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11.13 pm

Sir Malcolm Thornton (Crosby): It may be that the fears expressed by hon. Members will prove groundless--time will tell. We know that a remarkable consensus exists on nursery education, underpinned by its benefits and the absolute need to ensure the highest possible quality. Those are the givens in this debate, on which there is no disagreement either within or outside the House.

I reiterate the concern that I expressed in the debate on the Loyal Address, to which the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) referred, when I told my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that if a pilot means anything it means objective analysis of every part of the scheme's implementation in the pilot areas. It means monitoring whether the scheme is working and delivering the quality that I mentioned. I hope that the Minister will repeat the assurance given by my right hon. Friend that if the scheme does not work the Government will be prepared to consider whatever amendments need to be made before we risk full implementation throughout the country.

11.15 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith): Today we heard the Prime Minister commit the taxpayer to spending probably millions of pounds to deal with some of the problems found in and around our schools; yet tonight we are debating a pathetically inadequate and bureaucratic measure instead of well-funded, high-quality nursery education which would help to head off some of the problems facing our schools

If the Government had only a small fraction of a policy for the families of Britain, they would not be introducing measures that will undermine family structure. When I intervened on the Minister, he seemed to indicate that a private sector nursery could have virtually no qualified staff. Although there are many private sector establishments--such as Bringing up Baby in my constituency, which I helped to establish--which are of a

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good standard and use highly qualified staff, many are of poor quality. It seems that the Government are to take money from local authorities to subsidise a scheme which will not produce the standards that we want. Quality is critical.

As the Liberal spokesman said, we are asking local authorities to implement an incredibly bureaucratic system. As the Minister knows, Hammersmith and Fulham council has one of the best reputations for good quality nursery education. For the first time in six years, it is having to cut nursery education because of Government-imposed cuts on local authorities. Prior to that, the authority was protecting nursery education by making cuts elsewhere. That is no longer possible. Good nursery schools such as James Lee and Vanessa have to suffer cuts. Sometimes that may be only a fraction of a teaching post, but I remind the Minister--who represents a London constituency, if one can say that Hornchurch is in London--that the capital has the specific problem, in addition to those affecting other inner cities, of multilingual children, including many refugees, who require extra tuition. Education authorities are asked to deal with that situation because the Government allow refugees--rightly, in my view--to enter this country. Why on earth are the Government introducing a scatterbrained scheme that does not address the provision of high-quality nursery education?

The Minister answered my intervention in a way that suggested that the quality of staff training is not sufficiently high. Even the Government now recognise that poor quality education in Britain has been part of the country's economic and social problems for many years; yet they are prepared to give money to organisations that may not be up to the job. Nursery education should be high quality and use highly trained teachers, and it should be universally available. The Minister should rethink the scheme. He should not waste money on bureaucratic experiments that no one wants. Conservative parents and Labour parents agree on that. Parents want the money to be spent on achieving high-quality nursery education with well-qualified staff, whether in the public sector or in the private sector. If the Minister rethinks the scheme, he might get some support.

11.19 pm

Ms Estelle Morris (Birmingham, Yardley): The debate is important because the regulations relate to the financial arrangements for phase 1 of the nursery voucher scheme and they will become the financial provisions that will govern phase 2 of the scheme. The Minister is absolutely right: this is a last chance attempt to stop phase 1 going to phase 2 before a proper evaluation takes place. There will not be a further opportunity for hon. Members to debate whether they want a nationwide nursery voucher scheme. Despite the best efforts of the Labour party, there will be no proper scrutiny or full evaluation of phase 1 before phase 2 is imposed.

The hon. Member for Crosby (Sir M. Thornton) is Chairman of the Select Committee on Education and Employment. He must reflect on this before he casts his vote this evening. No matter what the situation in phase 1 at the end of March next year, and no matter how serious the flaws, he cannot believe that the Government have no intention of proceeding with phase 2. That is the importance of today's vote--it is a last chance, but it is a real chance, to stop an unpopular and wasteful system being imposed on the rest of the country.

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Throughout the consideration of the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill, the Minister failed to explain or to justify why he will not deal with the issue in a sensible and responsible way. Time after time--from the Queen's Speech in the autumn to Third Reading of the Bill in the spring--hon. Members on both sides of the House pleaded with the Minister properly to evaluate phase 1 of the scheme. The hon. Member for Crosby and his colleagues the hon. Members for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) and for Bury, South (Mr. Sumberg) must be deeply disappointed that the Minister has not listened to their calls for a proper evaluation.

It is not only politicians who have urged caution: teachers, governors, parents, local authorities and nursery providers have all made a strong argument for evaluation before expansion. It is sad--it is as though the Government are trying to make up for lost time. It has taken them 17 years to learn what others have known all that time--that nursery education is vital for a child's success. The Government have spent almost two decades doing nothing, and now they will not be sensible enough to pause for thought. Late converts are welcome. The Minister must learn to listen and to listen well.

