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10.34 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Robin Squire): The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) has given no good reason for Opposition Members to object to

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the regulations. They do no more than enable the Secretary of State to pay grant to providers in the state, the private and the voluntary sectors in exchange for nursery education for four-year-olds. The expansion of quality nursery education is, as I have been told many times by Opposition Members, a goal that is shared by all hon Members.

The regulations are the means by which we can implement the first phase of the nursery education voucher scheme which, as the House knows, started last month. The scheme will be extended to the rest of the United Kingdom next year. The regulations will be used in England for a maximum of one year. For phase 2, subject to parliamentary approval there will be a specific power to pay grant to providers of nursery education under the relevant legislation.

Revoking the regulations would simply delay the introduction of the scheme and, most importantly, remove the possibility of assessing how the scheme operates in phase 1. I can see no reasonable argument for doing that, and can only assume that the Opposition are running scared of the likely success of the scheme. There is no disagreement about the fact that nursery education is intrinsically good. Our intention is to give parents the power and the wherewithal to be able to choose the best place for their child. We want to bring that about as soon as possible while bearing in mind the fact that a scheme as new as this ideally needs to be examined on a small scale before full implementation. That is why we invited local education authorities to volunteer to join phase 1 from April. I am grateful to those LEAs that did so. They have helped to shape the detail of the scheme and are reaping the benefit of increased nursery places.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North): Norfolk county council is one of the authorities that are taking part in the voucher scheme. Any difficulties about the scheme that have been reported to me have been dealt with straightforwardly by the county council. Will the Minister confirm that the scheme in Norfolk seems to be running successfully and smoothly with minimum problems?

Mr. Squire: I am delighted to confirm what my hon Friend has said. As he may know, in terms of vouchers issued as a percentage of the estimated number of parents, the Norfolk figure is 93 per cent. At the very least that suggests that the problems that the hon Member for Walton hinted at are not universal. It comes ill from the hon Member to jibe at the fact that there were just four volunteer LEAs because his words and those of his hon Friends no doubt dissuaded many LEAs from taking part, thus denying to the parents of four-year-olds the benefits that are available this year.

Mr. Hawkins: Does the Minister share my astonishment at the sheer effrontery of the suggestion by the hon Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) that the scheme would not help much in Wandsworth because the vast majority of three and four-year-olds there already get full-time nursery education? Does the Minister agree that that is precisely because of the enlightened leadership in Wandsworth of a Conservative administration by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford) and his successors? It is astonishing that the hon Member for Walton should quote Wandsworth in arguing against the scheme.

Mr. Squire: Game, set and match to my hon Friend, not least because, as the House will remember, we are

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regularly told that Conservative authorities have not been good at LEA provision. As my hon. Friend makes clear, Wandsworth has been doing well.

The voluntary nature of phase 1 makes it all the more surprising that Opposition Members have prayed against the regulations. The local authorities involved have agreed to the funding arrangements that we are putting in place. No other local education authority region is affected. Private and voluntary providers in the phase 1 regions which do not wish to take part in the scheme and which have not registered with the voucher company will not be affected by the regulations.

In truth, Labour Members want to obstruct the implementation of phase 1 in a startlingly cavalier fashion. It is as though they want to punish the local authorities that have taken a positive and forward-thinking step. Do Labour Members really want those local authorities not to be able to regain funding that has already been deducted for the voucher scheme? Do they really want to deny more than 16,000 four-year-olds a choice that they might not have had before?

It is a selfish stance. It is also a strange one in the light of comments by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) that, in the event of a Labour Government, he will honour the vouchers that have been issued. What sort of promise is that in the face of tonight's action? I conclude that Labour Members want merely to make mischief and that, having lost the argument on the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill, this is just a smokescreen.

The hon. Member for Walton mentioned qualified teacher status, which, again, is familiar territory for hon. Members who served on the Committee that considered the Bill. Let me underline again that the Government do not share the view that quality nursery education can be achieved only if all voucher-redeeming institutions are led by staff with qualified teacher status. Labour Members have said that they too want the private and voluntary sectors to play an important part in the expansion of good-quality nursery places. Insisting on QTS would exclude the vast majority of those providers, who are providing excellent pre-school education.

