|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 879tax disadvantage. But the new clause is unlikely to answer the needs of large numbers of women who want to work, and it will make no difference to those on low incomes who have access to workplace nurseries at present.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said that the average woman's wage was £8,500 a year. That took me by surprise. The hon. Gentleman must have looked at the figures more recently than I have. If that is the average women's wage, I can tell him that not many women in my constituency are earning the average. A great many of the women who might use workplace nurseries do not fall into the category of people who would enjoy a tax benefit from the provisions of the new clause. That is not an argument against the new clause ; it simply shows that much remains to be done if we are to make a significant advance in the provision of nursery facilities. The new clause will do nothing for the numerous people who now have to buy nursery provision or child care because they do not have access to workplace nurseries. Many people are in that category and they will remain in that category because workplace nurseries would never answer all the needs, even if provision were miraculously extended to every large place of work. For many women, it is neither convenient nor appropriate to take a child away from the local environment where friends and family may be able to help at the end of the nursery school day. And such provision is clearly not appropriate in jobs where there is no single large workplace in which to provide such facilities.
My hon. Friends and I have argued for a wider provision, designed to afford some tax relief to those who are buying nursery education or child care and to enable them to remain in employment. The relief would, of course, be confined to those in employment.
Before the Government rush to attack the idea of using the tax system to provide such a benefit or subsidy, they must remember that in this Finance Bill they are extending tax relief to private health care for pensioners on the basis that that is immensely socially desirable. The provision of some tax relief for those needing nursery care for their children if they are to work is not only socially desirable ; it will become ever more urgent over the next few years as acute labour shortages arise in some major industries in the public sector.
The arguments extend beyond the proposals in the new clause that my hon. Friends and I have tabled, as the need for provision extends beyond the age of five. There are strong arguments for greater child care provision for those of school age--for example, in the school holidays and between 3 pm and 6 pm, when many women have to work if they are to remain in employment. In the years to come we must consider how we can make adequate provision for good child care that is beneficial and educative to the children concerned and enables women to take employment.
The new clause would relieve a tiny number of women of a tax burden. That is no bad thing, and I welcome it. It may enhance somewhat the attractiveness of workplace nurseries and I shall be pleased if it does that, too. Nevertheless, it represents a very small step in terms of
Column 880providing nursery care for the children of women who want to work and providing child care for a larger number of children.
I think that the Government have taken the right line. All sorts of complications will arise if we adopt the proposals of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) or the hon. Member for--[ Hon. Members :-- "Berwick-upon-Tweed."] Not only did I forget the constituency of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), but I have forgotten the name of his party. Both proposals would cause more anomalies than they would solve.
If we say that a workplace nursery is not a perk and therefore should not be taxed because it does not confer benefit, we shall immediately create an anomaly. There are those who, because of the nature of their work, do not and never will have access to workplace nurseries. Is it fair that one group of employees should get free child care, which is what it would amount to, while another group of employees who do not have access to workplace nurseries still have to pay for them? If we broaden the matter and say that the answer is tax reliefs on child care in general, whether it is provided in workplace nurseries or whether people make their own arrangements, we create another anomaly. Do we still extend tax relief on child care to mothers who are not working but who nevertheless employ help for their children and, if not, why not? Can child care be administered in two completely separate tiers? There are important practical difficulties in doing what the Opposition wish.
Additionally, the principle behind the Government's reasoning is right. There are many crucial matters in deciding whether a woman goes out to work, and child care is but one of them. It is not the only crucial, essential point that a woman will consider when deciding whether to work. There is the obvious cost of getting to work. I have never heard this disputed, but that should certainly be regarded as the employee's responsibility, whatever distance the person has to travel to get to work.
Miss Widdecombe : That is if the employer rather than the employee is remote. If the employee decides that it is worth incurring a large cost to commute over substantial distances to get to work, regardless of the incursion into his wage packet, that is very much his own concern. The same applies to company cars. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said that by no means could company cars be compared with child care. However, in some instances, company cars are essential for the work to be done.
Mr. Chris Smith : The hon. Lady must have misheard me. I said clearly and specifically that in a majority of cases company cars are a genuine perk. There are, of course, some forms of employment in which a company car is a necessity, and I would class those cases somewhat differently.
Column 881I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman has never had representations on that point. I have certainly received many representations from people who are being taxed on their company cars and who go into great detail explaining why and how their cars are not a benefit but a necessity. It is an absolute necessity for me, when employing office secretaries, to have a typewriter. If I choose to buy one rather than hire one, I still pay the tax on it because it is deemed to be a benefit. All sorts of essential items--child care may be one--are not entirely free of tax.
Where do we stop if we say that it is essential that a woman receives tax benefits on child care if she is to go out to work? If she is allowed to receive tax benefits on the care of her youngest child, why should she not be able to claim that if she has to go out to work for long hours--the normal work time, with only four weeks' holiday a year--she requires additional domestic help? Should that not be regarded as a perk? That question must be answered.