There is already ample evidence that a second thought would be wise. The hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) talked about black propaganda--the only propaganda in this House is blue, not black. The Labour party does not talk about propaganda, it talks about the real experiences of real people in the phase 1 scheme. At the start of the phase 1 scheme, 2,000 parents have vouchers but no places, parents in Wandsworth have places but do not understand why they now need a voucher, and 20 per cent. of parents have not returned the application form.

On the evidence so far, the House would be acting irresponsibly if it did not make the Government pause and properly evaluate before going any further; to do anything else would be an abuse of public funds. The Tory record on pre-school education is one of broken promises and missed opportunities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) said, from Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s to John Major in the 1990s, a generation of children have been denied the start that they need to their schooling because the Tories have failed to keep their word--and they are doing it again tonight. The Prime Minister's cast-iron commitment of last year is as far away today as it has ever been.

On this issue at least, the Government could keep their promises. The money that they are earmarking tonight for the nursery voucher scheme could have been earmarked for real nursery places for real children in top quality nursery schools. But instead of spending the money to keep their promises, the Government choose to give it to men who will shuffle paper. The statutory instruments that we are discussing approve £10 million to be spent on shifting 20 million pieces of paper around the system. They approve £1.1 million in publicity. An undisclosed sum will be paid to a management company, That will mean reducing places for three-year-olds. What a waste of resources and opportunity.

After two decades of failure and inaction, on this occasion the Minister owed it to parents and children to spend their money on places, not paper. It is foolhardy to implement the voucher system without proper evaluation.

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To approve the statutory instruments before us tonight would do exactly that. That is why the House should approve the motion to reject them.

11.25 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mrs. Cheryl Gillan): As the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), said earlier, I must say that I have heard no intelligent argument from Opposition Members to convince me that the regulations that we have debated tonight should be revoked.

I was surprised at the paucity of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), which was only exceeded by his ignorance of the regulations that he seeks to block. For his information, statutory instrument No. 235 is more detailed than statutory instrument No. 353. Statutory instrument No. 235 is a regulation made under the grants for education support and training scheme, a well-known scheme for specific funding. The primary legislation underpinning those regulations requires that detail. Statutory instrument No. 353 is based on a very general grant-giving power, and the primary legislation does not require the same detail. I fail to understand why the hon. Gentleman asked that question in his opening remarks.

We had excellent interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), who showed us that the scheme is now working well in Norfolk. He was able to put the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) straight, as the hon. Gentleman obviously fails to understand the procedure for providers and parents, which is very streamlined. The hon. Gentleman gave exaggerated evidence of the problems, but I suppose that that is to be expected from the Liberal Democrats, who exaggerate at every opportunity.

The hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones), who graciously chaired our Committee proceedings on the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill, seemed to be having problems coping with his constituency correspondence. He spoke of the menace of nursery education and wanted a voucher-free zone, but the message that came across was that he wanted Welsh parents to have less choice than English parents. He would not even give way to the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), who wanted to put him straight on the matter. I was surprised that the hon. Member also gave us the strong impression that he considers that women should be seen and not heard.

A first-class contribution was made to the debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey), who as usual showed great understanding of our education policies. As we sought to explain, the regulations are simply a vehicle to enable grant to be paid to providers of nursery education, and they are being used to implement the first phase of the nursery education voucher scheme. Moreover, the regulations affect only providers in four local authority areas, and on a purely voluntary basis. Revoking the regulations would penalise the very institutions that we should encourage--forward-thinking providers who want to expand the availability of nursery education. The four local authorities would not be able to regain the funding that has already been deducted for the scheme.

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We want the voucher scheme to be a success for parents and providers alike. Ultimately, children will be the main beneficiaries. We are confident that, in time, the additional demand created by the voucher scheme will lead to all four-year-olds having the chance of nursery education. Phase 1 allows us to test fully the operational arrangements that we are setting up. That process will ensure that when phase 2 is implemented it is efficient and cost-effective.

As for quality, we have imposed important safeguards to ensure that only providers of good quality education take part in phase 1. The requirement that all providers must publish information about their provision, accommodation and staff will enable parents to make an informed decision.

If the Labour party is so firmly opposed to nursery vouchers, where are its alternative proposals? At present, nursery education depends on chance--the chance that parents can afford it or that they live in an area where such education is provided. We want choice, not chance, and that is exactly what the scheme will deliver: choice to parents wherever they live.

Dog-in-the-manger politics have brought the Labour party to the Opposition Dispatch Box in a mediocre and mean-minded attempt to rob pilot authorities of the funding that has already been deducted for the voucher scheme. I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to reject the Opposition proposals.

Question put:--

The House divided: Ayes 210, Noes 236.


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