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Lord Morris of Castle Morris moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 6, after ("may") insert (", by or in accordance with regulations,").

The noble Lord said: This amendment heads a composite group in which Amendment No. 2 is the most important. Depending on the Minister's response, I may need at the end of the debate to move that amendment to a Division. I may also wish to come back at a later stage to other amendments such as Amendments Nos. 6, 13, 16 or 31.

I set the scene for what may be a long day's night with some words from the much underrated poet, Hilaire Belloc, who wrote:

He held the Human Race in Scorn ...

Alas! That such Affected Tricks

Should flourish in a Child of Six"!

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I hasten to add, for the benefit of noble Lords opposite, that that is not confined to the aristocracy in any way whatever and should be held as a comment upon the whole of the human race at the age of six. But, as the twig is bent, so will the branch grow; and education in the earliest years of our lives is perhaps more significant, more important than at any other stage when the mind is wax to receive and marble to retain.

Still, we make no apology for spending some time on this scheme, and particularly in asking for serious consideration of the need to take this whole business at a responsible and respectable rate. In the terms of the Latin tag, festina lente--let us make haste slowly; because what is decided among us today and on the day we come to the Report stage will have a most significant effect on a very large number of young people. So Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 6, 13, 16, 22, 23, 29, 30, 31, 32, and even so late an amendment as Amendment No. 84, which I hope we shall reach before dawn, are of great significance.

The second amendment in this group would require the Secretary of State to proceed by order in making arrangements to make grants under the Bill. Under the terms of Amendment No. 84, relating to the powers attached to Clause 7, such an order would then be,

    "subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament".

The purpose is to require a further round of parliamentary scrutiny before the arrangements are put in place to enable the scheme to proceed. As the Bill stands, Ministers may proceed to impose it at any stage after Royal Assent and to make the arrangements to introduce the main schemes without any further parliamentary consideration.

It occurs to me that it is an odd Bill in so many ways. It is called the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill. But it is the word "voucher" that seems to be the cause of all the churning trouble in the nation at the present moment. A number of noble Lords tell me that their postbags are stuffed, crammed, pressed down, shaken together and running over with complaints from all over the country about nursery vouchers. They, like me, are mildly surprised that the Bill simply talks about the Secretary of State's power to make some sort of "arrangements". An examination of all the little pamphlets that emanate from the DFEE shows the scheme to be very closely argued, whether you like it or not, in relation to the issue redemption, use, value and inspection of vouchers. But there it is. That is the form in which it has come before us. It has been before the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee. After a certain amount of care and thought and much correspondence and to-ing and fro-ing with the DFEE, the committee feels that it is probably all right the way that it stands. However, given the uncertainty surrounding the scheme and its practical effect in the pilot areas--the committee will forgive me if I refer to "pilot areas" instead of "phase one areas"; the two terms seem to have become inextricably intertwined--which is as yet unproven, it

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is argued by us that Parliament should have a further opportunity, having as it were conceded the principle of nursery vouchers, to consider at what point it is wise to proceed to the main scheme.

Amendment No. 6 requires the Secretary of State, in proceeding with the main scheme, to have regard to the results of any evaluation conducted in advance. That links with Amendment No. 13 which prevents the Secretary of State from proceeding with the main scheme before he has laid in front of Parliament an evaluation of the operation of the pilot over a full 12-month period. That amendment is designed to draw together the many strands of ongoing evaluation--to which I shall return--to which the department has drawn attention in debates so far, but to require that evaluation applies to the full period of the pilot, and for it to be made coherent and published in Parliament so that we can all have a look at it. Evaluation would thus become a public rather than a private process, although nothing in the amendment would impede the work which the department has already put in train to assess the pilots in their middle and later stages. It is just that the matter should not depend on what happens to churn up in Norfolk or other places during the next couple of months before that has been set in a full context.

The Government may argue that the amendment would introduce an element of delay since the full evaluation could not be completed until after 31st March 1997. But the logic of the Government's position, having started pilot schemes which are already in operation as parliamentary approval is sought, would be that those pilots ought to be allowed to run their course and a proper judgment be made as to their success or failure, strengths or weaknesses, and what lessons are to be learnt before the main scheme proceeds. Festina lente--make haste slowly.

The amendment in no way cuts against the purpose of the Bill, which, incidentally, contains no date for the main scheme to start. No date is mentioned. It merely introduces what we consider to be an orderly timetable born of the logic of the Government's policy so far which places the Bill and the parliamentary approval they seek into a proper framework. It seems to us that the onus is on the Government and the Minister to convince us that the process must go through at this breakneck speed and that evaluation is not necessary before implementation for some reason which produces the date at a point where it comes absolutely at the end of the pilot scheme.

Evaluation has been discussed before. The key point was encapsulated by the Secretary of State when she said on 19th March 1996:

    "We shall evaluate exactly how the scheme works as phase I proceeds".

In other words, the evaluation will start and finish before the pilots are concluded.

