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8 pm

Mr. Richards indicated dissent.

Mr. Dafis: There will be one before the scheme has been properly implemented--a matter of months, at best, after the scheme begins to operate.

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Labour is committed to scrapping the scheme in Wales, which is why my unselected amendment was relevant. It is not responsible to introduce such a revolutionary scheme. It is a demand-led instrument for developing education provision rather than a process of putting resources into provision. It changes the whole approach to the funding of education. It is not responsible to introduce such a scheme at such a time. However, a pilot scheme could be run and we could examine the situation to find out whether there was justification for such a change in the funding of education. I appeal to the Government to act responsibly in the matter and either accept our amendments or at least give us the fallback compromise.

Mr. Win Griffiths: Although we did not table specific amendments relating to Wales, our new clause 3, which dealt with the conditions under which a local authority could continue to operate its own provision with the consent of the members of the council and after consultation with the parents and other providers in its area, would have covered Wales.

The situation in Wales is different from that in England. In Wales, more than 90 per cent. of four-year-olds are already in maintained provision. In a couple of counties, which, unfortunately, are in many ways about to die--Clwyd and West Glamorgan--the figure is nearly 100 per cent. The lowest provision is in Gwynedd, at 77 per cent. It is clear that the Welsh counties, without any financial support from the Welsh Office, have been good providers of education for four-year-olds.

That provision is backed by that of the Wales Pre-School Playgroups Association and Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin. Although most of their provision is not for four-year-olds, they have some children of that age and, through their training schemes for their workers and volunteers, they have been at pains to raise standards.

The key point is the waste of money that the voucher scheme involves in Wales. For less expense than the additional money that the voucher scheme will cost, the Government could provide funding for local authorities to provide the extra 5 per cent. or so places that we need, and there would be no problems with the level of provision in Wales. Of course, there are still other problems and there will be problems under the voucher scheme.

The excellent report of Her Majesty's inspector in Wales was made on the basis of a year-long set of inspections in 1994 and 1995 in which 120 schools and 22 playgroups were inspected against an educational framework and bearing in mind the onset of the voucher scheme. The report's 23 pages showed clearly that the best-quality education--this was almost universal--was in nursery schools and classes. A little way behind came the reception classes and mixed-age infant classes that catered for four-year-olds. Quite a long way behind that came the playgroups.

That is not because the playgroups were failing to do what they intended but because in the past they have not tried to meet the formal educational objectives that schools in the maintained sector have been set. I pay tribute to the playgroups, the Wales Pre-School Playgroups Association and Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin, for being prepared to take part in the inspections. They gave themselves a framework against which to judge whether they would be ready to take part in the nursery voucher scheme.

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The issue in Wales is the quality of provision, and raising that quality, without getting involved in the bureaucratic paperchase of the voucher scheme. The inspector's report made it clear that the strong points of provision were often down to the support given by the local education authority. For professional development and in-service training, local authority courses were vital in helping to raise teachers' standards. The report also showed that the local authority guidelines and advice notes to schools on curriculum planning meant that there were high standards in the maintained sector for curriculum planning. There should be no doubt: Wales does not need the scheme.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) mentioned the fact that the Welsh Office consultation had not produced much support. He could have said even more clearly that, as a result of one of his questions, it was shown that not one of the 1,100 responses supported the Government's voucher scheme. The Welsh Office put that down to mass misunderstanding; if it had been a teacher in front of a class of pupils, he or she would have been labelled unsatisfactory by an Ofsted inspection. If the Welsh Office says that everyone, without exception, misunderstood what it published about its scheme, it is just trying to wriggle out of the fact that its scheme is unpopular in Wales.

The inspectorate in Wales carried out a thorough investigation. The report of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs made it clear that, having asked hundreds of questions of people who submitted evidence to it, there was no evidence to suggest that anyone in the Welsh Office had thought that the scheme was the way to fill in the 5 per cent. of places not yet provided in Wales. I hope that, even at the eleventh hour, the Minister will admit that the Welsh Office was grabbed by the scruff of its neck and dragged into the voucher scheme, come hell or high water, so that the bad record of English Tory councils was not over-exposed in the debate on how to improve provision.

