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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, we on these Benches support the amendment. It may be helpful to take as an example the circumstances in Wales. In Wales over 92 per cent. of four year-old children already attend schools in their local authority areas, some in church schools and some in county-maintained schools. That is the parental wish. Without this amendment the money for the education of those children would have to go through eight different additional administrative loops. There can be no justification for that. The same would be true in Northern Ireland, if the result of the Government's consultation was a Northern Ireland order. The same is true for Solihull and many areas of the country. If one takes Solihull as an example, that is not by any means an inner city deprived area; nor is it an authority in receipt of high levels of revenue support grant. The Conservative authority in Solihull, which was in power until a little over a year ago, made direct provision with money which came primarily from the local community charge and local council tax to build up the service. It seems a rather odd irony that in those circumstances governors of church schools and non-church schools will face uncertainty as a result of the Government's plans in the Bill before your Lordships today and will have to go through the loops to get back the money.
The Minister might be minded to reply that in some way the amendment would diminish parental choice. The amendment reduces parental choice not one wit. The amendment offers to parents the choice between available local authority-funded nursery provision for four year-olds and opting for a voucher to purchase provision in the voluntary or private sector. As the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin of Bewdley, said at the beginning, the amendment ensures that the money which would otherwise be spent on administration and re-routeing funds through eight different loops, for example in Wales, in order to put it back where it started from, would be available to spend elsewhere.
At Report stage I asked the Minister whether or not additional capital funding--there is no proposal for capital funding in the provisions of the Bill--had been available to any of the authorities in the pilot study. I have since ascertained that such funding was made available in Norfolk in order that bids and new provision could be made. Surely, it is better to spend the money if there is a church school in a rural community which, but for the want of a small amount of capital, could meet parental demand. Surely, it is better that that capital is made available to the system and finance is released, small though the amount may be, rather than that it should be wasted on bureaucracy.
At previous stages the noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to the popularity of the voucher scheme. She prayed in aid the fact that the voucher scheme was possible if parents applied for a voucher. What a nonsense. To say that people who currently get a service and wish to continue to use it now have to apply for a
Finally, if the Government do not believe that parents faced with a choice will continue to use local authority provision, all local authority assumptions about the actual number of children in schools are retrospective. That applies to five, six and seven year-olds. There is nothing to stop the Government using the figures for four year-olds in the schools to ensure that the funding is commensurate with the continuation or variation in parental choice. There can be no real support from any quarter. Parents in Solihull have expressed their views strongly, clearly and often. Those in the voluntary sector express concern that, as a result of remarks by the Minister and his friends in another place, the proposals before your Lordships will not protect their access to new funds. This amendment protects that new money from an increase in bureaucratic paper chases which use up scarce resources. We support the amendment.
Lord Tope: My Lords, I rise to give warm support to this amendment from the Liberal Democrat Benches. As the noble Earl, Lord Baldwin of Bewdley, has said, the amendment comes close to giving us the best of all worlds. On that basis, he indicated confidence that the Minister would be likely to accept the amendment. Sitting where I am, the look on the Minister's face at that point indicated that the noble Earl's confidence might have been misplaced. It is to be hoped that we can still persuade the Minister.
This comes close to giving the best of all worlds. First, it retains what I think should be and I hope is the central purpose of the Government, which is to provide parental choice and an expansion in the provision of nursery education initially for four year-olds. More than that, it seeks to address the many concerns which have been raised about the nursery voucher scheme. At every stage of the Bill many of us have expressed surprise at and certainly commented on the volume of post which we have received from all quarters of the country expressing grave concerns about the likely and, I believe, unintended effects of this scheme.
As previous speakers have said, this amendment tries to address those concerns. It proposes to take the existing provision in the maintained sector out of the voucher scheme. That means that we shall no longer have what has come to be called the long paper chase. In the Second Reading debate I itemised the eight stages which follow this voucher from the first move from the Child Benefit Agency right through this long loop until eventually we come back to where we started for the majority of children who already have existing provision. One effect of this is to cut out that long paper chase for the vast majority of parents and providers.
That alone should lead to a significant cut in administrative costs. At earlier stages we have expressed some doubts about whether those administrative costs could be kept within the £20 million suggested by cutting down so hugely the paper chase of the administration. We certainly should be able to keep well
That provision would be targeted on the voluntary and private sector, and that surely must be one of the Government's wishes. It certainly gives a better opportunity to target these resources--something that we must all be in favour of in relation to scarce resources, and resources are always scarce. They need to be targeted where they will have the best effect. That may well be the private and voluntary sector.
The provision would give a greater degree of certainty to the maintained sector, both in its budget flat planning and in its provision planning. That too must be a good thing. Indeed, there is so much in favour of this amendment that I find it hard to imagine what the Minister will say against it, although I suspect, from the look on his face, that he will find something to say.
Finally, the test of the voucher scheme, as the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, has said, is not actually its take-up rate. If the only way in which parents can obtain nursery education for their children is by having vouchers, then of course they will go for vouchers. The take-up rate, whatever it may be, is not a test, although we have some concern about those who do not seize that opportunity and why.
The test of the success of the voucher scheme must be the new provision which it brings. At Report stage the letter which some of us received from the Kensington and Chelsea Pre-School Learning Alliance, one of the pilot scheme areas, was mentioned. The alliance expressed its concern in that letter, and I quote from it:
It seems to be having the opposite effect from that which is intended. The amendment will make it much more likely that we can target the scarce and valuable resources where they are needed; we shall be able to cut out much administration and a long paper chase; and we shall actually be seeing the money best used as it should be used, to provide additional provision for four year-olds and we hope in due course, three year-olds. I beg to support the amendment.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, in the final exchange on the Report stage of the Bill the Minister commiserated with me for having apparently taken a vow of silence not to speak on any amendment except those to which my name was put. I should like to assure him that, in standing to speak on this amendment, such a vow can in fact be rescinded.
I wish to support the general thrust of these amendments, and the major reasons for doing so have already been made clear by those noble Lords who have already spoken. These amendments do not disturb the central thrust of the Bill: that parental choice is still allowed and that a parent who has a child in nursery provision made available by the local authority could, if he or she wished, withdraw the child and place him or
However, I want to underline what other noble Lords have already said. While I was turning over in my mind what to say, I recollected that during the Second Reading a number of us had talked about the nonsense of the long road along which money has to go in order to arrive at its final destination. As I was remembering that, the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, made exactly the same comment. I think it is also a nonsense that so much money has to be spent on administration when in fact it could be made available for new provision.
Like other noble Lords, I have been somewhat surprised at the volume of correspondence and particularly at the way in which it has continued to pour in. It did not come in only at the Second Reading stage. Many people, and indeed many parents, have written personal letters to me (as I know they have to other noble Lords) to express their concerns; and I would have thought that the Government might be concerned about the public relations effect of the Bill. I want to express my support for the general thrust of the amendments. I am by no means clear, however, that technically they would achieve what they set out to do. I have no doubt that the Minister will have points to make in that regard.
One point I would like to make is that the word "voucher" does not appear elsewhere in the Bill. Although it is an enabling Bill, and it simply enables grants to be made, the means by which they are made is indicated elsewhere. We are presuming it will be by voucher, but that is not on the face of the Bill. Therefore it seems a little odd that it should appear in this one place only, supposing that this amendment is agreed. If the Minister says that this amendment is technically flawed, I hope that he will take account of our anxieties and go some small way towards recognising the great concern there is about the Bill, not only in this House but throughout the country.
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