But other things have been said. Ministers have committed themselves to evaluating a pretty fair range of issues. The evaluation is to include reports from the autumn, with the chief inspector being invited to report on phase one as a whole before it finishes. The second

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issue is publicity and public information for parents, which presumably can be gathered before the scheme is complete. Thirdly, I quote the noble Lord the Minister:

    "We need to evaluate the benefits to children's later educational performance".--[Official Report, 20/5/96; col. 717.]

On any ordinary reading of those words it seems that those "benefits" to their "later performance" could hardly be evaluated in any sensible way until some time had passed and the benefits or disbenefits to their future educational performance had been at least investigated. Presumably they will be investigated before phase one finishes.

Fourthly, Ministers will evaluate how effectively forms reach parents. That is probably all right. It can be done within the 12-month period. The fifth issue relates to how vouchers are issued, collected and redeemed. That is more complex but, with enough person power and resources, something can perhaps be done. Sixthly, they will evaluate how effectively vouchers create new provision. That, I submit, is much more difficult. Although I believe it is an undisputed fact that, so far, very few other providers have crept out of the woodwork and set up their stalls, it may very well be that that will come on stream very much faster in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth months of the phase one pilot scheme and be much more difficult to evaluate as it actually happens.

Seventhly, do the Government propose to evaluate whether the voucher is set at a right value or not? Of course we shall have a great deal more to say about that. Once again, how much easier it will be to do if the pilot scheme has run its course.

Eighthly, there is the impact of special needs pupils. That again is going to be extremely difficult to evaluate because special needs pupils will need to be evaluated as a group and over a period. Those things cannot be done on a snapshot basis.

Ninthly, the Government have said that they will evaluate safeguards against fraud. That may be possible within a 12-month period but I have serious doubts about that.

In the circumstances it is clear that Ministers accept the need for a wide evaluation. What they have so far refused to accept, and what our amendments in this group hope to convince them of, is that it should be thorough; that it should be based on the full year's experience in the pilot areas; and, if possible, that it should be published.

The Government are running four pilot schemes or phase one schemes from 1st April 1996 to test the workings of the nursery voucher proposals in three London boroughs: the City of Westminster, Wandsworth and Kensington and Chelsea, and in the County of Norfolk. The plan now is that the main scheme should be introduced from the 1st April 1997, with vouchers being issued (according to the schools Minister) before the general election due by May 1997. As things stand there is no relationship between the ending of the pilot schemes and the launch of the main scheme, since the Bill as proposed enables Ministers to introduce the main scheme without any further preconditions at any date they choose.

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The original purpose of creating pilot schemes seems to have been side-stepped in order to hurry this timetable for issuing nursery vouchers. I hope that the Minister will explain that when he comes to reply to this first debate because, as we see it--I approach this delicately--regardless of what may happen at a general election, the issue of nursery vouchers is not going to be helped by being rushed. If the Labour Party were returned with a respectable majority, we are quite clear what we would do: we would honour the existing vouchers and issue no more. If the Conservative Party were returned with a suitable majority it would simply carry on with the scheme as it has inaugurated it. Why the unseemly rush?

The latest government document Nursery Education Scheme: the Next Steps which was published on 9th January 1996 seems to me to invert the logic of holding pilot schemes at all by arguing that:

    "Full evaluation must await the bedding down of the full scheme".

On that basis a full evaluation of a pilot scheme seems to be impossible in any circumstances.

I would make one thing very clear. This amendment is not intended, nor would it function, as a wrecking amendment. It would have the effect of preventing the Government from introducing the main scheme before a full year of the pilot scheme has elapsed, plus a short period for the evaluation and the laying before Parliament of a report. The effect of the amendment, if agreed, would be, on the Government's own logic, to enable the voucher proposal to proceed in a more effective manner. The amendment would require an order to be agreed by Parliament before the main scheme could be started, but the timing involved differs very little from that announced by Mr. Squire in launching the scheme on 2nd November 1995. In practice an order could still be laid before a general election held at the end of the Parliament, although it might be thought more proper for the subject to be a matter of debate at the general election in the light of the pilot schemes, and for the new government of whatever party then to decide whether to proceed. The crucial point is that Parliament would be empowered by being given a vote on the order if prayed against.

If I may draw all that together, this group of amendments points the way for the Government to run, as they claim they will, successful pilot schemes which can demonstrate in practice how the vouchers will work. It offers the Government the opportunity to seek a public affirmation of the value of the scheme after a one-year experiment endorsed by Parliament and introduced after proper consideration. No doubt the pilots will yield experience which will be very useful to civil servants in the private planning of the main scheme, but there will be no opportunity either to demonstrate their success or for Parliament to apply the brakes if the train appears to Parliament to be heading directly for the buffers. The Government should then in our view seriously consider whether this amendment

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does not offer the opportunity significantly to improve the credibility of their policy for the expansion of nursery education. I beg to move.

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