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7.32 pm

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East): Education has always been a Scottish priority: it is an important part of our life, outlook and culture. Our system is basically strong, but it is under-resourced. I believe that investment in Scotland's education system will pay massive dividends.

I make a plea on behalf of the Scottish Pre-School Play Association. That organisation provides quality assurance and training schemes and has 3,000 groups throughout Scotland which represent excellent value for money. It is the largest single pre-school carer and education organisation in Scotland and it needs about £500,000 to build on its existing high quality service. I was shocked to learn that it receives only 37 per cent. of the funding received by its equivalent organisation in England and Wales, and only 13 per cent. of the funding given to the equivalent organisation in Northern Ireland. I ask the Minister to provide that core funding to the SPPA, as a small investment in such a tried, trusted and successful organisation will reap rich dividends in the long term.

As Scottish education generally has received poor treatment from the Conservative Government, it is incumbent on Scottish Members of Parliament to do our utmost to prevent the Government from inflicting further damage on education provision in Scotland. The Minister

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will be relieved to hear that I do not oppose everything in the Bill. The establishment of the Scottish Qualifications Authority and the principle of a single authority are welcomed conditionally. I say "conditionally" because I do not want to see that body become another quango filled with Tory yes-men. We shall watch carefully to ensure that Lord Lindsay honours his commitment, made during debate in another place, to consult properly with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities about the SQA's membership. There must be adequate provision to ensure that the merger between the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Vocational Education Council occurs smoothly and with minimum disruption both to staff and to those who benefit from the service.

I shall focus on part II of the Bill, which refers to education for children under school age. That is a much greater concern. Although the Bill states that it relates to the provision of grants and social security information to pre-school education providers, we know that they are simply mechanisms for facilitating the Government's unwanted and unnecessary voucher scheme. It is somewhat devious and deceitful of the Government to obscure that fact by not referring explicitly to the voucher scheme.

The Scottish National party is strongly in favour of expanding pre-school education for children under five. We made a detailed pledge to do so in our costed budget proposals, with a commitment to spend an extra£194 million on pre-school education in the first four years of an independent SNP Government. That would ensure a nursery place for all three and four-year-olds whose parents want it.

Mr. Raymond S. Robertson: Will the hon. Gentleman concede that when those budget proposals were independently costed it was found that they would create an £8 billion deficit?

Mr. Welsh: That figure exists only in the Minister's imagination. If one stands upside down with one's head at a 45-degree angle and imagines a Tory wonderland, one might arrive at £8 billion, but the reality is that the Minister is a Scottish politician who takes every opportunity to downgrade and debase his country. He cannot believe that, of all the countries of western Europe, only Scotland would run an £8 billion deficit given all of our resources. It has been shown clearly that Scotland has a budget surplus.

The Minister plays down his country because he sees this place as providing his sole career opportunity, but he will not be in Government after the next election, and I hope that, following a future Scottish election, all those who care about Scotland will return to Scotland to legislate on behalf of the Scottish people in accordance with their wishes. If the Government had listened to the Scottish people for one second, this nonsense would not be headed towards the statute book.

The Minister has redefined the word "consultation": he will listen to what everyone says and then ignore them. We do not have government: we have dictation. That poses a danger to every citizen in a representative parliamentary democracy. The Minister does not like that,

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but he sparked those comments with his distorted view of his country's economy. He does not recognise Scotland's true wealth and he should be ashamed of himself.

Mr. Robertson: The hon. Gentleman is living in fantasy land. They are not my figures: they are from the Fraser of Allander Institute, which every Opposition Member has quoted in the House at some stage.

Mr. Welsh: The figures have been demolished absolutely. If one stands on one's head, squints a lot and uses one's imagination, one might arrive at an £8 billion deficit, but it is strange that the Minister believes that Scotland is the only country in Europe that would be too poor to run its own affairs: only a Unionist could dream that up, because the reality is very different and the Scottish people know it.

We not only oppose the Government and all their works; we believe that the proposed voucher scheme is morally wrong and completely impractical. It undermines the principle of universality in our education system and the ability of local authorities to maintain existing levels of pre-school provision, which are already under strain due to lack of resources. The Minister does not even understand the basic principles of the education system through which he went and through which the majority of our children go. Those principles have always informed that system and made it strong.

It is widely acknowledged that the £1,100 value of each voucher is not enough to cover a full-time nursery place. The Educational Institute of Scotland estimates that the cost is about £3,000 in the Strathclyde region. In the Select Committee, the Minister himself acknowledged that the voucher will cover only a part-time place. That sums up the Government's attitude to the situation. It is ludicrous to suppose, as the scheme does, that the cost of educating every child is the same. For children with special needs, the real cost of providing even a part-time place is well over £1,100. We heard vague noises from Secretary of State today about special needs children, but that is not good enough. I hope that when the Minister winds up he will give us more than vague noises of concern about special needs. The £1,100 voucher will not cover the necessary educational provision for that important and vulnerable group. I wish to see positive proposals made on that subject before the Bill becomes law.

