Government 'mad' to ignore parental advice on nurseries

Inside Parliament
Click to follow
Indy Politics
The Government was accused by one of its own MPs last night of not listening to parents over the nursery voucher scheme and of rushing into a disaster akin to the ill-considered Dangerous Dogs Act.

Declaring he would vote for a Labour move to allow local education authorities to opt out of the scheme, Iain Mills said that for ministers to say there should be "a national, bureaucratic, expensive, open-to-fraud scheme" was "nothing short of madness".

"I find it almost extraordinary that a Conservative government is not listening to parents," the Meriden MP said as the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill completed its Commons stages. The Bill now faces scrutiny by the educationalists in the Lords.

"I have had just about every nursery school, parent and teacher in my constituency come to see me, write to me or telephone me to tell me they are highly satisfied with the existing Solihull provision of nursery education," Mr Mills said.

But despite the Tory MP's forceful contribution, the Labour amendment, intended to provide an alternative to the pounds 1,100 per child voucher scheme where LEA provision for under-fives is good, was rejected by 276 votes to 238.

Estelle Morris, a Labour education spokeswoman, said LEAs would only be able to opt out after wide consultation with parents, teachers and local nursery education providers. "There is no doubt that the Solihulls, the Dudleys and the Caulderdales, where provision is good, will be losers under this legislation ... They've proved what they have been doing works. Let them carry on."

Replying, Robin Squire, Under-Secretary for Education, said there had been "a lot of scaremongering" on the effects the scheme would have on local authorities. Vouchers would not damage existing good provision. The Government was allowing parents to choose while Labour wanted to put more power in the hands of local authorities. "No one is forcing the existing provision to change if parents don't want it," Mr Squire told his rebellious colleague. "If parents strongly support the local authority provision, they don't need to oppose the voucher scheme, they simply take their vouchers to the local authority school of their choice."

A modest concession bought the Government out of trouble with one of the architects of its education reforms, Kenneth Baker. A threat of voting with Labour 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.

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 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.

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

Peter Kilfoyle, for Labour, was unpersuaded the money would be forthcoming, but the party's more rigid amendment was rejected by 278 votes to 238.

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.