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The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, said, this clause is a serious part of the Bill and I intend to make reference to all matters that are relevant to the House's deliberation on the issue.
When one thinks of the party opposite opposing choice, it must be a matter for comment that certain senior members avail themselves of that choice. But they are right to do so; it proves that they are good and
The noble Lord, Lord Sempill, mentioned the Scottish Parent Teacher Council study that suggested that 77 per cent. of parents wanted local authority provision. That is fine. We want the excellent reputation of local authorities to continue to attract children to their education systems. We expect the voucher scheme not only to increase the number of children who attend local authority schools but also to increase the provision for those children. However, a recent survey by the Scottish Independent Nursery Association suggested that 65 per cent. of parents want independent nurseries. I have no view on that. It is entirely up to parents whether they go to the public, the private or the voluntary sector, which is a vital sector, for the pre-school education of their children. It is parental choice that matters.
The noble Lord, Lord Ewing, for the second time, made great play of the fact that we are hardly offering parents choice if we are sending them vouchers. First, I doubt the logic of that argument. Secondly, we are not sending parents vouchers; we are sending them application forms for vouchers. Should any parents not want to be involved in the nursery voucher scheme, they simply need not fill in the application form. I believe that answers the noble Lord's concerns absolutely.
Many research studies have shown that early years education brings significant benefits to children in terms of both social development and learning capability. Pre-school education gives children a head start, and the Government's pre-school voucher initiative aims to make that head start available to every child. It need not be socio-divisive. Indeed, we wonder why noble Lords opposite are convinced that it must be socio-divisive.
Both the noble Lords, Lord Carmichael and Lord Sewel, imagined hypothetical situations where, because of the nursery voucher system, a number of parents opted for a different type of provision. If we relate that hypothesis to the facts, we can assume that five children in an area attend a local authority school. I remind the House that 55 per cent. of four year-olds at the moment receive local authority pre-school education. With the advent of vouchers, if two of those five children are taken to another source of provision by the parents because they have that choice, there are probably an additional four children in the area who will opt for provision from that local authority for the first time. For every two children that may leave the school, there is a huge pool of four year-old children in Scotland at present who are not receiving pre-school education but who will be given access to pre-school education for the first time by the voucher system.
I stress that it is not as though the private sector is the only sector which charges parents for the education of their children. I will not recount an article that appeared in the Scottish section of The Times Educational Supplement on Friday. It dealt with the upset felt by parents and others because Glasgow, Inverclyde and West Dumbarton are proposing to charge up to £70 a week for their local authority provision of pre-school education where, for instance, children come in from outside the local authority area. The public sector is also indulging in charging parents, which in some instances will prevent those parents from continuing to have access to that local authority education. Vouchers will enable those parents to continue to enjoy that provision.
I would also remind the House that the voucher initiative can be implemented using existing powers contained within Section 73 of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980. Part II of the Bill does not introduce the ability to provide nursery vouchers for the parents of four year-old children. What it does is to introduce precisely tailored powers with associated provisions that will bring quality, public accountability and efficiency to how provision is made. It will bring protection for parents, for the children and indeed for those where information about their status as being parents of four year-olds is taken from social security records. It is therefore essential that we add to the existing provision, which enables the Secretary of State to grant vouchers to providers of pre-school education, the vital parts of Part II which will ensure quality and other necessary measures.
The noble Lord, Lord Sewel, continues to be concerned about the dangers of fraud. I explained in great length in Committee that we are adamant that fraud will be fought with all the most sophisticated and modern measures. The voucher system cannot be susceptible either to significant fraud or to significant bureaucracy. I stress to the noble Lord, Lord Sempill, that a management company will administer the scheme at very low cost. We are confident that the cost of issuing and redeeming the vouchers will not exceed 2 per cent. of the total voucher programme. The scheme will be a remarkably cost-effective provision. As regards fraud, we have to, and will, employ robust procedures to ensure that no taxpayers' money is wasted. We in the Scottish Office and in government have to account for those procedures and will take on board any comments or suggestions made by the public accounts watchdogs which scrutinise the disbursement of public money.
Clause 23 has a key part to play here. It empowers the Secretary of State to pay grants and with the other provisions of Part II of the Bill to provide the quality we are looking for. In addition, it provides that the Secretary of State may by regulation prescribe the children in respect of whom such grants can be made. It is a very simple and central clause; it is a very simple and central part of the Bill.
I was grateful to the noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, for explaining from, as she said, her first-hand experience as a grandmother the costs that arise and the kind of provision that is offered to parents of young children. I can remind the House and indeed my noble friend
As various noble Lords have pointed out, with the average education span of a child, if education rather than the less formal playgroup is the main purpose, it is quite right that the part-time approach is pursued. However, we are confident that the £1,100, voucher will broadly cover the costs of the average provision of this kind of education for children. Recent Audit Commission studies in England and Wales, which I quoted in Committee, confirm our confidence that £1,100 vouchers will cover substantially the costs of either of those routes. I also dealt in Committee with a query raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sewel. The providers, be they in the voluntary sector, the private sector or the public sector, will be able to use the vouchers to help off-set the cost of loans and other sources of capital investment.
It is very important that we understand the basic facts underlying Part II. The Government are determined that we provide all parents of four year-olds with the means to supply their own children with pre-school education if that is their wish. We are determined that the vouchers initiative should support diversity of provision across the different sectors of providers. Our initiative will give parents choice because that will lead to more responsive services and a strengthening of the mixed economy of pre-school education. I am disappointed to find noble Lords opposite in both main opposition parties so opposed to parental choice.
The Government are confident that the voucher system represents the best means of ensuring the expansion we all desire. There are some 27,000 four year-olds in Scotland who are currently not going through local authority nursery schools. We want all those children to be stimulated into schooling. By allowing the Secretary of State to make grants for pre-school education, Clause 23 would allow the creation of a broad and quality oriented range of providers.
No political chamber in the world attaches more importance to or spends more time on discussing matters concerning the family than does this House. The crucial means of supporting the family is to give decision-making powers to parents from the very beginning of children's education. Parental involvement is the best way of enhancing contact between parents, teachers and children. It will help discipline in the home. Children must be our primary consideration--not the status quo as regards local authority education provision. Unless overall nursery provision is stimulated in all three sectors, some children will be left to watch "Power Rangers" on television in their pre-school year while others learn social skills at a nursery school.
This is no attack on local authority nursery schools. They have a tremendous reputation in Scotland. They will be great winners from the additional provision that will be required by those voucher-holding parents. Local authorities will benefit from this initiative, as indeed will all other parts of the educational sector, and as indeed will parents and their children. That is why we are putting so much new money into the initiative.
On this amendment Labour and the Liberal Democrats would appear to want to bar parental choice from this whole issue. They appear to want to bar parents from being involved in schooling. We welcome parental involvement in this. Parents who have made decisions about their children's nursery education are more likely to participate throughout the rest of their children's educational lives. They are more likely, for instance, to be involved in school boards. The whole cycle of co-operation will create a greater sense of community. Only the children of Scotland will suffer if this House rejects the valuable provisions in Clause 23 and in the rest of Part II. I therefore urge noble Lords to allow Clause 23 to remain a part of the Bill.
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