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Mr. Forsyth: As the hon. Gentleman knows, a review of higher education is currently under way, and I understood that the Labour party was prepared to look at all options. I read a report in The Guardian that said that elements within the Labour party are advocating vouchers in the areas of higher and further education. Would the hon. Gentleman like to say something about the Labour party's attitude on vouchers in higher education?

Mr. Robertson: The Secretary of State should not believe everything he reads in The Guardian. He did not answer my questions. I asked him specific questions: will he give an assurance that the Government will not introduce primary and secondary school vouchers now or in the future? Yes or no?

Mr. Forsyth: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government have no plans to introduce vouchers beyond nursery provision in the Bill.

Mr. Robertson: There is the answer--and we knew it all along. The Secretary of State appeared before the Scottish Grand Committee on 29 January, in his own constituency, and he was asked about this. He said:

that is not the only odd belief--

    "that people know better than politicians and are entitled to choice."

When the Secretary of State was under pressure, he remembered that he was in the Cabinet and not in a cupboard at the Adam Smith Institute, so he lamely said:

    "It is not the Government's policy to introduce vouchers into higher education. My policy is the Government's policy"--

just in case we thought that he actually agreed with it.

People know what the nursery education vouchers system is all about: it is the Trojan horse for the failed experiments of the Thatcherite 1980s--the universal school voucher system bringing the street market into the classrooms of Britain.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Robertson: I will give the Under-Secretary a chance, because he has been denied the opportunity to make a big speech.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman is ranting against vouchers. What does he say to his right

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hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), who, when asked on "A Week in Politics" on Channel 4 on8 July last year whether he would get rid of the voucher system when he was in power, said:

    "No; if it is in place you have to work with the system when you take over"?

Mr. George Robertson: Of course one has to work with the system that one takes over. The voucher system will not be in place in Scotland, and we will get rid of it elsewhere as quickly as we can, for reasons that I will outline. It is unsound educationally, it is an administrative nightmare, and it is a costly way of providing nursery education. The Labour party is committed to the proper provision of nursery education and to giving people a real choice.

The Secretary of State should look at the history of education vouchers. In 1984, before the right hon. Member came into the House of Commons, Sir Keith Joseph--whom I found to be an engaging, if not a slightly loopy, gentleman--signed the obituary of the voucher system. On 22 June 1984, Sir Keith Joseph said:

He continued:

    "In the course of my examination of this possibility, it became clear that there would be great practical difficulties in making any voucher system compatible with the requirements that schooling should be available to all without charge, compulsory and of an acceptable standard."

He was a wise man who was speaking wise words, at a time when he and Margaret Thatcher were not convinced that vouchers could work. He said:

    "For these reasons, the idea of vouchers is no longer on the agenda."--[Official Report, 22 June 1984; Vol. 62, c. 290.]

Sir Keith Joseph was not the only person to hold that view: the Secretary of State was a signatory to the pamphlet entitled "Save Our Schools", issued by the No Turning Back group. The pamphlet explored the idea of nursery vouchers, and stated:

    "The voucher system has been widely canvassed as a means of bringing parental choice into education, and has very many excellent features, but some drawbacks. The economic theory which underlies it is admirable, but it has serious political weaknesses."

Those are not my words, nor the words of the Labour party, nor the words of any left-wing ideologist--those are the words of the right-wing vanguard of the Conservative party.

The pamphlet continued:

The pamphlet discussed the idea of piloting--we have heard a lot about this from the Secretary of State this afternoon. It stated:

    "It is difficult to allay fears by an experiment with vouchers. By confining vouchers to a particular area, genuine choice is denied and little idea given of what the national implications would be."

Perhaps, when the Secretary of State refers to tiny East Renfrewshire, he will bear in mind the conclusions of the pamphlet--written when he was younger and a hell of a lot wiser.

