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Mr. Richards: The hon. Gentleman is under-performing.

Mr. Blunkett: I am apparently under-performing because I am quoting the Secretary of State's friends, who believe that she has been dropped in the mire. She was quoted as saying:

of the No. 10 policy unit--

One cannot blame her for that when a right-wing Tory could be so indecent and lacking in gentlemanliness as to say that Secretary of State was

One must know Norfolk and the wetlands to know what a snipe is.

Snipers from the rear, snipers from the left of her, snipers from the right of her. They are all over the place. The right hon. Lady is being shot at by people who know nothing about education and who have, on the whole, educated their children privately. That is why she is so safe. Few of her Cabinet colleagues could dare to take her place. She is pushing forward with something that she does not believe in and knows will fail, but she has been forced to accept it.

Every scheme that the policy unit at No. 10 comes up with is another way of trying to create an ideological divide rather than caring about and investing in the needs of children. We and the British people are sick and tired of ideological experiments and laboratories.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard: The hon. Gentleman talks of splits and divides. Would he like to tell the House where he stands on

Does he have "no truck" with them or has that particular split been healed?

Mr. Blunkett: The difference between me and the Secretary of State is that I stand where I have always stood. I stand for parents, for information, for decent, high-quality provision. Decent, high-quality provision requires a qualified teacher to supervise and organise nursery education.

How can the Secretary of State suggest that she is providing nursery education and expanding the scheme, when she will not accept amendments that ensure that a qualified teacher is in charge of those nursery classes and

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can supervise what takes place? I promise the Secretary of State that if the scheme goes ahead without qualified education and provides something that is less than the nursery education that the Prime Minister promised,we shall harry her now and throughout the general election.

We shall also challenge--if necessary, in the courts--the provision of a voucher for something that is not education and should therefore be taxed. In the words of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden), the cost of the scheme is the "dead-weight cost" of providing a subsidy to those already buying private care, for whom the whole of the voucher scheme has been invented.It subsidises the better-off and denies those who need nursery education. It denies those who require special needs provision and provides a shoddy and unacceptable bureaucratic scheme instead of a clear commitment to expanding nursery education for all three and four-year-olds in England and Wales. It is time to put a stop to this nonsense and, instead, join together to co-operate and do what we have offered to ensure that every parent can have the security of a free nursery place for their child.

9.50 pm

Mr. Don Foster: Choice, diversity and standards--that has now become the Government's mantra; but they should recognise that merely repeating the words does not mean that something will happen. The policies that the Government have promoted and their funding regime will not ensure choice, diversity and the raising of standards; the policies contained in the Bill certainly will not do that. Nothing has happened during the Bill's passage to reassure me on the numerous concerns that I expressed when the Secretary of State first introduced the proposals. There has been overwhelming opposition to the proposals contained in the Bill. The Government have refused to listen to any of the voices that have raised serious opposition to them.

The Bill is cumbersome and bureaucratic--a view that is understandably shared by the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills). As we have seen, the Bill will fail to ensure the rapid provision of the extra infrastructure needed for the high-quality nursery education that we desperately need in this country. It will not provide significant increased provision; it will not boost provision and may even harm what exists for three-year-olds. It will fail to cover the cost of full-time provision, which will mean that the less well-off, who are unable to afford the necessary top-up fees, will receive nothing.

The Bill will fail to provide extra support for children with special educational needs. It will provide nothing for the training of the additional teachers and inspectors; it will fail to ensure that the full evaluation of the pilots takes place before the scheme starts. It will fail to encourage strategic planning and links between education and care provision. In short, the Bill will fail to provide what is desperately needed: high-quality early years education for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want it. How bizarre of the Secretary of State to devote so much of her speech to grant-maintained schools; how bizarre to draw attention to the least successful of all the Government's education policies.

During the Second Reading debate, I argued that the Bill should be rejected because it contained too many blanks; none of those blanks has been filled in. The hon.

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Member for Meriden feared that the Bill would be another Dangerous Dogs Bill. Just like Sherlock Holmes' famous dog in the night, let us hope that this one will not bark.

