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Mr. Robin Squire: I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend's flow, but the figures have been made public. In the first year, we are providing £165 million of new money in phase 1, and £390 million is being provided over the three years. My hon. Friend will recognise that it is not possible to predict exactly how many additional places there will be, but more will be provided in response to the money.

Mr. Forman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That makes me feel considerably better than I did a few moments ago. Those substantial sums could do a power of good for the children concerned. It is important that we should know that.

I should report to the House that I visit all the schools in my constituency as frequently as I can. On a recent visit that I made to Bandon Hill primary school in Wallington, the head teacher, the staff, the classroom assistants and all the parents who introduced themselves to me were almost unanimous in their view. They were worried and sceptical about the implications of the scheme, although it is possible that they did not have the full facts. They urged me to make that point to the House, and that is exactly what I am doing this evening.

I had the chance to speed-read new clause 3, and I paid attention to what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris) said in her brief opening speech. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West(Dr. Hampson) said in an intervention, one of its weaknesses is that many of the paragraphs in subsection (2) of the new clause make the local education authority effectively judge and jury in its own cause.

Although there is a provision for consultation, to which the hon. Lady referred, I know from my own local authority--alas, under Liberal control--that local authorities' idea of consultation is to put out some expensive documents and go through the motions of listening, but the real parental influence is very small, so it usually turns out to be an expensive sham. If the hon. Lady is resting on that element of her argument, I think it is a fragile foundation.

My scepticism, as I say, goes back 20 years. I am glad to hear from the Minister that genuine extra money will be forthcoming. I hope that it will create useful new nursery places. If it satisfies that criterion, I shall reluctantly support him in the Lobby--but it will need to do that. I hope that the Minister will keep a close eye on developments.

Mr. Iain Mills (Meriden): I tabled new clause 5, whose objective is similar to that of new clause 3. The Minister will not therefore be surprised to learn that, for reasons that I shall outline briefly, I shall be joining those voting for new clause 3.

I am distraught at the idea that a Conservative Government are not listening to parents. I have explained to the Secretary of State and to the Minister that, in my constituency, almost every parent of a nursery school

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child has contacted me to tell me that they are highly satisfied with Solihull's current provision of nursery education. Whatever colleagues may say about local authorities, providing £1,800-worth of valuable education is a lot better than introducing a national voucher worth £1,100. The local education authority provides that service voluntarily; it is already strapped for cash by the Government under its standard spending assessment calculation. The money comes from council tax payers, not from the Government. Now, this Government, whom I loyally support, are saying that they intend to impose a system that is bureaucratic, expensive and open to fraud. The parents in my constituency do not want it, and I consider it nothing short of madness.

By all means introduce vouchers for LEAs that are not providing enough nursery education, but it is quite wrong to force the scheme on us and on other LEAs that are doing a fine job. There has not been enough consultation. According to the press, the pilot schemes have run into a great many problems. Forcing through the new scheme by April 1997 will amount to another Dangerous Dogs Act. This rush for nursery vouchers is wholly misguided.

What does the Minister think that I should say to parents? I intend to vote against a scheme that they do not want. Is it a fair, just or democratic solution? Is it Conservative? The Minister cannot talk about parental choice at the same time as countenancing the forced introduction of this scheme for local authorities such as the one in Solihull. The authority is not against private provision. Perhaps the private sector will eventually provide enough high-quality places--but certainly not by April 1997.

Perhaps I should not get so excited, but I am worked up on behalf of the thousands of parents who have contacted me about this issue. [Interruption.] The Minister is talking to his private parliamentary secretary, but I hope that he will listen to the rest of my short speech. I am grateful to him for answering my parliamentary questions and letters. He is a charming Minister, but how can he compare £1,800-worth of provision with £1,100?

6.45 pm

Mr. Robin Squire: I do not need to. Parents will.

Mr. Mills: I must point out that the provision already exists in Solihull. The Minister is going to charge parents more money for what they already have.

Mr. Squire indicated dissent.

Mr. Mills: Well, I do not see how the extra £700 will be created.

Mr. Riddick: The money will remain in the hands of local authorities, which will then be able to top up provision for those parents.

Mr. Mills: That is fine in theory. The briefing note says that the SSA for the under-fives from which the deduction is made


Solihull's achievements in teaching reading, writing and arithmetic to three-and-a-half-year-olds have been brilliant, but the under-fours cost 100 per cent. more than other groups, so the money cannot later be recouped.