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As the Secretary of State said during his speech, nursery education is critical to the development of a child. Half a child's education development is believed to take place in the first five years of life. All recent research shows that pre-school education is positive, aids behaviour and performance, compensates for disadvantage, reduces delinquency and allows help for those with special needs at the earliest possible moment. That is why the Labour party is committed to providing nursery places for all three-year-olds and all four-year-olds whose parents want it.

Existing local authority provision is simple and cost-effective. It allows choice, it is easily accessible and it is easily understood by parents. The model of inclusive co-operation between the state, voluntary and other sectors has proved successful in practice. It needs to be expanded, and it does not need nursery vouchers.

According to all the evidence and the vast majority of the views submitted to the Government in a consultation exercise that they undertook but have chosen to reject, vouchers for nursery education will be costly and wasteful to run, immensely bureaucratic to administer, and will endanger existing provision to three-year-olds and to those with special educational needs. Vouchers will drag down standards and restrict or eliminate choice for those in rural and remote areas of Scotland. The Government know this only too well, but the ideological steamroller drives on, just like the poll tax did so devastatingly only a few years ago.

Mr. Bill Walker: The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that I have a large rural constituency. I trust that he will also acknowledge that in my constituency there is a demand for nursery education. My constituents would be happy to take part in a pilot scheme if they were given the opportunity.

Mr. Robertson: People in the hon. Gentleman's constituency may ultimately get vouchers, but whether they get nursery education is another matter. People cannot use their vouchers if there is not a provider. A voucher will be a meaningless piece of paper for people in remote areas. It is not a guarantee that a place will be found.

Mr. Walker rose--

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman has intervened, and he will undoubtedly speak in the debate. If he listens carefully to my views and to those expressed by people in rural and remote areas, he will hear some common sense. In The Times last April, the Secretary of State for Education said:

In October 1994, the right hon. Lady told The Independent newspaper:

    "I am very conscious of the unwieldy nature of vouchers".

The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden)--a rare wise voice among the gibbering rabble that are today's Tory party--described the nursery voucher system as a

    "rather spatchcocked scheme to provide a little more partial nursery education to a few more people aged 5".

In January this year, he complained in the House about the fact that the Government would hand millions of pounds to people who can afford to pay for private

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education. This ludicrous experiment is not about choice--although the Secretary of State insists it is. In Stirling, he said:

    "our proposals will enable them"--


    "to spend the voucher money on the nursery education that they choose".

No, it will not--it will provide a voucher, not a place.

I shall deal now with the detailed criticisms of the scheme made by virtually every organisation that submitted evidence to the Government during the consultation process. I wonder why the Secretary of State says that the scheme has been thought through and is subject to consultation when he ignores the outcome of the consultation process. Why is he so arrogant in saying that it will go ahead, irrespective of the views he has canvassed?

The first criticism is that the voucher scheme will be very costly to run. New providers will receive no money to meet start-up costs for buildings, facilities and implementation and training. The voucher will not cover the full cost of a place, and nothing is being done to create new places. The Government are waiting for providers to appear like street peddlers on the day of a football match.

It will be a bureaucratic nightmare. Administration has already taken £3 million out of the pot available for the pilot studies, with an unspecified amount going to the consultants, Capita. That sum alone would have provided some 1,800 nursery places across Scotland. [Interruption.] I wonder whether Ministers are in the Chamber to listen, to learn and to respond. I wonder how the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), will be able to wind up the debate if he does not listen to what is being said.

The Secretary of State told us that a voucher of £1,100 will have a £22 administration cost attached to it. However, the Scottish Parent Teacher Council has published the bureaucratic steps--which it is widely acknowledged are accurate--that will be required for the voucher system to work.

The process will involve 10 stages. In stage 1, the Child Benefit Agency sends an application for a voucher to the parents, and advertisements are placed. In stage 2, the parents complete the form and send it to Capita. In stage 3, Capita sends the voucher back. In stage 4, the parents select a nursery school from the list, and, if there is a vacancy, enrol their child. In stage 5, parents give the voucher to the nursery. In stage 6, the nursery gives the voucher to the local authority, which, in stage 7, returns it to Capita. In stage 8, Capita confirms receipt of the voucher to the Department of Education in the Scottish Office, which, in stage 9, sends the money to the local authority. In stage 10, the money is sent to the school.

