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Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill

8.9 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 1.

Lord Elis-Thomas moved Amendment No. 8:

Page 1, line 7, at end insert--
("(1A) No arrangements for the issue of vouchers in respect of nursery education (in this subsection called a voucher scheme) shall be made under this section in relation to Wales, other than arrangements for experimental voucher schemes, until the conditions set out in subsection (1B) have been met.
(1B) The conditions referred to in subsection (1A) are that--
(a) experimental voucher schemes shall have been in operation for a period of 1 year throughout the area of at least two local education authorities in Wales; and
(b) the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament a report on the operation of those experimental voucher schemes, and of voucher schemes in England, which in particular shall include an assessment of the likely effects of voucher schemes upon the provision of nursery education in Wales.
(1C) An experimental voucher scheme under this section shall not remain in operation for more than one year.").

The noble Lord said: Perhaps I may first of all apologise for not being present for the Second Reading debate. I was acting in pursuance of my duties on behalf of the Government, promoting their Welsh language policy. That has some relevance to what I want to speak about today.

I have a major problem with the Bill because it is a piece of primary legislation which applies to England and Wales together. The normal practice in this place is to have separate Bills where there is a major difference of policy or timing, such as in local government or in language policy, or, where it is a major Bill which has relevance to both countries, it is taken with specific Welsh clauses. I would instance the Environment Bill which had specific clauses relevant to policies or practices that were to be pursued in Wales. In all education legislation, certainly post-war, there are relevant clauses which have applied specifically to the

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Secretary of State for Wales since 1964, and before that to the Secretary of State for Education through the Education Department and the Ministers who were responsible for Wales.

One of the areas of devolution in this kingdom which has probably gone on longer than most--certainly in the context of Wales--is education. Yet this Bill does not do that. The Bill provides for no devolution of policy and no devolution of administration. The whole structure of the Bill is centralist. It behaves as if England and Wales were a unitary state and as if the Welsh Office did not exist. Your Lordships may have views about whether the Welsh Office should or not exist. I am strongly in favour of it because it pays my salary for two days a week. However, since it is not paying my salary this evening or perhaps it is, I feel free to criticise--in fact I feel it is my duty to criticise--the Welsh Office in this case. I try not to criticise a department for which I work on a part-time basis, generally in areas of policy which coincide with my work for the Welsh Language Board, but in this case I believe that I have the support not only of the Welsh Language Board, which put forward a memorandum to the Welsh Select Committee in another place which looked at this issue, but also of the overwhelming majority of educationists and of parents throughout Wales in moving this amendment, which would have the effect of placing on the face of the Bill a statutory equivalent of a Welsh pilot scheme.

I say that because, like so many Members of the Committee, I have received genuine correspondence--letters written by real people who expressed real concerns. I have also personally received a number of petitions in all my capacities on this issue. Those petitions will be forwarded to the Welsh Office in the appropriate interval between this debate, depending on what happens to the amendment, and Report stage. I promise that we shall turn to the issue of the relationship between education and nursery education in Wales at all further stages of the Bill until we receive a clearer understanding of the position from the Government.

What we are doing in the Bill so far as concerns Wales is legislating for provision which already exists. I find that a complete legislative anomaly. I can understand the Government saying, "Yes, there are certain education authorities which do not deliver a service and therefore we need to provide diversity of provision there". But the case in Wales is over the top. On one calculation, with double counting, the old county of Clwyd has 101 per cent. of four year-olds in school. We do not all reach Clwyd proportions but even Gwynedd, which for historical reasons is at a lower level, is at 77 per cent. of its four year-olds in school at January 1995. The overall Wales average is 92 per cent. The figure for three year-olds in nursery, primary or special schools in Clwyd at the same date was 65 per cent. while the figure for Wales as a whole is more than 50 per cent.

So when the Prime Minister made his commitment about the introduction of nursery education, he was making a commitment which I am sure was relevant to large parts of England but was not as relevant to Wales as provision already existed. I take rather a dim view

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of a piece of legislation which works to undermine the consensus of operation which we have established within the Principality in the way that the Welsh Office, the inspectorate, the local education authorities, the Welsh Joint Education Committee and the voluntary sectors, both Mudiad Ysgalion Meithrin and Wales PP have worked together over the years to develop this level of provision and the commitment that we have. I find myself in agreement not for the first time with John Ellis, the now retired Director of Education for Dyfed, who gave evidence to the Select Committee in another place on behalf of Cymdeithas Cyfarwyddwyr Cymru, the Association of Directors of Education Wales, in which the scheme was described as an imposition on Wales of a solution designed to meet the significantly lower levels of provision in England. Whereas I would be in favour of schemes imposed on Wales to improve the level of provision to that of England in a number of areas, that is probably not the case in education. Therefore, I think we need to look at ways in which we can, as it were, rescue the Welsh Office from its willingness to go along on this matter with the Department for Education and Employment.

