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Orders of the Day


Order for Second Reading read.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 94E (Scottish Grand Committee (Bills in relation to their principle)),

Question agreed to.


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to European Community documents.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 102(9) (European Standing Committees),

Welfare of Calves

Consumer Credit

Question agreed to.

14 May 1996 : Column 872

Nursery Education (Grants)

[Relevant documents: the Memoranda relating to this Order and Instrument contained in the Fifteenth Report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, House of Commons Paper No. 34-xv.]

10.20 pm

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): I beg to move,

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): With this it will be convenient to take the following motion:

Mr. Kilfoyle: We oppose the regulations because although they give the House the chance to debate and approve, albeit retrospectively, the financing of the pilot schemes, the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill affords no opportunity to the House for a similar debate on the main scheme in the light of the lessons that we hope will be learnt from the pilot schemes. It is to be noted that the first pilot scheme is now known as phase 1. Full implementation will be known as phase 2. I do not suggest that the Government have any intention other than to ram the scheme home regardless of any evaluation and regardless, too, of the problems that are already coming to light. Evaluation will be partial, conducted by, or for, the Department for Education and Employment internally.

The statutory instruments offer an opportunity to debate the finance of the pilot schemes. They should be opposed, however, because they determine the financial underpinning for phase 1, which leads automatically to national implementation without proper parliamentary consideration subsequent to comprehensive and public scrutiny.

The statutory instruments offer far more detail than the Bill. The Bill merely allows for grants to be made under arrangements to local education authorities, social services authorities and prescribed private providers. The SIs detail payments for maintenance, assistance and otherwise; for education purposes and for rate grant of 100 per cent. They provide for the condition, manner and time of payments; arrangements for adjusting over and underpayments; provision of administration costs, and requirement for an auditor's statement. No similar provisions will be made for national implementation. These will be covered by the all-embracing arrangements, so Parliament's ability properly to invigilate the spending of public money will be severely circumscribed.

It would be helpful to the House, even in the context of a limited debate, to know why Statutory Instrument No. 235 is more detailed than No. 353. Surely both SIs should ensure that the maximum amount of information is put before the House to ensure proper scrutiny of the proposals. Perhaps the Government are already embarrassed by the shortcomings of the pilot schemes.

The Secretary of State said on 6 July 1995 that she wished to select areas that were representative of the country as a whole. That has not happened. The right

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hon. Lady has ended up with four authorities rather than 12 to act as pilots. And what has been their experience? The parental take-up, as predicted, has been incomplete. Nearly 3,000 of the 16,200 eligible parents failed to return their voucher application forms. That is, even to someone of a simple mind, nearly 20 per cent. of the total. Within the areas concerned there have been large variations in the actual vouchers being brought into the nursery institution.

Confusion reigns. Parents cannot understand why they should be involved in a Government-inspired paper chase. Of course, those who will take up the vouchers are those in the private sector already. However, those in most need are most likely to miss out because of the bureaucratic nightmare. Thankfully, in London, where three out of the four pilots are operating, local education authorities recognise that it is not a viable option to admit only those with vouchers. The problem is exacerbated by the transient population, language difficulties and boundary considerations.

There has been no real change in admissions in the London boroughs that are operating the pilot scheme. Sensibly, schools are being paid in advance, with or without the relevant vouchers. It can hardly be said, therefore, that the money is following the voucher, contrary to what the Government have consistently argued.

Let us consider the much-vaunted provision of new places. In Norfolk, the chair of the education committee estimates a shortfall of 2,000 places. The vouchers will have little or no effect in Wandsworth, where almost all three and four-year-olds had places in nursery or reception classes. Westminster was already planning some expansion in partnership with the voluntary and private sectors. Kensington and Chelsea plans a little expansion, including partnerships, but faces space constraints.

Moreover, there is some evidence that parents are switching from private nurseries to schools in order to secure a place in a favoured local primary school. Ominously, it is now being alleged that employers are withdrawing subsidies for workplace nurseries as the voucher scheme is introduced.

