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Mr. Squire rose--

Mr. Foster: The Minister is no doubt about to say that the grant setting is already included. We may wish to widen the definition if we are to consider the use of modern technology and other things that may arrive in the not too distant future. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House would want a debate, followed by a decision, about the inspection arrangements. They are not currently included.

There seems to be some coming together of both sides of the House and I am grateful for that. Perhaps as the debate progresses there may be more. The real concern for many hon. Members is that the Bill gives a great deal of power to the Secretary of State without a real opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny. Unless our amendments are accepted, when the Bill reaches another place, the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee will have a field day.

Ms Estelle Morris: I am amazed that the Minister has turned down the opportunity for even more debates such as those that we have shared over the past few months in Committee. But he seems to have wasted that opportunity, which is disappointing. The Bill involves much detail, and the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) has given us a list of subjects that should have proper parliamentary scrutiny. Like him, I feel that those are issues that their Lordships may address when the Bill reaches them. But, for now, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North): I beg to move amendment No. 17, in page 1, line 7, after 'education', insert 'in England'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 19, in clause 8, page 3, line 17, leave out


'or Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools in Wales,'.

No. 20, in clause 10, page 3, line 30, leave out 'and Wales'.

No. 21, in schedule 1, page 4, line 14, leave out from 'England' to end of line 16.

No. 22, in page 4, line 27, leave out from 'England' to end of line 29.

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No. 23, in schedule 2, page 5, line 38, leave out from 'England' to end of line 40.

No. 24, in page 8, line 23, leave out


', civil servants in the Welsh Office'.

No. 25, in page 8, line 25, leave out 'or the Welsh Office'.

Mr. Dafis: The amendments would exempt Wales from the provisions of the Bill. I tabled them for several reasons--first, because many people asked for an exemption for Wales. The Parent-Teacher Associations of Wales specifically asked for one, and that is an important sign, because its members are not the educational establishment but the very people for whose children nursery and other educational provision is intended. Moreover, that association speaks with the same voice as the overwhelming bulk of opinion in Wales--not just the local education authorities but educationists, parents and the public at large. They all overwhelmingly oppose the introduction of nursery vouchers.

As for the voluntary sector, Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin opposes the idea in principle, and fears the Bill's effects on Welsh-medium education. Can the Minister give us any assurances on that aspect? The Select Committee report asks the Welsh Office--if, indeed, the scheme is applied in full--to monitor closely the effect of vouchers on Welsh-medium education.

The Welsh Language Board recently published the results of a survey showing that 50 per cent. of parents in Wales would choose Welsh-medium nursery education if the option were available. That is a fact of far-reaching significance. How do the Government propose to ensure that that wish of 50 per cent. of the parents of Wales can be met as we increase nursery school provision?

It must be admitted that the Wales Pre-School Playgroups Association supports the scheme in principle. After all, it has a particular interest in doing so, because the scheme would make playgroups a more attractive option in comparison with local authority nursery classes than they are now. But even that body has expressed important reservations, because it is concerned that the scheme's benefits may be eroded if insufficient resources are made available. If that happens, it does not see how it could make the necessary capital investment in improved provision.

Mr. Win Griffiths: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, because the report from the office of Her Majesty's chief inspector said that about three quarters of the settings in which playgroups operated were not of a sufficient standard. The Wales Pre-School Playgroups Association expressed strong concern about the need for capital funding if playgroups were to be eligible for the scheme. And so far as I know, the Minister has given no assurance on the subject.

Mr. Dafis: No, indeed. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention, even though he has used up the next sentence of my speech. It would certainly be interesting to hear whether the Minister is prepared to give any kind of undertaking.

I emphasise again what the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) has already said--that the inspector's report on nursery provision in Wales emphasised the high quality of provision by local authorities in nursery schools

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and classes, and showed how superior it was, by and large, to the provision in the voluntary and private sectors. There was consultation on the Welsh Office proposal, but although there was no suggestion of any support, the Government insisted on going ahead in the face of overwhelming opposition.