9.54 pm

Mr. Steinberg: My hon. Friends and I have long campaigned for publicly funded, high-quality nursery education for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want it. After years of Tory hostility towards nursery education--both here and in Tory local education authorities--the Prime Minister promised us nursery education for all four-year-olds. Every parent of a four-year-old should expect their child to obtain a nursery education which is from a qualified teacher and properly trained support staff, which will allow their individual learning needs to be met, which is in premises suitable to those needs and with sufficient teaching space, which has safe indoor and outdoor play areas and appropriate health and welfare facilities, and which has class sizes and staffing ratios that take into account both educational and child care needs.

However, what have we got? The measures outlined in the Bill, as it stands now, will not deliver high-quality nursery education. Such a system of voucher, pupil-led funding threatens existing high-quality and full-time nursery education, will not guarantee an increase in local provision, will punish those local education authorities that are already committed to expansion and may even reduce provision in some areas. The Bill wastes public money on a private company to administer and to police the system. It also raises expectations of increased choice, which will ultimately lead to parental disillusionment.

According to a parliamentary question that I asked recently, there are 145,000 four-year-olds in the voluntary and private sectors who will qualify for nursery vouchers in the private sector. This is a massive subsidy to the private sector. Many of the parents who are receiving the vouchers are too embarrassed to take the money. Huge sums of taxpayers' money are going into private, profit-making nursery establishments that may or may not give a quality provision.

There is nothing for local education authorities to expand their provision. It is common sense that at the present time a local education authority has only a certain number of places for children--and whether it be many or few, the nursery voucher scheme will not allow them to expand. There is no capital to build. It is impossible to provide places without the resources to do so. In some areas, where there are no or few nursery places in the local education authority sector, this will stay the same and parents can go only to the private sector--parents will not have a choice.

In areas such as Durham, which have good and reasonable provision, the position could be made even worse. Not only will they not be able to expand, but they may lose places. Why? Because money is to be clawed back from the local education authorities to pay for the scheme--clawed back not from those authorities that get under-fives allocations in their standard spending assessment but do not use it for the nursery provision, but from authorities that do use it to provide nursery places. That is illogical and unfair. Durham will lose £2.5 million in the deal. Authorities that provide nursery places will be penalised, and the authorities that do not provide them will be rewarded. Only this Government could be so daft or so sinister. The Bill should be defeated, and I hope that that happens this evening. We shall vote against it.

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9.57 pm

Mr. Kilfoyle: I shall plagiarise the marvellous adjective of the hon. Member for Buckingham(Mr. Walden) for the final time: this spatchcocked piece of legislation deserves to go down for a number of reasons. In terms of inspections, it fails in relation to the premises, which seemed to exercise the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) so much, and it fails in relation to standards. It fails on the commitment--or lack of it--to qualified teachers in all institutions.

The Bill fails in terms of the provision of places, and not only in the 200 black holes identified by the Pre-School Learning Alliance. Conversely, it will damage good providers, whether in Solihull or the majority of Labour councils that make excellent provision. The Bill also fails in terms of children with special educational needs. Despite the arguments of hon. Members, and even the support of some Conservative Members, no concession was made by the Government. Crucially, the Bill fails because it does not properly consider the need for an evaluation of phase 1 before a commitment to phase 2.

The other half of the Bill fails in terms of the facility that is offered for borrowing to grant-maintained schools. It will do nothing to increase provision in the majority of those schools, as they showed by their lack of interest in the proposals. It does nothing to help the vast majority of our schools--the other 24,000. I shall use a fencing metaphor: the Government have approached this with a sabre while we have danced with foils. To put it in a boxing simile: the Government have used brute strength to push through unpopular proposals like a Mike Tyson, while the Muhammed Alis of the Labour party have given them a lesson in the science of dealing with it.

I note the absence, yet again, of members of the Standing Committee. No commitment was made in Committee by members of the Committee, and no commitment has been made tonight by members of the Government, to fair provision for all our children.

I urge the House to reject the Bill.

Question put, That the Bill be now read the Third time:--

The House divided: Ayes 272, Noes 238.

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