We are told that that process will cost only £22 per nursery voucher. That is not credible, and no one will believe it for a moment. The process is mind-boggling in its complexity, and enormous in its bureaucracy. We are told that it will cost only £22, but that simply will not wash.

The nursery voucher scheme will endanger existing provision for three-year-olds in Scotland. At present, education for three and four-year-olds is not compulsory.

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With all the attention on four-year-olds, focus will be diverted from existing provision for three-year-olds. What about special needs education provision for three-year-olds?

Virtually all the organisations that have submitted evidence have said that the system will seriously erode standards in Scottish education. It is no wonder that the Secretary of State chose to confuse us in January--he certainly could not convince us about standards. It seems that teachers may not be employed in the nurseries. In Stirling, the Secretary of State said:

Of course opinion is divided: everyone is on one side of the argument and the Secretary of State and his Ministers are on the other. That is the division. We all know what the Secretary of State means: he will decide for us. It is either education or it is not. If there is no education, nurseries will become expensive playgrounds, and that is all. The Secretary of State should be honest about that.

But the question of nursery standards goes even deeper. What about the premises that will be provided for nursery schools? What about the non-teachers who will staff them, and their qualifications? What about safety in nursery schools? What about school security, about which Lord Cullen is inquiring presently in Stirling?

The Secretary of State said that proper standards of inspection would be spelled out in the Bill, but they are not. There are provisions regarding powers for the Secretary of State, but he did not identify the standards. He told us today that two additional inspectors will be hired to inspect the new providers. There are 100 inspectors in England, and that is too few. Few of the measures regarding standards and inspection from the English legislation are in the Scottish legislation. Why have the Government chosen to use orders and negative procedures in Parliament instead of including the measures in primary legislation?

We know from the Government's quality assurance document that quality assurance is a vague approach to self-completion of a profile and self-evaluation and inspection. That will be done by ministerial fiat--through unspecified blanket powers given to the Secretary of State by the Bill. Unless minimum standards are spelled out in the Bill and in public--we know what light-touch quality assurance is--we can conclude only one thing: this project is about low standards, low quality and cheapskate provision which is of no educational value.

We know what the Secretary of State is up to. If he is to hand out the money before the election, there must be places and there will be no places without providers. Therefore, standards will be deliberately dropped in order to encourage the providers to come forward quickly. That is the market solution: pile 'em high and sell 'em quick. That is the Government's approach to education, and to everything else.

The voucher system is a serious danger to special needs education at pre-school level. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) correctly pointed out that special needs education is not tackled in the Government's Bill. The Secretary of State said in Stirling:

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He repeated that vague statement this afternoon.

The Secretary of State also said:

Why did the Government not know the answers to those questions before the piloting began? The Secretary of State said that the system had been thought through. Why was that critical issue not thought through before the plan was wheeled out conveniently before the election? Do the Government not care about those vulnerable kids in pre-school education who have special needs? What about all the rural areas that the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) mentioned, where an £1,100 voucher will simply be a useless piece of paper and a meaningless election bribe of no consequence to finding a pre-school place?

This country needs good nursery education, and Scottish children deserve the best. They deserve more than this botched experiment in ideological alchemy. Labour believes in nursery education, and Labour will deliver.

Our country is now 35th in the world's education and training league, and the Government should be deeply ashamed of that striking and revealing fact. We spend less per pupil on early education than every European Union country except Ireland, and we spend a smaller proportion of our education budget on three and four-year-olds than any Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country. That may help to explain the humiliation of our 35th place.

The voucher scheme is doomed to failure. It is shoddy in character and deficient in detail, and will be lamentable in effect. It is simply a forerunner to the ultimate Thatcherite ambition of the creation of a supermarket in education. That creation will be properly stillborn when the electorate have their say within the next 50 weeks.

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