My next reason for tabling the amendments is that legislation on education matters should always be specific to Wales. That is a matter of principle. The Bill does not apply to Scotland; that is the regular pattern of things.I simply ask: if the Bill does not apply to Scotland, why should it apply to Wales? In all kinds of areas, we must move towards parity with Scotland.

Circumstances and tradition in Wales are radically different from those in England. That is why we need a parliament with primary legislative powers in Wales--a phrase which I often utter these days--to give us the right kind of provision in all kinds of areas. I shall return to that subject later.

The principle applies to nursery education and the provisions of the Bill in particular. I shall not at this stage rehearse the ways in which the situation in Wales is different, or set out what our priorities should be for early years education. I did that on Second Reading, and what I said is on the record. However, I urge hon. Members and everyone else interested in the subject to read the report by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs on the nursery voucher scheme in Wales.

That report is carefully prepared and written, and it presents a pretty devastating condemnation of what is happening. In the first place, it points out that


That is perhaps not altogether condemnatory, but my next quotation from the report certainly is. The report states:


In our questioning of Ministers, we had discovered that there had been no process of identifying the extent or nature of existing provision.

The Select Committee report also mentions the danger that provision for three-year-olds might be reduced as a result of the introduction of the voucher scheme. I should be interested to hear the Minister's comments on that, too.

What I have said about the existing situation in Wales does not mean that we should be complacent. That danger, too, was mentioned in the Select Committee report. On Second Reading, I said that it was possible that much of the existing provision, of which we are so proud, would not be altogether appropriate. I mean, for example, the practice of providing for under-fives in primary and infant school classes. It is clear that the kind of education menu provided for children there may not give the intense learning experiences that constitute the real value of pre-school education before the age of five.

The report from the office of Her Majesty's chief inspector refers to that possibility. It says that LEA nursery schools and nursery classes provide high-quality pre-school education, but it makes a clear distinction between those and infant reception classes. We need

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appropriate high-quality provision for pupils in the early years, with properly qualified staff, and we should be talking about a strategy for moving in that direction.

That means that we need change in Wales. We must not get ourselves into that familiar frame of mind in which we constantly react against change. That is why we need the powers to make the changes that are relevant to us. We need a policy for the development of early years education in Wales. I described such a policy in my speech on Second Reading.

We need not only the means not to apply the Bill in Wales--to opt out--but the means to be proactive and creative. I know that the hon. Member for Bridgend is going to speak. I would like to hear from him how the Labour party, if it forms a Government after the next general election, will enable the people of Wales to fashion an education system that suits our circumstances and priorities. It is a matter not just of not doing something but of being positive and constructive.

For example, how will Labour's assembly be proactive and not merely enable us to opt out of damaging provisions such as this? I do not see how Labour's current proposals, with secondary legislative powers at best--and perhaps not even those, according to the Labour leader--will give the people of Wales such powers. I covered that quickly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will now proceed to other matters, but perhaps the hon. Member for Bridgend can offer me some encouragement.

If ever there were a case of Wales being dragged in England's wake in a way that is irrelevant to our needs, it is this. The Select Committee report concludes, even though it is expressed with some understatement, with the devastating comment:


I am convinced that it was not considered at all. The report continues:


That is pretty devastating. It is a perfect example of Wales's needs being ignored and our prospects being damaged by inappropriate legislation driven by other people's ideology and priorities.

I tabled an amendment that would have required a pilot project to be conducted in Wales in 1997-98 before introducing the full scheme. It was not selected, but I draw the Government's attention to it as a fallback from this amendment. It is still open to the Government to offer such a compromise and I appeal to them to do so, if they are not prepared to accept this amendment. The Select Committee recommended that there should be a pilot scheme. Will the Minister at least agree to have the matter debated in the other place to find out whether that would be reasonable? That would make good sense. There will be a general election before the scheme is properly implemented.


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