Better-off families have the option of topping up the value of the voucher, but that option is not open to most families whose need is usually greater. The Government's policy is socially divisive and will not meet educational need. Pre-school education is supposed to begin the process of trying to create a level playing field for children, regardless of background. It is not supposed to reinforce existing inequalities. A £1,100 voucher will not have the same value in the Gorbals as it will in East Renfrew or Eastwood.

The scheme will be specifically aimed at children in their pre-school year, but it will fail to guarantee quality education for all. The English Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Employment, was forced to concede that possession of a voucher will not guarantee that four-year-olds will be granted a nursery place. Will the Minister concede that the same applies in Scotland? It should not.

Mr. Robertson: Why is the hon. Gentleman flailing around for an example in England to rubbish the scheme

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when there is an example in Scotland in East Renfrewshire? Every child who has a voucher has been guaranteed a place. Why does not he use that as an example and stop flailing around in England?

Mr. Welsh: With his prize test cases, the Under-Secretary of State may be able to achieve those results, but can he replicate that throughout the country? His English colleague cannot. I merely repeated the words of his English colleague who put the scheme into practice and found it wanting. If the scheme fails, I do not want it to be inflicted on Scotland, but the Under-Secretary of State clearly views the situation differently.

Nursery education should be a natural part of our existing national education system, which has a tradition from elementary through to university education. Nursery education should be slotted into the existing Scottish philosophy and system. That would guarantee quality and give assurances to all Scottish parents, who want a system run by the Scottish local authorities which they elect and trust. Scottish parents can put faith in the quality of the product of their local authorities. Instead, the Government are pursuing their economic dogma with a fragmented, socially divisive scheme that will be sheared off from the mainstream provision of education in Scotland. We have already seen the havoc wreaked on the national health service by the imposition of a purchaser-provider split in the delivery of health care. We have witnessed an explosion of bureaucracy which will be repeated in pre-school education if the scheme goes ahead.

The Government like to talk about efficiency. The Secretary of State mentioned 2 per cent. administration costs, but we should consider the process that he is about to inflict on us. Parents will have to request application forms, complete them and send them to the private company that is handling the scheme. That company, Capita, will send out the vouchers which the parents will take to the provider in the private, voluntary or public sector with whom they hope to enrol their children. The provider will then send the vouchers to the local authority, which will gather all the vouchers it receives and send them to Capita. Capita will do the calculations and send them to the Scottish Office, which will send the grants to the local authority. The local authority will then have to distribute the money to the providers according to the number of vouchers received. That bureaucratic nightmare will be repeated three times a year, once in each term. Does the Minister call that efficient? How does he think that it can be run cheaply?

That description does not even take into account the chaos that will result from the parents' confusion about the working of such a complicated system. I will use the English example again because the scheme has been put into practice there. [Interruption.] Would the Minister care to listen? I repeat that I will use the English example because schools there have had inflicted on them what the Minister is trying to enforce in Scotland. After the pilot scheme was introduced in March, the Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Employment, was forced to admit that parents were confused about the application process. Almost a third of parents failed to apply and there is no reason to assume that the situation would be any different in Scotland, because the scheme will be the same.

The voucher process is outrageous and expensive and it will impose market conditions where no market should be. It will inevitably divert vital resources from the task

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at hand--the universal provision of top quality education for pre-school children. Resources will be taken from that, not given to it. The voucher scheme marks yet another stage in the Tory Government's war against Scotland's local authorities. Instead of using that valuable asset to provide services for the people of Scotland, the Government bypass, under-resource and attack local government. That is a mistake.

Questions must be raised about the honesty of the pilot scheme. Will the Minister confirm the basis on which the pilot scheme will be independently researched and evaluated? The participating authorities are not representative of local authorities as a whole. They tend to have low existing provision for pre-school education. The evaluation must therefore measure what can be achieved by spending £1,100 per pupil and whether that matches the high standards in local authorities with more widespread provision. The evaluation should be honest and compare like with like. I do not believe that the £1,100 voucher will ever come close to matching the existing provision, nor will it be adequate for the task that will be set.

In the Lords Select Committee in Glasgow, the Under-Secretary of State dodged Lord Addington's question about whether the whole scheme would be scrapped if, after independent evaluation, the pilot scheme is deemed to have failed. If the Minister cannot give that assurance, how can we believe that the evaluation will be independent? If the evaluation shows that the scheme is not up to standard, will the Minister guarantee to scrap it?

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