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Mr. David Sumberg (Bury, South): I shall be brief.In the roll call of honour of the local authorities that provide good nursery education--Calderdale and others have been mentioned--Bury should be included. It provides good nursery and reception class education and I pay tribute to the local authority, which is not of my persuasion, and to the governors, teachers and parents.

I oppose new clause 3 and shall support the Government for two reasons. I believe that it is right in principle to give the freedom of choice that the Bill would provide.I attended a meeting with local head teachers of primary

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schools in my constituency recently and argued that case with them. The pilot scheme, too, is right, because whenever the Government have proposed legislation in the past, the cry has always been for pilot schemes.

I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to reassure me on two points, and I make those points conditional. First, can my hon. Friend assure me that the pilot scheme is genuine? I told my head teachers that it was; that lessons will be learnt from it; and that, if errors and inconsistencies are found, changes will be made. I ask my hon. Friend to give me that assurance.

Secondly, in specific terms, I have been told by my hon. Friend and his Department that, when this scheme comes into operation in Bury in 1997, if the same number of children who attended school in 1996 turn up in 1997, there will be no loss of funding--not one single penny--for the local authority of which my constituency is part. Will my hon. Friend assure me that that will be so in 1997 and in the years that lie ahead? Will my hon. Friend assure me--I accept that the arrangements will be subject to the elements of local authority funding--that the scheme will make no difference whatever to the funding arrangements for the people whom I represent? On that assurance--that parents will be no worse off and some may be better off, depending how the scheme works--and on the answer about the pilot element, I will support the Government.

Mr. Robin Squire: It is not surprising that there has been much scaremongering tonight, mainly from Opposition Members, about the alleged effect that the voucher scheme will have on local authority funding. Frankly, I remain at a loss, having had discussions for months now, to understand why Opposition Members appear genuinely to believe that nursery vouchers might damage existing good provision. Let me make it clear--they will not. I shall spend the short time available spelling that out.

If LEAs are offering a good and popular service, parents will continue to choose that service--obviously, reasonably and intelligently--and nothing will change. No school will be forced to take more children. No school will be forced to change its admission arrangements. We are not forcing schools to undertake activities that the best have not already seized with both hands. What we are doing--it lies at the heart of the debate and is no doubt why Opposition Members continue to use scaremongering tactics--is allowing parents to choose in a way that they have never been able to in the past.

New clause 3, moved by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Ms Morris), would give every local authority the opportunity to exempt itself, for a financial year, from any of the grant arrangements set out in the Bill. The new clause sets out the conditions and circumstances in which an authority can activate that exemption.

Like my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman), I wish to stress that the new clause would require consultation with parents. That is an improvement on what was suggested in Committee. The new clause would even involve consultation with the private and voluntary sectors, but at heart it is still about putting local authorities back in the driving seat for the

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development of local nursery education facilities. All the new clause would require is consultation. There is no mention of any sector apart from the LEA sector playing a decisive role and, of course, there is no mention of a requirement on the local authority to obtain the agreement of those other sectors.

I said over and over, especially in Committee, that we want to put power in the hands of parents and, far from the Bill being a nationalising, centralising measure, it is the greatest decentralisation of all. Let parents decide what is best for their child. Let parents decide whether their child will flourish in the more informal surroundings of pre-school or a more structured environment. We want choice for all parents, not just for those who live in areas whose authorities have chosen not to exempt themselves from the scheme. There is nothing to prevent more local authorities from developing and publishing plans, and I trust that good, forward-looking authorities will do that now. We do not need legislation for that, but we do need legislation to ensure that parents are in the driving seat.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills), who tabled new clause 5, that none of us wants participation in nursery education to decrease. Indeed, as I have spelt out--for instance, in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington--we are providing significant new funds to expand nursery education rather than reducing it. There is already a healthy variety of nursery provision, but I want it to be extended still further.As we have made clear time and again, every parent of a four-year-old will have the power to reinforce the decision on where that child should receive nursery education.

7 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden asked me two specific questions. Let me make it clear that no one is forcing a change in the existing provision if parents do not want it. If parents strongly support local authority provision--my hon. Friend made clear the excellence of Solihull's current provision--they need not oppose the voucher scheme; they can simply take their vouchers to the local authority school of their choice, which will give it the maximum buttressing. Moreover, they can tell their friends about it.

Let me tackle a linked point that was made by bothmy hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley(Sir D. Thompson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg). Local education authorities do not need to attract extra pupils to make the voucher funding mechanism cash neutral: they need only continue to fill the same number of places. Indeed, if they attract one more pupil, they will be in pocket. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley, as a good Yorkshireman, will appreciate that.

Let me explain to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden that the top-up that was referred to is, in effect, the extra money that still lies with his local authority--£700. At present, the authority spends that money on providing the excellent nursery education that my hon. Friend mentioned, and it will continue to be able to do so. As for the £20 million that my hon. Friend said was spent on administration, it is spent overwhelmingly on inspection, and will ensure that more than 12,000 providers that are not currently inspected will be. I hoped that hon. Members on both sides of the House would welcome that.

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Local authorities will not need to close nursery schools or classes, or change their admission arrangements, as a result of the voucher scheme. Local management of schools will enable voucher income to be passed to schools, so local authorities will not even need to change the way in which they fund those schools. I accept that, at this precise moment, I cannot persuade my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden, but I hope that he will think about what I have said. I assure him that parents and schools in his constituency have nothing to fear.

Amendment No. 3 is intended to ensure that local authority resources will not be reduced in total as a result of the voucher scheme. That goes back over ground that we discussed in Committee. In effect, the amendment would give a blanket protection to all LEAs. Although I am sympathetic in principle to the idea of ensuring that local authorities do not lose money, I will not countenance an amendment that would ensure that they retain resources for ever and a day, even when their provision is not good and parents have determined to use alternative providers.

I am at a loss to understand the intentions of amendments Nos. 4 and 11. Nursery education is not compulsory; the Secretary of State cannot prejudge parents' decisions, and would not wish to do so. While there are some 660,000 children aged four in England alone--that figure varies from term to term--I see little point in laying an annual report before Parliament setting out the number of children for whom funded nursery education has been provided.

Amendment No. 12 includes the word "evaluation". My hon. Friends the Members for Bury, South and for Carshalton and Wallington rightly drew attention to the importance of learning lessons from phase 1, and I assure them that we shall do so. Only two aspects of the scheme are different--the funding mechanism and the inspection regime. On the funding mechanism, we shall be in an excellent position to draw lessons not just from the first term of the scheme, but from the second term, which will begin in September. That will inform us about the mechanisms under which vouchers are redeemed and issued. I am pleased to say that--contrary to comments by Opposition Members--phase 1 is going very well, and the number of providers is up.

I am sorry to have spoken for so long, but a good deal is contained in the new clauses and amendments that we are discussing. I ask the House to reject them, because they are unnecessary and unreasonably delay the advent of the universal nursery education that I assume is wanted by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

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