A letter was sent to the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, which indicates quite clearly that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, has consulted his departmental colleagues in the Welsh Office on this issue, but it is not a convincing letter. It does not go much further than information which we already had. Therefore, I still believe that the evidence given to the Select Committee in another place and the response subsequently from the Welsh Office to that evidence is still the benchmark for the implementation of this policy and it will be as far as I am concerned--I am sure that other colleagues will speak on this issue in a similar way--until we are convinced that this is a cost-effective scheme in terms of Welsh Office funding, local government funding and LEA funding and indeed in terms of the voluntary sector.

What is the administrative cost of devising a scheme which provides for, at best, two-thirds of the cost of a place, which top-slices that funding away from the all Wales local authority budget and then puts it back, allegedly through the operation of the voucher scheme? At the same time the individual parent will have to apply for the voucher scheme to the private contractor. I have no objections to private contractors provided they are delivering a service which is more efficient than that delivered in the public sector. In this case I am not convinced that that is happening. This whole bureaucratic structure will exist apparently to create choice and diversity. Where is this choice and diversity in deepest Powys where a parent seeks to ensure nursery provision for a child? There may be the small development of voluntary groups in the area, but if that child is already in the reception class or in the nursery class of the local primary school, surely there is no way in which that parent in deepest Powys in that rural context can exercise a choice. That position is replicated throughout the Principality in different ways.

We do not know, because we are not yet privy to the PES round for next year, how much new money, if any, will be added to this scheme. But I think it would be

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helpful if we could have an indication of any parameters of possible new money. It seems to me that the present design of the scheme creates a situation whereby the local authority service is to be denuded of resources in order to create an appearance of choice which in real terms it is not possible to deliver and to create the appearance of choice where already there is such a high level of public provision. Therefore, I say to the Government and to the Welsh Office Ministers who went along with the scheme in Wales and did not take a Welsh Office option for a different policy structure, which I shall come to in two minutes, that this Bill is seen in Wales as being deeply ideological. That is why there has been such a sharp response across the board from a whole range of bodies--I shall not repeat the list--which gave evidence to the Select Committee.

The Government will argue that the office of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector has, in its inspection, identified areas where standards need to be raised. Of course, there are areas throughout both the voluntary and maintained provision where standards can be raised, but the way to do that is to target additional resources where they are most required. The Prime Minister should have gone to the Conservative Party Conference at Porthcawl--from my observation in the Gallery of the other place today during Welsh Questions, Ministers were quite tanned and fit after being in Porthcawl--and announced the introduction of a nursery voucher scheme for three year-olds in Wales, because that would have been the logic of his position. I am not arguing for that. But if the Government are interested in extending choice and providing diversity of provision in Wales, they should have set up a voucher scheme in that area where there is not yet full provision, and not interfered with the level of provision that all the players in the complex scene of under-five education have established in that structure.

So what has the department succeeded in doing, and the Welsh Office on its coat tails? They have succeeded in antagonising a whole section of Welsh educationalists and parents. In 20 years of representative politics I have never seen such a big, genuine postbag as I have seen on this issue. I am sure that that applies to my other colleagues here as well.

There is a simple way out. The Minister has still the opportunity to speak with his new colleague in the department. Perhaps I may say en passant that I regret the way in which his previous colleague in the department was forced to resign. I do not believe that it is helpful to public life in this country that people's personal lives should make profits for newspapers and that Ministers are removed from office in that way. I say that en passant for the record.

With a new Minister in the department with responsibility for education, there is now an opportunity for the noble Lord, Lord Henley, to talk with Mr. Jonathan Evans in another place and to reassess the relationship of the Bill to Welsh education and nursery education and the particular role of the Welsh Office, and to provide for a very simple resolution of this issue. The Secretary of State for Wales is the Secretary of State and, as the noble Lord, Lord Walker, once told me

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when he came to that position, he is able to do anything within his devolved responsibility. So there is no reason why the Welsh Office cannot undertake policy changes in this area even at this late stage.

The Government simply need to move their own amendment at Report or Third Reading. I shall give them the wording if they would like it. I could take it from a series of measures on education that apply to Wales and to grant-maintained schools. There exists on statute something called the Schools Funding Council for Wales. I am not aware that it has even met because so few schools decided to opt out that the power resides with the Welsh Office, the department funds it and there is no such body. But that body could exist by order of the Secretary of State. Similarly, with this scheme, the Welsh Office, and Mr. Evans in particular, can recognise the strength of the opposition to the scheme and its redundant nature in Wales as regards four year-olds. They could recognise that even at this late stage. The Government could draft a clause which would ensure that the nursery voucher scheme for four year-olds in Wales will proceed only by order of the Secretary of State. That would give the department and the Government the opportunity to proceed with the scheme if there appeared to be a consensus in favour of it following the proposal on the face of the Bill for a pilot scheme. If that is not the case, the Government would be going with the grain of education and parental opinion in the Principality.

