Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Lyell: My Lords, I listened carefully to what the noble Lord said. Perhaps at a later stage he or my noble friend the Minister may be able to enlighten me as to the evaluation of the pilot scheme. What is the process of the catch-all system of evaluation? What will be the parameters for the evaluation of the success or otherwise of the scheme? If the noble Lord can spell that out for me at the end, I await his comments with interest, as I believe that that will clarify the amendment.

Lord Ewing of Kirkford: My Lords, I should have thought that it would be for the noble Earl to explain the evaluation of the pilot scheme. To take the argument back one stage, what is the purpose of the pilot scheme? If the purpose is not to find out the strengths and weaknesses of any aspect of policy that is being introduced, basically there is no point in having a pilot

13 May 1996 : Column 350

scheme in the first place. If the Government are to introduce a pilot scheme that is not to be evaluated, it seems to me that there is little purpose in introducing it. If it is being suggested that in introducing the pilot scheme all that the Scottish Office is doing, with its massed army of civil servants, is trying something out to see what form the application should take and to test various administrative aspects of the voucher system, that can be done without the expense of a pilot scheme in these four areas of Scotland.

The noble Lord, Lord Addington, is absolutely right. I hope that the Minister will tell your Lordships whether the Scottish Office is to evaluate the scheme. If so, no doubt the noble Earl can answer his noble friend's question and the questions that are in the minds of us all. I am quite happy to state what I believe should be examined.

One of the matters is the quality of nursery education to be provided. I believe that that is essential in the pilot project. It was noticeable that the Minister did not mention it in summing up the last debate when he spoke of the desires of parents. Some parents would be happy with a high educational content; others would be happy with a "play scheme" content, to quote his words. That is not part of nursery education. The Scottish Office has advertised for an inspector for the private nurseries which are to be set up to check that they provide an acceptable standard of nursery education. It does not say anything about "play scheme" content. I believe that the noble Earl should look closely at the advertisement placed in the national press some months ago. The Scottish Office advertised for an inspector to inspect the private nurseries which are to be established. Already one has two aspects of the pilot scheme that ought to be evaluated.

There are other aspects of the pilot scheme that should be evaluated; for example, the take up. The pilot scheme should find out how many parents are presently paying for nursery education for their children and take the £1,100 voucher as a contribution to what they have been paying over the past given number of years, depending upon how many children there are in the family. The pilot scheme might show that it is subsidising those who are already paying and who can afford to pay for their children's private education.

I always remember Michael Forsyth, the Scottish Secretary, saying during an education debate in the Scottish Grand Committee that his parental choice was made through his cheque book. That quote can be checked easily. It was a Scottish Grand Committee meeting in Edinburgh. Michael Forsyth was not then Scottish Secretary but Minister of State or one of the Under-Secretaries in the Scottish Office. He made it clear that he made his parental choice through his cheque book. That is a privilege people are entitled to have. I do not act in that way but if people wish to, who am I to criticise? Where I do criticise is if those parents cash in on the scheme and claw back some of their cheque book parental choice.

There is no shortage of aspects of the pilot scheme that should be evaluated. I am surprised that the question was put. I look forward to hearing from the Minister,

13 May 1996 : Column 351

first, whether the Scottish Office will evaluate the scheme; secondly, what tests it will apply to the pilot project in the four areas of Scotland; and, thirdly, whether, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, the scheme will be withdrawn in the event that the pilot projects are shown by the evaluation test to have failed.

This is an important aspect of the discussions of Part II of the Bill. Like my noble friend Lord Carmichael, I have great respect and liking for the Minister. I know that he is keen to give as much information as possible and to be as helpful as he can when these questions are raised. It is in that spirit that I join the noble Lord, Lord Addington, in speaking to the amendment.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can clarify a matter. It seems to me that a year will be a very short time in which to evaluate the pilot schemes. If I were planning to set up a nursery school, it would take me at least a year to obtain suitable premises and carry out any necessary conversions, equip them and engage staff before I could even start taking in pupils. It seems to me that if we are to get a real picture of how well the whole thing works, a period of at least two years will be necessary.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I was unable to be present to hear the evidence given in Glasgow. I support the amendment. I have read and listened carefully to the points made. The first and most important issue to make clear is that there are two aspects to parental choice. There is the aspect of whether public finance is available to provide a voucher for parents who at present cannot, because of lack of availability, or do not choose to, use LEA provision, and whether giving a voucher to parents in that group is a valid position to take.