I hope that the Minister will accept that Welsh county councils have an excellent record of provision and that the nursery voucher scheme will make no improvement that could not be achieved more cheaply and effectively, simply by providing the money directly to the local education authorities of Wales.

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn): I must place on record the excellent service that Clwyd county council provides in nursery education in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), the Under-Secretary of State. Clwyd county council provides nursery education for three and four-year-olds at an almost universal level. The amendments in the name of the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) provide what is needed by my constituents and by people throughout Wales. There is no desire in Clwyd--indeed, in Wales--for any nursery vouchers. There is universal nursery education provision, and the people do not want and do not need the Government's scheme.

I have been astounded at the level of opposition to nursery vouchers in my constituency and throughout the rest of Clwyd. Political parties are often accused of stirring up issues, but I can honestly say that parents, parent-teacher associations, school governing bodies and

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local authorities feel strongly about--and are even resentful of--the actions of the Welsh Office in proceeding with the proposal.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a 1,000-name petition from parents at Greenfield primary school in my constituency. Next Friday, I am going to Ysgol Glanrafon to receive petitions from parents in Mold. Next Monday, I am to receive a petition from every school in Flint. Those are not the actions of people who are politically motivated, but the actions of those who seek to defend the nursery education that their children have received for future generations.

The Minister should know about nursery education in the county of Clwyd; he represents one fifth of that county in the House. For him to come to the House tonight to argue against the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North is to put in danger the nursery education that is provided in that council at an almost universal level.

There is a genuine fear among parents of children--both those who are at nursery school now and those who are rising to go to nursery school in future--that the voucher scheme will destroy all that is good about nursery education. It will not add anything to nursery education in Wales but will put at risk all that is good.

I plead with the Minister to accept the amendments and reconsider the issues. I see that he shakes his head, but he will reap the rewards of the amendment when he comes before the people of Clwyd, North-West at the next general election. When he does so, I feel sure that the local Labour candidate will prise from him the seat that he holds today. People in my county demand and need nursery education, and the Minister should accept the amendment.

8.15 pm

Mr. Richards: If I were the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson), I should be looking over my shoulder, because Councillor Karen Lumley will soon be upending him at the next general election.

If ever there was a group of amendments that was politically motivated, this is it. I say that to the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North (Mr. Dafis) in all honesty and seriousness because, as he said, this is a matter of principle for his party. I sympathise with him politically, because his party makes no secret of the fact that it wants independence for Wales in all things--education, nursery voucher schemes and the rest. I respect him and his party for the unequivocal position that they adopt across the spectrum of political life. That is more than I can say for the Labour party.

I have looked at all the amendments, including amendment No. 17, and I have found that neither the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) nor any of his Front-Bench colleagues who speak on Welsh affairs have put their name to any of the amendments. That is the party that wants an assembly in Wales to discuss Welsh affairs--its policy on the subject does not bear scrutiny.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North raised some serious points. He asked about monitoring the effects on Welsh-medium education--to which my answer is yes. He then asked how the Government would

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meet the wishes of Welsh parents with regard to nursery education--my answer is that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. We shall offer parents the choice, so we shall discover whether we are meeting their needs in terms of the provision of nursery education.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about resources and raised the issue of capital funding. The Government will not be providing capital funding directly, but the voucher scheme contains an element for capital funding. If the hon. Gentleman thinks about it, he will see that the voucher scheme offers an income stream, against which providers can borrow.

Opposition Members continually talk about new build. As they have all been involved with Labour-controlled authorities, they can think only in terms of new build, but the voucher scheme--the income stream that it offers--does not necessarily mean new build; it can mean adapting or refurbishing buildings that currently provide nursery provision.

I shall talk later about the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, about four-year-olds and about the proposal's alleged effect on nursery provision for three-year-olds. Today Opposition Members have told us that there is no need for a voucher scheme in Wales and that there is already excellent provision for three and four-year-olds. The Opposition have asked why we should have additional bureaucracy; they have said that the cost of administration will be handed to local authorities and that the scheme will threaten provision for three-year-olds and jeopardise LEA planning.

