asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what discussions he has had with local education authorities on the education voucher scheme.
In thanking my hon. Friend for his reply, does he accept that parents who sacrifice to send their children to private fee-paying schools are, in effect, paying twice for their children's education? In any future discussions with local authorities on implementing a voucher scheme will he ensure that such schemes include the private sector?
Any local authority that wishes to consider the voucher scheme would obviously assess whether it should merely apply to the State sector or be extended to the independent sector. That will be a decision for the local authority. It is a matter on which we might be consulted, but the decision would be for the local authority. On my hon. Friend's other point, the assisted places scheme will open the door for many children who cannot afford to go to independent schools to do so, once it is in operation.
Does the Minister agree that all parents, particularly those with children attending schools in the maintained sector, will be making sacrifices in the future as a consequence of school meal charges and transport charges? Will he refute the suggestion made by his hon. Friend for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) that sacrifices will be made only by those sending their children to private schools?
Certain independent radicals would consider all taxes a sacrifice. People do not get back simply what they put in. One appreciates that, in certain cases, parents pay extra because they consider the matter important. We are concerned, as a Government, to extend parental choice not only for those inside the independent sector but for those inside the State sector.
Does my hon. Friend's answer mean that the proposed pilot scheme in the county of Kent has now vanished?
Not at all. The proposed pilot scheme brought forward by Kent is entirely at the discretion of Kent. It is for Kent to decide when the scheme should be brought into operation. There is nothing to prevent Kent from bringing it into operation at any time, at its discretion.
Will the Minister recognise that a difference in educational opportunity which arises because of a difference in the size of a parent's bank account is a barbarity in these days? Will he not waste his time on the voucher scheme but give his attention to the real problems in the education service?
If every difference in income in this country is a barbarity, barbarism will be with us for a great length of time. If parents have books and watch BBC 2—which, presumably, has educational programmes—this is discriminatory within the terms of what the right hon. Gentleman says. What we want is not to cut down opportunity for those who have it, but to extend opportunity for those who do not have it.
May I express the hope that my hon. Friend's enthusiasm for the voucher scheme has not diminished as a result of elevation to his present high office, particularly bearing in mind the importance of that scheme for extending freedom of choice to parents?
I can assure my hon. Friend that I pray regularly about the matter every evening. The decision whether to introduce the voucher scheme is for local authorities. We have always said that we would look on with interest and would not oppose any experimental voucher schemes in Kent, or anywhere else.
May I press the Minister about his attitude to local authorities introducing a voucher scheme? Is he saying that his Department would advocate such a scheme and would not provide any barriers to its introduction? Does he know of any local authorities which are actively considering this step?
The decision whether to introduce a voucher scheme is for local authorities. We would obviously not prevent this from happening. It is well within the powers of local authorities, whatever hon. Members may say. It is entirely up to them. Many of us will look with interest upon such a scheme, as would parents in the area.