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10.46 pm

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): I have always appreciated the Minister's genial speeches but I disagree with him tonight.

Young parents, head teachers, school governors, nursery school teachers and their class assistants have all lobbied me most vociferously against the scheme. I am only in my 26th year in this honourable House and I have never experienced anything like the protests I have received in my constituency. Previously, my biggest mailbag was on the sad case of the beagle dogs who were being experimented upon and being forced to smoke cigarettes. I am now being overwhelmed by letters and lengthy petitions against this scheme. I have received 5,000 signatures of young parents in my constituency.

The professionals, the teachers and the young mothers at the school gate are adamant that they do not want the scheme and do not wish to see the "progress" suggested by the Minister. I have visited a dozen primary schools this year and I have held informal and formal talks and conducted several public meetings on the matter. At a public meeting in Connah's quay 60 parents decided that they wanted to debate the matter as soon as the school had closed. They left me in no doubt about their hostility, suspicion and anger over the voucher scheme. They felt that the scheme was liable to be socially divisive. They said that it might put money into the pockets of the well-off and menace the existing provision of nursery schooling.

I have here a typical petition. It is from the Dee Road infants school in my constituency and is headed:

It says:

I was so impressed by the case made and the passion with which it was expressed that I undertook to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In my county, we already have a very good nursery school system. My constituents--parents, teachers and governors of the schools in question--want none of the

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initiative put forward by Ministers. My constituents have asked me to tell the House that, at the very least, they want Wales to be exempted from the scheme. We want a voucher-free zone. There is no call in Wales for this scheme; there is mounting hostility to it. We are saying to the Secretary of State for Wales that he can opt out; he has the powers to do so.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Rod Richards): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jones: No, I do not have time. I hope that the Under-Secretary will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I thank him for his correspondence.

The people of Wales want the Secretary of State for Wales to opt out. My constituents are saying to him, "If it works, do not fix it." Even at this late hour, we ask the Secretary of State to ask the Welsh Office to leave Wales alone. If the scheme has to go forward, let it be consigned to England.

I remind the House that, 24 years ago, I heard and saw Baroness Thatcher, the then Secretary of State for Education and Science, make a very good speech about nursery schools at the Dispatch Box. It was on the lines of the debate on the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill. The speech was about her plans to increase nursery school places. The right hon. Lady, as she then was, wanted only £50 million a year for universal part-time nursery schooling, and only £100 million for capital expenditure. Of course, her plans were in being before the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries decided on a massive hike in oil prices.

Perhaps in some respects, Mrs. Thatcher's speech was the most important departmental speech on education of the 1970s. As I remember--I have re-read it--it was an emollient speech. It was not Thatcherite in style. It was made before she succumbed to the 1970s ideology of the late Sir Keith Joseph. However, it contained one trailer of the Thatcherite future. She said:

Was that choice sentence that was embedded in her emollient speech that day the origin of tonight's grants and regulations?

Since Mrs. Thatcher's speech 24 years ago, Britain has enjoyed about £120 billion-worth of North sea oil revenues and about £80 billion from privatisation moneys. For all but four of the 24 years since that speech the Conservatives have held power, yet the advance of nursery school provision has been wretchedly slow--[Interruption.] Please be quiet. Yes, once I was a schoolteacher, and two naughty girls--or rather, two naughty persons--are sitting in front of me. My hon. Friends the Members for Barking (Ms Hodge) and for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) might have the courtesy to be silent while I am speaking, especially as they have been in the House only since 1992.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. The hon. Gentleman can safely leave such matters in the hands of the headmaster.

Mr. Jones: I am glad that you have offered protection to my hon. Friends, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because they mean well.

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Britain now has a culture of drugs, of harsh violence, of offensive graffiti, of almost universal vandalism, of widespread unemployment and of urban decay. In that context, nursery schooling is vital, and my constituents are saying to me, "In Wales, can we consign the voucher system to the dustbin of history?"

10.55 pm

Mr. James Pawsey (Rugby and Kenilworth): I greatly enjoyed the reference by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) to my right hon. and noble Friend Lady Thatcher, and I am certain that she will enjoy his compliments.

If you will allow me to digress for a moment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall express my thanks and appreciation for what the Minister has said about security in schools. The whole House will welcome it, as well as the fact that all the recommendations have been accepted. I was also pleased to hear the cheerful comments--at least, those about security in schools were cheerful--by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle). It is good to see some agreement on that important issue between those who sit on the two Front Benches.

This is the third time that we have sought to debate the regulations. The first time, Opposition Members did not attend for the debate. They were not here, which gives us a clear idea of the importance that they really attach to nursery education. The second time that we tried, the business changed. Now we are on our third attempt and, having listened to the hon. Member for Walton, I wonder why he bothered.

None the less, this will be a short but important debate about the Government's scheme to introduce nursery education vouchers--an initiative that will place in the hands of parents a voucher worth £1,100, which may be exchanged either for a part-time nursery place or, where one may be on offer, for a full-time reception class place.

I have no doubts about the effectiveness of the scheme; my principal concerns are about the black propaganda currently circulating, which is clearly intended to discredit vouchers. That propaganda seeks to worry and distract parents by suggesting, for example, that the voucher scheme will reduce choice, and that it may not have adequate quality--the hon. Member for Walton said that again tonight. It is also suggested that there will not be enough places for all those whose parents seek to take advantage of the scheme, or that the system is bureaucratic. The usual phrase used--again, the hon. Gentleman used it--describes it as a "paper-chase". It is alleged that the scheme will cut the primary places now on offer for three-year-olds.

All those fears are groundless, and all the concerns have been fabricated for political rather than for educational reasons. All those synthetic reasons have been advanced in an effort to secure cheap political advantage. What I have to say about Opposition Members applies to the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), too--I mentioned him deliberately, to wake him up, because I thought that he was dozing off. If Opposition Members had had the imagination or the courage to introduce vouchers they would now be telling us that vouchers were the best thing for parents since apple pie. But because Opposition Members do not have the wit or the imagination, they seek

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to denigrate a first-rate scheme that will be of positive benefit and positive advantage to all the nation's nursery children.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North): I agree with my hon. Friend. The black propaganda that is being put out by the Labour party has certainly broken out in my constituency after the visit by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), who encouraged people to march in the streets against this scheme. Perhaps my hon. Friend might reflect in his comments that the Opposition have failed to address the fact that the scheme will give many thousands of four-year-olds the chance of nursery education which they did not have before. Whatever the merits of the scheme, at least some children will be able to enjoy nursery education who were denied that provision before. That is something that the Opposition have failed to understand and that they have certainly failed to promote. I hope that my hon. Friend will promote it.

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