter.

As I understand it, new clause 3 concerns how we carry forward the expansion of nursery education in Britain. There are currently four pilot projects--three in London and one in Norfolk. My first thought is that, if they are genuine pilot projects, it would be greatly preferable if we could take a bit longer to build up the empirical evidence to find out whether or not it is a good idea. I am not in favour of rushing such matters, and I should like to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister why he thinks it is so necessary and expedient to go ahead so fast from the pilot phase to the full-blown phase.

I remember the arguments 20 years ago--nothing has changed fundamentally--that vouchers are supposed to be an empowering measure to give parents greater choice and flexibility to do well by their children. However, it is important that the House should be told tonight--even if it has been told in Committee, whose debates I have not had

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the chance to follow as closely as I should--how much extra money will flow from the new arrangements, allowing for any clawback, and how many additional places will be created for the nursery education of our children.

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