The staff leading the way and working in many of our nurseries and playgroups already have the relevant qualifications and experience to offer children a wealth of personal, social and learning skills. The new money flowing into those sectors can only improve the existing provision.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Squire: I will give way, but for the last time.

Mr. Soley: It is on that issue. Many of us are worried about the quality of education in some private institutions. Is the Minister saying that only the head needs to be qualified, or is he saying nothing about the qualifications of the rest of the staff?

Mr. Squire: I refer the hon. Gentleman, who was not blessed with joining us on the Standing Committee and who obviously missed the exchanges on this, to the Audit

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Commission's report earlier this year, which considered the various settings. One of the report's central conclusions was that, in terms of the quality of provision, no inherent assumption could be made that one setting was invariably better than the other. Not only Labour Members, but Liberal Democrats say that they wish to encourage these providers, but their suggestions, if adopted, would deny those providers the chance to take part in the expansion of nursery education.

Let me turn to evaluation. Labour Members have regularly stated concerns about how lessons learned in phase 1 can be applied to phase 2. They have made that clear in debates in Committee, on Second Reading and during Report, but it makes no sense to block a move that will help to achieve one of their main demands. If there were no phase 1, the scheme would be implemented throughout the country without any evaluation. That is yet another example of Labour Members' inconsistency. They ask for something, it materialises and then they reject it.

I am sure that many local authorities throughout the country are anxious for phase 1 to develop so that they can see how the volunteer authorities fare. It is in everyone's interests that any necessary fine-tuning takes place before phase 2. Let me make it clear that many LEAs, regardless of political control, will not thank Labour Members for their interventions tonight.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Squire: I have given way a lot, unlike the hon. Member for Walton, and other hon. Members want to contribute.

It is self-evident that full evaluation of the scheme will not be possible until it is fully implemented. For such evaluation to be of any constructive use, clearly, it needs to be undertaken over a longer term, but it is equally clear that we can learn some important lessons from phase 1. As I have said, those in turn will ensure that phase 2 is implemented as smoothly and as successfully as possible. In fact, the interest and co-operation shown by volunteer authorities makes this a unique and valuable opportunity because we all want the scheme to work.

The operational issues that we are looking at cover the mechanics of the issue and redemption of vouchers, the payment process and how money reaches providers and how well the voucher company handles the task. We are already learning lessons about the mechanics of issuing vouchers. Parents in the phase 1 areas have now received their first vouchers. We can review how effectively application forms are reaching parents of eligible children and how many of those parents have been contacted directly through the child benefit data base.

I am happy to report to the House that implementation is proceeding as planned. I am happy with the progress so far. Some 630 providers from the private and voluntary sectors have registered to take part in the scheme. On average, over 80 per cent. of parents in the phase 1 areas have now received their vouchers and many will have already handed them over to providers of their own choosing.

In a matter of weeks we will be in a position to know how the vouchers have been exchanged with specific providers. There are initial indications of an expansion of places in response to the voucher initiative. That is one of

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the most important pieces of information. We have already made the first payment of grant to individual providers. We will be looking at how quickly the voucher triggers payment and how money reaches the provider, be it the local education authority, the Funding Agency for Schools or an individual establishment.

There are other areas for consideration which have been set out in debates during the passage of the Bill, but in the interest of other hon. Members who wish to participate, I will not itemise them now. This is in the interests of parents, local authorities, providers and the children.

It would be wrong to revoke the regulations. They serve a purely functional purpose, enabling grants to be paid to providers of nursery education to four-year-olds. They apply only to the four volunteer areas. More importantly, the first phase enables key operational aspects of the scheme to be fully tested so that phase 2 is a success. This is good news for anybody who may be anxious about the scheme and how it will impact on local authority provision. It should be welcomed rather than frustrated. I call on the House to reject the motions.

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