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Lord Tope: My Lords, I rise briefly at this time of night simply to add support from these Benches to the amendment and to look forward with at least equal interest for the same reasons to the Minister's reply.

Lord Henley: My Lords, I do not intend to follow the noble Lord, Lord Morris, down the tracks of the student loans legislation. I cannot remember whether it has received Royal Assent yet, but the student loans legislation has completed all stages in both Houses of Parliament.

The noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, alleged that the legislation is mere skeletal legislation. That is quite a serious allegation. I have to say that we did have considerable discussions with my noble friend Lord Alexander and the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee, before which my honourable friend Mr. Squire appeared. We have made a number of amendments in another place and a further amendment here. They are perfectly satisfied that this is an appropriate use of the powers. Therefore, I believe it is unfair, if I may put it at that, to say that it is a mere skeleton.

In relation to the amendment itself I feel that it would be technically wrong for me to say it was a wrecking amendment, but it certainly seeks to destroy the very policy which the Bill, as we set out at Second Reading, is designed to put into place; that is the nursery education voucher scheme. It is designed to ensure, if I read the amendment correctly, that that could never be implemented. That would be a direct blow against the policy of parental choice which we have pursued.

We believe that all parents should have the opportunity to gain access to an element of state funded education for their four year-old child. But different parents and children have different needs and different desires. We do not believe that one uniform type of provision should be imposed on all children and all parents. We believe that parents should have the right to choose the type of provision which is right for their child.

That is exactly what the voucher scheme will enable parents to do. It will ensure that funding, including the substantial amount of new money--some £400 million over three years--which Her Majesty's Government are providing for the purpose will flow to those institutions which are providing what parents want. Parents will be able to choose between good quality provision in the state, private or voluntary sectors--handing over their vouchers for the place they choose.

I believe that this will also have the effect of improving the quality of provision available. Providers who do not meet parents' needs will not receive grant.

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This will put all providers on their mettle and encourage them to ensure that what they offer is the best provision within their power.

We have never claimed that new places will be created overnight, but I have to say that from the evaluation that is already ongoing in the phase 1 areas there are already encouraging signs. Twenty-seven per cent. of playgroups in phase 1 have increased the number of sessions they offer, and the survey indicates some new places are being created in phase 1. There are new LEA places, too.

I would therefore reject the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, that there is merely some political motive behind what we are doing; what we are trying to do is to increase parental choice, and what this amendment would do is deny them just that. I hope, therefore, that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down perhaps I may ask him one question. Is it not the fact that Norfolk LEA were given approximately £1 million to begin a building programme of 25 to 30 new nursery units? They built nine of these before 15th April 1996, which was the date of the start of the pilot scheme. We are not sure how many more have now been completed. We would be very interested to hear if the Minister could add anything to that.

Lord Henley: My Lords, perhaps I may take this opportunity to correct something I said earlier to the noble Baroness, Lady David, when I said that I thought it was that they had not been given new capital. They were given a small amount of new capital. This was because we are still in the early days of the PFI initiative. It was quite right, therefore, that some new capital should be made available. Off the tip of my tongue I cannot remember exactly what new provision that has allowed them to make, but I believe it was quite right, in the phase 1 areas, to do just that. I certainly have great faith in the PFI initiative and what it might offer in the future. However, I will write in greater detail to the noble Baroness, Lady David, and I offer my apologies for misleading her and possibly the House at an earlier stage.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton moved Amendment No. 16:

After Clause 3, insert the following new clause--

Duties of local authority

(" .--(1) An early years strategy shall be prepared annually by each local authority to whom a grant is made under section 1 or in whose area a person to whom a grant is made under section 1 has his premises.

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(2) The local authority in preparing such an early years strategy shall make arrangements for consulting residents in its area and any organisations representing the interests of parents within its boundaries.
(3) In carrying out such a strategy each local authority shall--
(a) consult any relevant body within its area for the purpose of establishing where such provision does not exist, and
(b) take such steps as may be practicable within the resources available to it and to other providers to seek to secure provision for all eligible children as specified in section 1(2) within its area.
(4) In subsection (3), "relevant body" means--
(a) every health authority the whole or part of whose area lies within the area of the local authority;
(b) every National Health Service trust which manages a hospital, establishment or facility in the authority's area;
(c) any organisation which represents schools in the authority's area which are grant-maintained schools or grant-maintained special schools;
(d) the proprietors of every such school providing primary education in the authority's area which is not so represented under paragraph (c) above;
(e) such voluntary organisations as appear to the authority to represent the interests of persons who use or are likely to use services as specified under subsection (1) above;
(f) any other persons to whom a grant is made under arrangements under section 1; and
(g) such other persons as the Secretary of State may direct.
(5) In drawing up such a strategy, each local authority to which this section applies shall have regard to--
(a) the local authority's children's services plan, as specified in paragraph 1 of Schedule 2 to the Children's Act 1989; and
(b) the local authority's review of daycare, childminding and out of school provision as specified by section 19 of the Children Act 1989.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment deals with the issue of strategic planning and early years services. There is a view from certain elements of the Government that there is absolutely no need to intervene; that the market place will take care of meeting the needs; that all will be well; that no one will fall through the net; and that there is no need to plan.

In the context of looking at the issue of planning to ensure that all children whose parents wish it do have access to nursery provision, the Government's apparent belief that, beyond the pilot stage authorities, the Private Finance Initiative will make up the capital necessary to expand and meet demand is a cause of some concern. We shall read the Hansard report very carefully to see exactly what the Minister said in that respect.

However, it is certainly the case that there is a need for planning; and, indeed, that has been demonstrated by all the organisations in the pilot schemes in the four areas involved. It is quite obviously the case that, however much the Government may refer to the vouchers in PR terms as giving all four year-olds whose parents wish it access to nursery education, the voucher offers them an entitlement, not a guarantee of a place.

The amendment would be the mechanism for providing such an opportunity. It would impose a new duty on local authorities to produce an early years strategy for all providers of voucher funded nursery education. That would include consultation with all the relevant bodies, as well as with residents of the LEA and organisations representing the interests of parents,

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and taking such steps as may be practicable to ensure that provision exists for all children within the boundaries.

The amendment contains a much needed reference to the importance of consultation with users of nursery education services and the institutions involved. That would help to ensure that the needs of children with special educational needs are met. There are many children in need who do not come specifically within the legal definition of special educational needs and who do not benefit from being covered by the code of practice. I have in mind children on the at-risk register, those with mild emotional and behavioural difficulties and those from homeless families and asylum-seeking families.

It is also equally vital to ensure that there will be sufficient provision in rural areas where there is a preponderance of families living in poverty and in areas where there are concentrations of children from ethnic minority families where English is the second language. All those situations can be met by the parties coming together and seeking to produce development plans for the area in order to identify any factors which may be inhibiting progress towards that stated goal of the Government; namely, ensuring that all children have access to provision rather than merely access to a voucher which gives them an entitlement if they can find a provision. It is an extremely important issue. I hope that the Minister will be able to support the underlying principles of the amendment. I beg to move.

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