There is then the question regarding the nursery provision which is able, and available to, meet parental choice where the parents want their child or children to go to the local authority nursery. We could have a long debate as to how many parents--it would be a bit like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin--will choose to send their child, full or part-time, to a local authority nursery and avoid the use of vouchers. The Government could then argue that there is complete choice.

However, the financial arrangements of the scheme the Government have put forward appear to carry a marked danger, under the guise of offering increased choice to some parents who do not now receive what they want, of eroding or worsening the choice that is currently available to other parents. Among them may be parents of children who are deemed to be most in need of access to the maximum time available for pre-statutory school age education.

I am thinking not just of children who are physically handicapped but of those who are emotionally and behaviourally disturbed or who come from families with multiple problems. There is often provision made to ensure that special needs children--not just the most severe 2 or 2.5 per cent. but the 18 per cent. about whom

13 May 1996 : Column 352

Members of your Lordships' House on all sides are deeply concerned and to whom we want to see high quality nursery education made available--are catered for.

There is also the question of whether any particular means of looking at the financial arrangements for implementing the scheme will have expected or unexpected financial repercussions on local authorities' ability to continue the existing level of provision, and whether interfering with the complex nature of local government funding will have a damaging impact.

I listened with interest to the Minister when he alleged that Members on this side of the House condemned the Government's proposals as being ill thought out. I waited for him to refer to the community charge or "poll tax". He omitted to do so. Interfering in the complicated nature of local authority funding, and thereby, perhaps unwittingly--I give the Minister the benefit of the doubt--affecting financial arrangements may disrupt a local authority's capacity to continue to provide for children with the greatest need. That may be a factor that can be identified in an evaluation of the pilot scheme.

There is also a need to study the whole issue of monitoring and the avoidance of fraud. There can be no doubt about the potential for fraud. Regardless of one's views of the desirability of the scheme, there will obviously be unanimity in your Lordships' House about the need to evaluate the scheme to ensure that, were it to be implemented universally, there was no avoidable scope for fraud.

There is also the issue of physical and mental safety and the quality of the monitoring of those who make such provision, which is funded from the public sector. I hope that the Government consider that to be an inevitable and valuable aspect of evaluating the pilot scheme. There is a whole range of reasons why that applies in the interests of the most vulnerable children and those who may be at risk of having their current level of provision cut. I refer in particular to those with special needs and to those at greatest risk.

From my experience in local government and from contacts with colleagues in Scotland I know that there are many unique cases. The noble Lady, Lady Saltoun, said that it may be sufficient for children to have two to two-and-a-half hours of nursery education perhaps three days a week. That may apply as a generality. As chair of an education committee I have come across cases in which the mother is suffering from a terminal illness. All too frequently those in local government are involved in cases in which there is a query about a non-accidental injury or there is a problem in the home. There must be flexibility and the ability for a child to be taken into nursery education for a longer period, in particular to an environment where the adults and the child know each other. Such times are extremely stressful.

All those aspects must be monitored and evaluated. The Government appear to be confident that the scheme will be a total success. The Minister says that there will be only gainers and no losers in the government scheme. Surely, therefore, it would be reasonable for the

13 May 1996 : Column 353

Government to accept a full evaluation in order to ensure that that confidence is fully borne out by experience.

5 p.m.

Lord Goold: My Lords, as regards the timing of the pilot scheme, we must remember that there will be continuous assessment, as is the case in relation to all education issues in Scotland. I fear that as a result of political dogma there will be those who will deliberately try to obstruct the pilot schemes. Certainly there will be lack of co-operation.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, is not in his place today. He felt considerable frustration at the opposition that was expressed during the committee meeting in Glasgow. He referred to the condemnatory tone of the proposals. During the Select Committee he addressed representatives of CoSLA, the EIS and other teaching organisations. He said:

    "This is an opportunity surely presented to you to improve the situation by a proper assessment and monitoring of the pilot scheme. Can I have some assurance from you that you are looking forward to the pilot scheme, not as an exercise in self-justification for your criticism and condemnation but with a view to trying to arrive at some kind of objective agreement on the operation of the scheme and its success or failure?".
The noble Lord received no such assurance from any of the organisations.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page