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Mrs. Gillan: The hon. Gentleman has impressed us throughout the Bill with his concern on many matters, but I often think that he is just a little off beam. We are all concerned to maintain the confidentiality of social security information. It is essential that we exert a great deal of care over the way in which that information is used and who has access to it. That is why schedule 2 makes it an offence to breach that confidentiality and sets out the penalties that would be incurred by anyone who did so.

If the contractor appointed to run the scheme was unable to have access to the child benefit centre database, that would result in a poorer service for parents, the contractor would be unable to offer as much help over the parents' queries and it would take longer for voucher applications to be processed. It could result in more expensive administration. It would require the involvement of the child benefit centre in the administration of the scheme, which would add extra stages to the processing of voucher applications. Finally, it would give us a less secure system, because checks to prevent fraudulent requests for vouchers would be more difficult to carry out.

The hon. Gentleman's amendment would place an unnecessary restriction on the supply of that information and would be detrimental to the administration of the scheme. Therefore, I hope to be able to persuade him to withdraw it.

Mr. Spearing: I said that it was a probing amendment, and the Minister has been partly helpful. I was not deleting the penalties. Far from it; they are essential. It is clear that the administration of the scheme will be very much involved--rather like housing benefit--in the social security system. I put a big question mark over that. It might be necessary to obtain some information relating to social security to avoid fraud, but that is not one of the purposes of the Bill.

I conclude from what the Minister said that schedule 2 is a means of integrating the administration of the scheme, which is complex in itself, with the social security machinery of the locality, or perhaps a wider region, or even a national scale. That is new, and although it may be implicit in the minds of the Department and of Whitehall, it could perhaps be done in a more expeditious and economic way. That matter will engage those concerned in further stages of the Bill. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 34, in page 8, line 30, leave out from second 'information' to 'was' in line 33 and insert


'of a prescribed description which'.--[Mrs. Gillan.]

Schedule 3

Consequential Amendments

Amendments made: No. 35, in page 11, line 6, at end insert--


'. In section 162 of that Act (provision by local education authority of goods and services in connection with special educational needs), after subsection (2) insert--
"(2A) A local education authority may supply goods or services to any authority or other person (other than a governing body within subsection (1) above) for the purpose only of assisting them in making for any child in respect of whose education grants are (or are to be) made under arrangements under section 1 of the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Act 1996 any special educational provision which any learning difficulty of the child calls for.".'.

No. 36, in page 11, line 6, at end insert--


'. In section 305(1) of that Act (interpretation), before the definition of "financial year" insert--
" "the Education Acts" means the Education Acts 1944 to 1996,".
.In section 306 of that Act (index), before the entry relating to "financial year" insert--

"the Education Acts section 305(1)".'.


Amendment made: No. 37, in page 11, line 14, column 3, at beginning insert--

'In section 308(2), the words "(referred to in this Act as "the Education Acts")".'.


Order for Third Reading read.

9.24 pm

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Gillian Shephard): I beg to move, that the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill is about promoting choice, diversity and standards in education, and those have been at the heart of the Government's education reforms. I shall deal first with choice. It is parents who know what is best for their children, and it is teachers, parents and governors who know what is best for pupils at local schools. The Bill will, over time, deliver choice to parents who want to give their four-year-olds the best possible start in life, and it will extend the range of options that are open to grant-maintained school governors who want to improve the facilities that they provide for pupils.

Secondly, I shall deal with diversity. In order to have genuine choice, there must be diversity of provision. The Bill will encourage such diversity. It will expand the provision of the good-quality nursery education that parents want in the maintained, the private and the voluntary sectors. It will help to drive up standards by providing good-quality, inspected education with agreed

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outcomes for all four-year-olds, and it will allow grant-maintained schools to build on their individual strengths by acquiring appropriate new assets. In short, the Bill will help parents, teachers and governors to make their own decisions about their own affairs.

I was pleased to note the extent of agreement in Committee and in the House today about the importance of good-quality nursery education. We want a significant expansion of nursery education. Over time, the expansion will lead to a place for every four-year-old whose parents want one, and we have no intention of compromising on quality. We already have the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's desirable learning outcomes. These goals for pre-school education resulted from extensive consultation and command widespread support among parents and professionals. The Bill contains proposals for an inspection system under Ofsted which will ensure that all providers are working towards those goals.

I note the concerns about staff qualifications, ratios and premises. Those matters are important and nursery education providers are in no doubt about what is required of them, but it will be up to them to decide how to achieve the goals that we have set.

Dr. Hampson: Will there be flexibility about how those standards are determined? Much of our debate on Report was about standards seemingly being related to buildings, the size of the classroom and classroom facilities and so on. In my constituency there are hardly any local authority-provided nursery facilities, and about half of them would not meet the requirements on buildings and classrooms that Opposition Members insisted upon in our earlier debate. I am talking about places that are provided by local authorities in their buildings. We have to acknowledge, do we not, that it is about standards of teaching and not--

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. This is an inordinately long intervention.

Mrs. Shephard: Of course the arrangements will be interpreted flexibly, but it is important that the educational outcomes and inspections are considered and applied with great care because our quality controls are clearly focused on the outcome, which is good-quality education for four-year-olds. That is what matters most and the twin pillars of the SCAA's desirable learning outcomes and Ofsted's inspection framework will help institutions to achieve such quality. Most importantly, the introduction of nursery education vouchers will put parents in the driving seat.

Ms Hodge: In Norfolk after 1 April, when parents, one presumes, have their £1,100 voucher, but find that they have no place, to whom will they turn--to the school, to the local education authority, to Capita or to the Government? Who is responsible for not giving that choice to those parents in April?

Mrs. Shephard: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Lady, but 388 providers from the voluntary and private sectors are registered for the scheme and there will be22 new nursery units. Those providers in Norfolk must provide only eight places each to ensure that every child

19 Mar 1996 : Column 266

in Norfolk who is eligible for a place but who has no place in local education authority provision will have one provided in the private and voluntary sectors. I recognise that that is a disappointment to her, but that is how it is.

Local authorities and other providers already do much for four-year-olds in a variety of ways. The Bill will not necessarily change the pattern or diversity of provision where that provision is good, where it meets parents' needs and where that is what they choose. Vouchers will be a stimulus to parents and providers alike. It is parents who will choose the right setting for their children. Our proposals will ensure that providers are responsive to what parents want.

One Wandsworth head teacher said:


the voucher scheme--


Another said:


Parents naturally have the highest aspirations for their children. Our proposals will allow them to realise those aspirations. Unlike Opposition Members, we believe in fulfilling the aspirations of all parents. In contrast, Opposition Members would deny to other people's children the opportunities that they seize eagerly for their own. When nursery education will be extended for the first time and funded to the tune of a total of £750 million to every parent who wants it in this country, with an inspection framework and with agreed educational outcomes, I find it extraordinary that all we should hear from the Labour party is a collective whine about such education not being confined to the public sector. How well that illustrates that, despite its new designer vocabulary, which extends to knowing the word "diversity", it is still locked in the grip of institutions at the expense of individuals' interests.


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