Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: Having heard that contribution, Gordon Brown will extend training up to the age of 70.

5 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsay: Some of us need it! I am grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, has seen fit to raise the fundamental issues involved in Part II of the Bill. Indeed, Amendments Nos. 17, 42 and 44 seek to delay the coming into force of Part II of the Bill until 1 August 1998 with the extra pre-condition that the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is head of the National Audit Office, should be satisfied that the scheme has minimised the risk of fraud.

I appreciate the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, about fraud, but I do not believe they constitute a reason for putting back the date when the voucher initiative is applied to the whole of Scotland. The recent Audit Commission report on pre-school education concluded that the voucher system will need powerful procedures to prevent fraud. The Government entirely accept that recommendation and will ensure that such powerful procedures are in place for the initiative's pilot year and beyond. The department will be discussing counter-fraud measures with its own internal auditors and with the National Audit Office as well as with the voucher management company.

Naturally, the details of the measures to be employed to counter fraud cannot be made public--they would be of little value if they were--but they are being put in place and will be rigorously monitored throughout the course of the pilot year. The Government will welcome the National Audit Office's involvement in developing payment, accounting, monitoring and reporting systems and the National Audit Office will be free to investigate the effectiveness of the system's anti-fraud mechanisms in practice.

The National Audit Office operates by advising on the development of systems and by examining their implementation. It is not for me to commit the Comptroller and Auditor General or his department to any particular form of statement at any particular time. I am confident that the National Audit Office, vigilant as it is, will look closely at the systems of the voucher initiative at the appropriate time.

23 Apr 1996 : Column CWH25

Preventing fraud, as your Lordships know, is one of any government's primary responsibilities. This Government take that responsibility very seriously across the sweep of their policies and in relation to the voucher system in particular.

The amendments do not make fraud any less likely to happen. They simply seek to delay the voucher system's extension to the whole of Scotland. On that basis I would urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment, especially as I have assured him that the Government place a very high priority on fraud prevention.

Lord Sewel: I thank the noble Earl for what he says. I am not quite sure whether he is giving me a guarantee that the scheme will not be implemented until the Comptroller and Auditor General is satisfied. If that were to be the case, of course, it would change my position significantly. At this stage I am prepared to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Sewel moved Amendment No. 18:

Page 11, line 16, at beginning insert--
("(A2) This section is subject to section 36(2B) below.").

The noble Lord said: I am afraid that the guts here are again in Amendment No. 45. This amendment proposes to delay the implementation of the scheme. Its origins lie entirely in the evidence that we heard in Glasgow. At that time the Minister set great store in the pilot year to iron out the difficulties and to evaluate the scheme robustly--and great credit to him for indicating that it would be a robust evaluation. I believe he said that there was everything to play for in light of the pilot and the evaluation.

When we questioned witnesses it is fair to say that the recurring theme of what they had to say--be they providers themselves or be they those involved in evaluation of education schemes like Professor McCall from Strathclyde--was that their concern was quite simply that if one sought to evaluate the pilot scheme it would be virtually impossible to put the pilot scheme in place, have it running, evaluate it and make modifications in light of the evaluation in time for the scheme to go national the following August.

The amendment seeks to give time for the Government to get the scheme right in their own eyes, to make sure that there can be a robust evaluation, that the pilot can be properly and comprehensively considered and for the scheme to be modified in the light of any difficulties and shortcomings that the evaluation shows up so that it can be properly implemented a year later.

In Glasgow, in relation to the evaluation of the scheme itself, a great deal depends on the specification of the evaluation study. For example, it is necessary to look at whether there is an increase in provision--there may or may not be an increase in provision as a result of this scheme. It is necessary to look at the actual price movement in the private sector as a result of the scheme. A powerful argument from the Scottish Consumer Council was that because the value of the voucher was not sufficient to cover capital expenditure, there may be

23 Apr 1996 : Column CWH26

no new players entering the market, and if that is the case the consequence is likely to be an increase in the price level rather than an increase in the number of places. So there are movements in the price level.

There has to be an assessment of the scheme in terms of geographical access. We have heard about the difficulties of the remote rural communities in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. There is also the question of social access and whether in areas of relative social deprivation the scheme would increase access to nursery provision. We have heard about the way in which the scheme would add to the smooth transition from nursery education to primary education for the majority of children. The basic fundamental point is an assessment of the quality of the nursery education that is to be provided. It is a very complex evaluative scheme.

In Glasgow, the Minister indicated that he would make available to us the specification of the evaluation, and I hope that that can be made available shortly so that it can inform our discussions at a later stage. If that is the case, I am very grateful indeed.

By listing what are the basic areas that the evaluation of the scheme should cover, it shows that in fact it is more than a tall order to say that you can have the scheme in place, do the evaluation and implement from June to August, when in fact much of the test of the scheme will only be possible towards the end of the school year. Many of the aspects of the scheme can only properly be tested after it has been given a full year of running. That is the argument behind having that period of delay: it is to enable a full, proper evaluation and modification to take place. It is on that basis that I move the amendment.

Lord Addington: The idea of having some kind of trial period of this new voucher system is a very sound one, but it is totally meaningless if there is not a sufficiently vigorous test. The suggested two-year period was recommended by virtually everybody, and when we were in Glasgow everybody concerned said that two years was preferred and that one year was the bare minimum. The noble Lord has just moved the recommendation of the expert witnesses who said it was the only real time scale in which they could do the job properly. They thought that with one full year they might possibly be able to get something out of it. The Government's time scale was thought by those people who knew what they were talking about to be too short. If this trial period is to mean anything, it must provide the information to create a judgment, and if it is too short and does not take account of the pressures of the educational year, then surely any trial period is totally meaningless. Thus, this amendment or something like it--some extension--is absolutely essential to making this process in any way valid.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: It is pretty obvious that within two years, let alone one year, the longer-term benefits of a voucher scheme will be difficult to detect, because the effect on public attitude and on what parents see as the possibilities of nursery schooling will build up as time goes on and as people come to understand

23 Apr 1996 : Column CWH27

what the possibilities are for them of using their vouchers in various ways. However, the sheer mechanics of how the vouchers are issued, whether people are able to use them, whether the local authorities can deal properly with the funding in this way, and the immediate snags will become obvious in the shorter term. Whether one has one long pilot scheme or several fairly brief ones depends on what one is trying to get out of them. It seems to me there is merit in having a series of short, sharp pilot schemes which show their tactical problems.

The Scottish Consumer Council is anxious about what it describes as the lack of information about the details of the scheme. That was its worry, much of which will emerge as time goes on. It is worried about that and therefore it would like the pilot to reveal as much as possible about the nature of the scheme. However, to say that one year can be of no use and that two years would be much better is probably not completely relevant. I think that it will be a long time before we know how this scheme will develop so I am not sure how much merit there is in this particular suggestion.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page