This is my final point. This is a very important constitutional issue. When legislating in this House and in another place on primary legislation for Wales, it is important that any government must go with the grain of opinion in that country, otherwise there will be an increasingly legitimate demand for primary legislation for Wales to be removed to Wales itself. The Labour Party has such a policy for Scotland and the Liberal Democratic Party has such a policy for Scotland and Wales. Therefore, the Government must realise that when they play around with Welsh education and try to run Welsh education through unitary primary legislation, they are digging their own grave. If they are interested in maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom they have to recognise that that unity is in diversity. I beg to move.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Hooson: I very much support this amendment although, left to my own devices, I would have gone for a much stronger one. As I listened to the enthusiastic speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Young, on an earlier amendment today, it occurred to me that she obviously believes that the intention of the Bill is to improve access to nursery education in the country generally. But its effect as far as Wales is concerned will be entirely retrograde.

I do not normally intervene in debates on education, but in my 17 years in Parliament I have never had such a postbag as I have had on this issue. I have stripped it of all the enclosures. Many of the letters are hand written and have been very carefully drafted by parents

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and concerned people in Wales. For example, I had considerable correspondence on the subject of BSE, but that pales into insignificance beside this subject.

People representing all shades of political opinion have written to me about this matter because they are tremendously concerned about education generally or education for their own children. There was an absence of ideology in most of the letters I received, with people taking an entirely pragmatic view. I suggest, therefore, that this matter should be probed very carefully with a view to the Government thinking again.

The position of nursery education in Wales reflects priorities held by people of all political opinions, including parents and education authorities. Do the Government accept that, on the figures provided by the 1994 review which are the latest figures available to us, 92 per cent. of four year-olds to five year-olds in Wales receive nursery education, which is 92 per cent. of those available to take it? Do they also accept that 73 per cent. have full-time education and only 18 per cent. part-time education? As a matter of interest, on my calculations, whereas the LEA schools take the vast majority of these students, only 545 are in private schools. Do the Government equally accept that on the same figures the majority of three to four year-olds in Wales receive part-time education? Of the total number of children in that age group of just over 38,000, 51 per cent. go to school, of whom 13 per cent. are in full-time education while 38 per cent. are in part-time education. So, in so far as it affects Wales, the Government's scheme is a backward step.

The more that I have read those parents' letters, the more I am convinced that their fears are well founded. The solution that the Government have put forward for the country generally is a solution for areas of the country which are without a solid commitment to pre-five education. The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, referred to the fact that in the old Flintshire there was 101 per cent. attendance by four to five year-olds. That is easily explained because children come over from Cheshire where there is little state provision of nursery education. That happens all along the Welsh border. As a number of my correspondents have pointed out, children come over from Herefordshire and Shropshire to have state nursery education in Wales.

The financial implications of the scheme are worrying an awful lot of people. As I understand the position--I should be grateful if the Minister could deal with this point in detail--the Welsh Office proposes to deduct from the local government revenue settlement most of what the LEAs now spend from their own resources on providing full-time education for all four year-olds in Wales. I understand that it is intended to redistribute that money, through a private company contracted for the purpose, to the parents of the same 38,000 or so children each year by means of vouchers with which they can purchase--I now quote the words of the consultation document:

    "three terms at least of part-time, high quality pre-school education in the year before compulsory schooling begins".

Given the provision that is already made by LEAs in Wales, the proposed scheme is clearly a retrograde step. Most of the children are in full-time education, not

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part-time education. How will vouchers pay for that, even with the preference given to Wales in the allocation per head under the formula that was dealt with in Amendment No. 86?

Parents in Wales are very content with state nursery education at the moment, but all that is being threatened by the Government's scheme. It appears to me that the Government are abandoning their obligation to give children in Wales full-time education from the age of four and part-time nursery education from the age of three, and are shifting their responsibility to a private, profit-making company. Nobody on the Government's side can lecture me on the benefits of private enterprise because I happen to have been chairman of two of the most successful private enterprise companies connected with Wales. However, there is a sphere for private enterprise, where the object is to have the maximum return on the money invested, and there is a sphere where that should not apply--and the prime motive here should be the well-being of the children.

When the Prime Minister made a public commitment to provide a pre-school place for every four year-old whose parents wished to take it up, he was expressing a sentiment with which we can all agree, but, even when it was made, that commitment had in Wales not only been fulfilled, but exceeded. It had been exceeded by a system almost wholly provided by the local education authorities. It seems to me that to go backwards and to abandon that pragmatic approach in favour of what seems to be an ideological approach is wrong. I hate people with excessively ideological approaches--whether in the Labour Party in the old days (I hope that the Opposition have grown out of that by now) or in the present Government who seem to be hooked entirely on their ideological approach. What possible justification is there for this Government to threaten a system of nursery education in Wales which is working well? If similar provisions existed in England, there would be much more opposition to the Bill. I do not pretend to be able to speak on the merits of the Bill so far as England is concerned, but I think that it is entirely unacceptable that the Government should take this course with regard to Wales.

I have supported the amendment because the very least that the Government could do, given the satisfactory nature of nursery education in Wales at present, is to have pilot schemes in Wales to see how the new scheme will affect the present set-up. No such scheme has been carried out in Wales, so why on earth should the people of Wales accept the system? If the Government do not do that, I think that they will be surprised at what some of their own supporters in Wales think about it. The Government would be very wise to have another look at this.

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