Rebellious Baker wins concession on nursery vouchers Bill

Inside Parliament

A modest concession last night on the nursery vouchers Bill bought the Government out of trouble with one of the architects of its education reforms, Kenneth Baker.

Rebellious mutterings from the former secretary of state led to an assurance that the extra cost of providing for nursery school children with special needs would be taken into account in assessing Exchequer support for local education authorities.

As the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill completed its final Commons stages, a Government amendment was added, giving LEAs power to provide goods and services to nurseries outside the maintained sector for children with special needs.

But Mr Baker, who for the last 18 months has been raising money for the Royal London School for the Blind at Dorton House, near Sevenoaks, Kent, said it was no good granting the power without the resources.

Having earlier threatened he might vote for a Labour amendment on securing the money, Mr Baker said he hoped the minister would agree that authorities who used the new power would be reimbursed through their annual grant.

Education minister, Robin Squire duly obliged. He said the number of cases where LEAs assisted non-maintained schools was likely to be small but the department would ensure the consequences were reflected in the annual assessment of their needs.

Peter Kilfoyle, a Labour education spokesman, remained unpersuaded that the Government would produce the money, but the party's more rigid amendment was rejected by 278 votes to 238.

Mr Baker said there was no doubt that if children who were blind or had other serious handicaps could be helped at an early age, it reduced their sense of isolation.

"Any child who is deaf, blind or seriously physically handicapped has a sense of isolation, and to be brought into contact with other children and with teachers who give them a great deal of attention and love is an enormous step forward beyond their family associations."

But he said it was an expensive form of provision and often "somewhat patchy".

Mr Squire continued to oppose Opposition calls for all nursery education funded through the pounds 1,100 per child voucher system to be supervised by a qualified teacher.

The Child Support Agency is to start paying interest on late payments after complaints about delays in passing on cash to lone parents caring for children. Andrew Mitchell, Social Security minister, told MPs at question time that the move would apply to all maintenance payments the CSA had received since 1 April 1995.

"The CSA will now be paying interest on maintenance which it has collected and which is due for onward payment to the parent with care but which has not been passed on within 28 days," Mr Mitchell said.

According to the Department of Social Security there are currently 600 cases where payments have been delayed by more than 28 days. The interest accrued would amount to pounds 10,500, an average of pounds 17.50 per case. Payments will be made to all parents who qualify, over a minimum of pounds 5.

The agency has a target of passing on 90 per cent of all child-maintenance payments received from absent parents within 10 days. In 1995-96 it has exceeded that target and passed on 97 per cent within 10 days.

The threat of a Government defeat over television sports coverage was averted in the Lords when Labour withdrew a bid to make broadcasters share highlights of major sporting events with other channels.

Lord Howell, former Labour sports minister, last month led a successful revolt to prevent pay television gaining exclusive live coverage over the eight so-called "crown jewels" of British sport.

But last night he surprised peers during the Broadcasting Bill's third reading debate by withdrawing his latest demand, calling instead for a statutory duty on the Sports Council to "draw up and keep under review" a code of guidance to the Independent Television Commission, the BBC and the Welsh Authority. The Bill now goes to the Commons.

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