I shall briefly deal with those matters. However, I must point out that we did not hear from any Opposition Members why parents in Wales should be denied the right to choice and to diversity, which are offered in England. Wales has good provision for four-year-olds, with some 90 per cent. of them receiving some form of education in the maintained sector. That is a record of which we should be proud and I congratulate the education authorities in Wales on that.

I am at one with the comments of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs in this respect: we should not be carried away by that record. The actual provision varies in different parts of Wales--from 75 per cent. in Gwynedd to almost 100 per cent. in Clwyd and West Glamorgan. Even when local authority provision is at the highest level, that does not mean that parents necessarily have much choice about the sort of provision that they can have for their children.

The Government's commitment to extend nursery provision to all four-year-olds goes hand in hand with their wider policy of increasing parental choice and diversity of provision. Not only are we seeking to achieve 100 per cent. provision in Wales, but we want it to be achieved in a way that gives parents much greater scope in the type of provision that they can choose for their children. In that, there is no difference between England and Wales. That is what has led us to bring forward the voucher scheme; that is why we are determined that parents in Wales should not be denied the opportunities being offered to people in England and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Several Opposition Members have expressed opposition to the voucher scheme. Why is there significant opposition to the voucher scheme in Wales? There is a significant amount of misunderstanding about

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the proposals. That is hardly surprising, given the scaremongering tactics of, and misleading material distributed by, what might be considered responsible bodies. It is little wonder that parents put their names to petitions and to pro forma letters that are printed by the hundred by schools when local education authorities encourage them to do so.

Bodies such as the Carmarthenshire Head Teachers Federation and the Clwyd Federation of Primary School Head Teachers have sent letters and material to parents in schools that are blatantly misleading, suggesting that LEA schools will be obliged to move from full-time to part-time provision, that parents will have to pay to make it up to full-time provision, that school budgets will be cut and that provision for three-year-olds will be reduced. That is misleading, mischievous and incorrect.

We have been told that the cost of administering the scheme--in effect, the contractor's cost--could have been given to LEAs to top up existing provision to achieve100 per cent. cover. Why do Opposition Members think that only the LEAs have the right to provide education for four-year-olds, that LEAs always know what is best for children and that parents should meekly accept what is on offer and be grateful for it? I repeat, for the benefit of Opposition Members, that the Government believe in choice for parents, but that there is a price to pay for giving them that choice--and that is a price we are prepared to pay.

I refer to the threat to provision for three-year-olds. The threat is in the minds of those who conceive the voucher scheme only as a means of depriving local authorities of funding, of those who still do not seem to comprehend, despite all the assurances that we have given, that we will transfer no more than the value of the voucher--£1,100--from local authority funding per four-year-old place.I remind hon. Members that LEAs can continue to spend more than £1,100 per four-year-old place if that is what they want, and the funding made available for three-year-old provision will not be affected. There is no reason why the voucher scheme should affect provision for three-year-olds.

Any thinking LEA would say to itself, "If we increase the provision for three-year-olds, surely that will lead them to continue in the maintained sector when they become four-year-olds." In other words, there is an incentive for local education authorities to increase the provision to three-year-olds.

I welcome the report of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs. It has made many interesting comments and I congratulate it on considering the voucher scheme thoroughly and expeditiously. I shall comment on its report in due course. I do not agree with what the hon. Member for Ceredigion and Pembroke, North has said.I do not agree that the Select Committee's conclusions and comments on the voucher scheme are devastating.

I refer to the issue of a separate pilot phase for Wales. The hon. Gentleman must understand that the purpose of phase 1 of the pilot scheme was to look at procedures and mechanisms for the voucher scheme, and no more than that. We can learn as much from phase 1 in England as we could have done had we had a phase 1 in Wales.I made it perfectly clear, as did my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, that had anyone come forward and offered to run the pilot scheme in Wales, we would have seriously considered the offer. However,

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because of the political control under which, sadly, local education authorities operate in Wales, no one came forward and offered to run a pilot scheme.

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