What are the extra costs of making the pilot work? On the basis of written answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) on 29 April and my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) on 24 April, I have computed that the initial subsidy allowed for propaganda purposes was £46.30 per child. The Minister admitted that the figure then shot up to £62.90 per child. Information garnered from parliamentary answers produced a total of £81.20 per eligible child, including the extra sweeteners in grant aid. When one considers the failure to participate of one fifth of those eligible for the scheme, the extra cost of the pilot scheme has now reached nearly £98 for every voucher-using child. That represents an add-on of almost 9 per cent. to the cost of the vouchers without providing extra places or delivering the quality that everyone outside the Government demands.

Those difficulties portend far greater problems. That is why we have consistently argued that there must be a full and proper evaluation of the pilot scheme before an unequivocal commitment is made to extending the scheme nationally.

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I should like to digress a moment to flag up to the Minister that concerns have been expressed to me about the role of Capita, the company handling the vouchers. Allegedly, that company is also involved in other activities in certain boroughs. Does the Minister agree that the fact that the company is also dealing with council tax collection on behalf of a local authority might lead to a conflict of interest? [Hon. Members: "Why?"] I leave the House to draw its own conclusions on that. I am sure that such an organisation will have a database that can be cross-referenced and that might not be in the interests of people living in those particular boroughs.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Kilfoyle: I am sorry, but time is limited.

At present, Capita is dealing only with the pilot schemes. However, on 13 May, the Western Mail ran an advertisement inviting contractors to tender for the second phase of the scheme. Although Capita apparently has failed to provide sufficient bilingual advice, the Government are talking about extending the scheme throughout the country. The advertisement makes allowances by stating:

The pilot scheme has revealed the failure of those most in need to find out about the voucher scheme simply because provision has not been made for the multitude of languages, particularly in some London boroughs. I wonder what will happen in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), who tells me that more than 150 languages are spoken there. How will those people will able to gain access to nursery education?

During the debate on the Gracious Speech on 21 November, the hon. Member for Crosby (Sir M. Thornton), who chairs the Select Committee on Education and Employment, said:

the Secretary of State, that is--

Similarly, on Third Reading of the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill, the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) and for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) sought assurances that the Government would learn from the pilot scheme before pushing ahead with national implementation. What price those assurances now?

Opposition Members have consistently sought several things. We have pressed for decent buildings for nursery education. In the light of today's announcement about security arrangements--which was welcomed by Opposition Members, including my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition--may I ask the Minister whether those arrangements, which will presumably apply to the 24,000-plus schools in the maintained sector, apply to the "settings", as they are euphemistically known by the Government? As the Minister knows from the

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Committee stage of the Bill, the Audit Commission estimates the potential number at nearly 40,000; some of those overlap with schools, but will the security arrangements be extended to the vulnerable young children in the "settings"?

As for teacher qualifications, we have been sadly disabused of any notion that qualified teachers will be made available at every stage--at least, qualified teachers as we understand them to be. We have argued for an effective system of inspection; yet, according to supplementary information for applicants on courses for those who wish to become registered inspectors, it is possible to be an inspector of nursery schools with a national vocational qualification at level 2, or to be an inspector with no qualifications at all, as long as the Government deem the applicant to have the necessary relevant experience--whatever that may be.

A note at the bottom of the sheet of supplementary information defines the "settings", which include

It seems that we are to ask unqualified people to inspect qualified professionals who are trying, in the face of great difficulties, to deliver quality nursery education.

Incidentally, those who undertake the course are invited to attend

They ought to be grateful, because


That strikes me as a rather shoddy way in which to provide qualified and experienced inspectors to consider the interests of nursery education.

We are still no further in terms of special educational needs. As for the protection of existing provision, we are told to leave it to the market. A report by the executive director of education and libraries for the royal borough of Kensington and Chelsea clearly states that the committee is having great difficulty in making the necessary provision. Paragraph 5.1 states:

There is little or no chance of the market providing in that regard.

All those requirements add up to the delivery of nursery education of a quality appropriate to a modern society--a society that is concerned with preparing our children for a first-world nursery education system. I could say more--similar reports have come from Wandsworth and Norfolk--but I am conscious of the time. The statutory instruments offer the House the opportunity to insist that Government meet the demands of common sense before recklessly charging into a national scheme that will worsen the situation immeasurably. I ask hon. Members to vote against them, and to vote for the motion.

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