Tories tried to water down nursery vouchers report

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Conservative MPs fought a fierce, unsuccessful rearguard action to water down the damaging findings of a Parliamentary inquiry on nursery vouchers which was leaked to the Independent, it emerged last night.

Details of how Tories on the House of Commons committee tried to wipe out every one of its most damaging conclusions emerged as the Prime Minister condemned the leak and as an inquiry was launched into how it came about.

The six Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs on the committee united to push its report through, while two Conservatives voted against it and four abstained. The report, which said the Prime Minister's flagship voucher scheme would be unlikely to raise standards or increase parental choice and that it might force private nurseries to close, is due to be published next week.

Mr Major said yesterday that he felt "dismay that someone should have chosen to leak the report." The voucher scheme had increased choice for parents, he claimed. "Parents have choice specifically because of the voucher scheme. Without the voucher scheme the only way to get a free nursery place would be to send your child to a state school," he said.

However, it became clear that one of the few criticisms supported by Conservatives on the Education and Employment Select Committee was in fact that the scheme squeezed private and voluntary providers rather than helping them.

Graham Riddick, Conservative MP for Colne Valley, fought a losing battle to remove its most damaging findings as the committee finalised its report on Wednesday evening.

He tabled amendments to its draft report which would have removed key criticisms and introduced congratulatory statements. Instead of saying the evidence was "inconclusive" on whether the scheme would have increased places, it would have welcomed the fact that it had "resulted in places for pre-fives in educational settings."

On the quality of nursery lessons, Mr Riddick wanted to add that Ofsted reports gave "significant grounds for optimism" despite the fact that most children would be in reception classes which might not provide proper nursery education. He also wanted to delete criticisms of poor English in Ofsted's inspection reports and of the "considerable amount of work" which would be placed on teachers.

Last night, the Conservative chairman of the committee, Sir Malcolm Thornton, said the committee was split over the report, and that he had used his chairman's casting vote twice during Wednesday's meeting - once against Labour and once against the Conservatives.