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I have been asked to leave time for the Minister to sum up, and I am sure that colleagues would like to add their contributions--

Mr. Pawsey rose--

Mr. Mills: I shall give way only because my hon. Friend is indeed a long-standing friend.

Mr. Pawsey: I have some correspondence from the Department for Education and Employment dated11 March, in which it says:


I suspect that my hon. Friend will find that reassuring.

Mr. Mills: I always value my hon. Friend's advice and find his company extremely pleasant. He will forgive me if I differ on this occasion. Every year, I have been told by Education and Environment Ministers that Solihull's SSA will improve, and every year it has got worse. That is part of the problem: the SSAs do not contribute enough money. I wonder whether my good and hon. Friend understands that Solihull is such a good education authority that more than 1,000 pupils from Birmingham, Coventry and Warwickshire are on its books.

I understand that a small amount of new money--about £20 million--is to be spent on administration.

Mr. Squire: Inspection.

Mr. Mills: If I carry on much longer I shall be shot at dawn--I do not know whether the Minister would like that. Can he give me one good reason why our well-loved, efficient, nationally reputed scheme, which is supported by all parents, should be abandoned in favour of the new one? Why cannot Solihull opt out?

Mr. Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston): I cannot beat that. I wish that more Conservative Members were willing to speak out on behalf of the parents who have contacted them, just as they have contacted me in my constituency.

The benefits of nursery education are well known. I had thought that they were accepted on both sides of the House, but I began to doubt that while serving on the Standing Committee throughout February. Research in the United States has shown that the money spent is returned four times over in the lifetime of the recipients of nursery education, but that effect will not be achieved in a watered-down system. That seems to be what the Government are intent on perpetrating on local authorities that already provide high-quality, proper education.I support new clause 3 to defend that high quality, which has been built up carefully over many years and is an investment in the future of the nation.

Both matters covered by the Bill--nursery education and grant-maintained schools--show the Government's persistent short-termism. Manufacturing industry, the health service and now children's education are suffering under the short-term policies of the Government.

We all want to give parents choice, but not to the detriment of the education of our children. If the Bill were to provide high-quality nursery education for all children, it would have everybody's full support. If it were to provide

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high-quality education and a chance for parents to choose additional playgroup hours, it would also have everyone's support. We do not want high-quality nursery education replaced by playgroups. Some parents, through necessity, may choose longer hours instead of quality. The Government should finance schemes to assist parents to find suitable child care or playgroups. Aiming finance in that direction would stimulate provision, but it is not acceptable to damage existing high-quality nursery education.

The provision of nursery education varies greatly throughout the country. Where it exists, it is integrated into the statutory education system and is an integral part of the infant school years of children who benefit from the cohesion and continuity that the direct links between nursery education provision and statutory education bring. The Government are suggesting a very different scheme, which can be worth while, but not as a replacement for quality nursery education.

New clause 3 would give parents the chance to make an informed and constructive choice. It would give choice to head teachers and voluntary organisations. For an LEA to opt out of the Government scheme, three quarters of local councillors would have to agree. In most cases, that would require cross-party agreement. In Hounslow, that would not be the case at the moment, but the Tory group leader has already said that he supports the retention of Hounslow's nursery education.

I asked in Committee what commercial company would risk damaging a successful part of its business, as the Government will with the nation's existing nursery education. No answer was forthcoming. Why are the Government persevering with the Bill? None of the answers rings true, so there must be another one. The hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) and for Meriden (Mr. Mills) have asked the same question.We understand that the Government must be attracted to the idea of sending out vouchers worth £1,100 to parents of four-year-olds. On Second Reading, I said that they might as well stamp "Vote Conservative" on the vouchers. That is the only possible explanation of why the scheme is being hurried through so quickly. I am sad to have to say that in a debate about the education of our children.

Why should a Labour Member of Parliament care about electoral prospects of Conservative Members? I care very much about the parents, and the future of our children, because they are the responsibility of us all. Why are the Government risking the futures of some Conservative Members of Parliament in areas with a high quality of nursery education, as two of them have described tonight? I do not understand. I beg the Government to have another think about the Bill and not to do dreadful damage to existing provision.


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