The Conservative, Lord Skidelsky, a leading proponent of vouchers for schools but critical of a universal voucher scheme for under-fives, described the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Bill as unfair and misguided.
Only Lord Northbourne, a crossbencher, welcomed the "voucher experiment", but raised so many objections that Lord Ponsonby of Schulbrede said: "I must say that with friends like that, the Government do not need enemies like us. "
Peers queued up to condemn plans to give parents of four-year-olds a Pounds 1,100 voucher to spend at the nursery or playgroup of their choice. The Labour peer, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, set the scene: "My Lords, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, otherwise known as Lewis Carroll, invented the verb 'to chortle', meaning 'to chuckle and snort', and as well as turning in his grave, he would doubtless have chortled with joy at the Alice in Wonderland fantasia of the Government's legislative proposals . . . This Bill presents an absurd, wasteful and irrelevant paper-chase, with the wretched voucher going through nine or, some say, 10, stages in its progress from the Child Benefit Agency through to school."
Peers quoted extensively from their mail to demonstrate opposition to the scheme. One correspondent from Norfolk told Lord Morris: "It seems to me that this is another poll tax situation, and when it hits the whole country in 1997, the marches will start."
Other peers complained about lack of funding, the penalising of existing good providers of nursery education, and the Pounds 1,100 subsidy which parents already paying for private education will receive. The threat to children with special needs, the difficulties facing bilingual parents in applying for vouchers, the arrangements for inspecting voucher-redeeming nurseries, and the strong opposition to the scheme in Wales also drew criticism.
Peers made repeated references to the importance of under-fives education; only the Conservative, Lord Skidelsky, questioned whether the education of four-year-olds, and eventually three-year-olds, was the best way of using scarce resources. He said: "It must be wrong in principle to create a universal entitlement to deal with a limited problem.
"If I wanted to spend money, I should deliberately direct scarce resources towards deprived children - they are the ones who may need them, both pre-school and at school age - through well-funded, High Scope-type experiments; perhaps by reducing primary school class sizes, since there is evidence that smaller classes help learning; and perhaps by extra reading practice in school holidays. Those are the kinds of areas to which this money should go."
Labour's Lord Morris, whose party would honour existing vouchers but would issue no more of them if it came to power, said that if the Government were serious about parental choice, it would allow parents, teachers and education authorities to opt out of the scheme if they wished.
The Bill will now be discussed in committee.
* Anti-voucher groups from Norfolk, Wales, Kirklees, Birmingham, Solihull and London have agreed to co-ordinate their campaigns. They plan to promote pressure groups in every education authority, organise a campaign day on July 13 and a conference in the autumn.