The Prime Minister's commitment is to provide, over time, a pre-school place for every four-year-old whose parents wish to take it up, with the first new places, with new money, coming on stream in the lifetime of this Parliament.
Is it not an absolute disgrace that, almost 25 years after Baroness Thatcher pledged that every three and four-year old should have a nursery place if the parents wanted it, the Government have not delivered on that pledge? Why have the Government got it in for three-year-olds?
We do not believe in printing money. We are planning to provide places for all four-year-olds in the first instance. It is clearly best to take one carefully planned step at a time.
The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) appears to forget that the Labour party was in power between 1974 and 1979. Having been in local government, and having been the deputy chairman of an education authority, may I tell my right hon. Friend that I accept that the education received by a young child—boy or girl—at the nursery stage will undoubtedly affect that child's career, ultimately, and his ability to do well in his subsequent years in education? Will my right hon. Friend take it from me that we warmly welcome the Prime Minister's commitment to nursery education?
I thank my hon. Friend. I am currently putting the finishing touches on the policy and I shall make a full announcement to the House in the next couple of weeks. I have always made it clear that early education is very important. We shall base our policy on maximum choice for parents between the maintained and the private and voluntary sectors. We shall ensure that, whatever delivery mechanism is used, it will not crowd out the private and voluntary sectors. We shall also make sure that the scheme is practical and of good quality and that it will work successfully.
Further to the Secretary of State's answer, will she confirm that, in respect of the delivery of expanded nursery education, she has said frequently that the use of vouchers would be unnecessarily complicated and bureaucratic? Will she also acknowledge that the Prime Minister clearly overruled her in his statement on Saturday? Does she believe that that stems from complete ignorance, stupidity, or the unacceptable slap of firm leadership?
Dear me, the hon. Gentleman can do better than that. I have said frequently from this Dispatch Box and elsewhere that the delivery mechanism would have to provide choice for parents and that nothing was ruled in and nothing was ruled out. However, I can confirm that putting buying power and choice in the hands of parents will be a key feature of the scheme and that, therefore, vouchers will be part of it.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the steady advance of nursery education is not intended to be at the expense of the pre-school playgroup movement, which has received considerable support from the Government?
Yes. I can confirm that the scheme will certainly not crowd out the important voluntary sector, and I have also mentioned the private sector. The work of the pre-school playgroup movement has been invaluable to the learning experience of millions of children. It is interesting that the movement has rechristened itself the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which I think signifies the importance that it places on the education that it provides.
The Secretary of State may have read in this morning's papers about the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) and the fact that Mr. Spock and the occupants of Planet Vulcan do not believe in nursery education at all. On Saturday, the Prime Minister emeritus told us that there was a new definition of nursery provision which included any place for any child. Although we support pre-school and other provision, does the Secretary of State agree that, in defending herself against the onset of vouchers, she must also make it absolutely clear—so that she is not left uncomfortably in the lurch—that she still believes in nursery places for four-year-olds and that she believes in places for every four-year-old, not just those whose parents who can afford to top up a voucher or travel a long way to a place?
I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman on all those counts. I am sure that he will be further reassured when I make my detailed announcement to the House. My reading this morning included an interesting letter from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) in which he describes Labour's new education policy as a "big, bad idea". I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman read that.