It seem very worthy to say that we want to encourage women to go back to work and that we should either remove the tax on workplace nurseries or, possibly, give tax reliefs if other arrangements are made, but it raises all the other essential points associated with a woman going back to work. In Committee there was a long discussion about advancing tax benefits up to a certain sum, but never was it taken into account that one would then benefit those who did not go out to work.
Also I am concerned--I am perhaps not very concerned at this stage, but I could become very concerned--that if we give tax reliefs or remove something that has been regarded as a perk we shall actually direct employers, and employees for that matter, towards a certain method of getting women back to work. There are many ingredients involved in getting women into work. Child care is but one. Flexible working practices is another. I do not want to see child care tax benefit become available in such a way as to make flexible working practices or other possible alternatives second-rate choices so that false pressure develops for one particular form of benefit. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred to another problem. He asked whether we were talking about the under-fives. Surely if we expect mothers to work, we are talking also about older children--certainly those up to secondary school age. If we are to have a proper system of child care, nannies must also be taken into account. Their position is different. It is not a matter of a mother taking a child to work with her and taking it home at night. It is a matter of the child being collected and put somewhere for two hours to be looked after and collected again. That is a different system. Will that attract tax advantages? What about that as a necessity, certainly for a mother with older children?
The Opposition are opening a pandora's box. They have not considered the detail of the problem. They are looking at one small aspect of getting women back to work without assessing the effects on other aspects or on non -working women who, nevertheless, have children. All those points must be taken into account. The Opposition have picked on a simple route and have not considered the complexities that will surely follow.
Column 882Members have not grasped what it is about. The clause would make the provision of child care at workplace nurseries tax neutral. It would not be a tax incentive. It would mean that women or parents will still pay for nursery places, but they will not pay tax on top of the cost that they already pay.
Opposition Members agree with much of what the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) said, but we are talking mainly about children of ages that are unsuitable for nursery education. We are talking about children aged up to three and about extended day care for children between the ages of three and four. No hon. Member--least of all the hon. Gentleman--would say that we want those children to be in nursery education during all the hours that many workplace nurseries would care for children. Therefore, we are talking about a specific form of child care.
We recognise that that form of child care is, and only ever could be, a small part of the overall pattern of child care and nursery education for which we are looking. Indeed, Ministers have said that many women would not choose a workplace nursery because it would not be suitable for their needs, but I emphasise that it would be eminently suitable for other women and that they want the opportunity of choosing it.
However, the Government's measures are making that provision more and more difficult to achieve. Employers who are trying to establish workplace nurseries are finding that the obstacles are so great that many are giving up before they start. Even the organisation that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) mentioned, the Midland bank, is finding incredible difficulty in putting into practice the commitments that it made earlier this year.
The Government's policy on child care and nursery provision is an incredible mess. On one day I heard the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), say that when considering the Government's child care policy in his position as chairman of the ministerial group on women's issues, the main thought driving him was that the Government should not be seen to be pushing women back into the workplace. However, on the very next day I attended a conference that was addressed by the Secretary of State for Employment. He talked about women seeing the next decade as the window of opportunity upon which they must seize. Therefore, on the one hand the Government are saying to women, "We welcome and value your skills and training in the workplace," and on the other hand they are saying, "We are not going to assist you in any way in making proper provision for your children."
It is no wonder that this country loses far more women from the workplace during their childbearing years than do any of our European competitors. When those women re-enter the work force, they do so with lower status and a lower pay level than they enjoyed when they left. Therefore, their skills, knowledge and experience are being wasted. Women who do not want to take that road and who, perhaps, want to work part-time or to work the flexible hours to which the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) referred have to decide--because there is such woefully inadequate childcare provision--that, because they have children, they have no option but to stay at home and look after them.
Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre) : The hon. Lady maintains that there are a number of restrictions facing women going back to work, but does she agree that we have one of the highest percentages of women in work of any European country?
Ms. Armstrong : I do not want to argue with the hon. Gentleman across the Chamber, but his assertion is not true for the critical period that I am talking about. The majority of those women now in the work force are working part-time and for the majority that is not through choice. I invite the hon. Gentleman to talk to the editor of the Sunday Mirror about the campaign that that newspaper has been running. Since it raised this issue in its columns, it has received thousands upon thousands of letters and petitions from women on this single issue about removing the workplace nursery tax. Women recognise the barriers that I am talking about as barriers. I also invite the hon. Gentleman to read a recent report published by the Equal Opportunities Commission, which showed the number of women that we are losing from the workplace. We are losing their skills and training because they never re-enter the work force at a level at which they can use the skills and training that they had had as younger women. The EOC has said that the main reason for that is the poverty of our child care provision.
One of our problems in this country is that we still try to make women feel guilty if they want to work and to rear children. That is nonsense because in those countries that have a long-established tradition of strong family life, such as Italy and France, full-time child care is available for young children because it is recognised as a way of enhancing family life rather than detracting from it. It is time that we moved towards that sort of culture and those ideas.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : The arguments that my hon. Friend has outlined are one of the reasons why many women feel compelled to compete for jobs working in schools, such as on school meals. As that is the only thing that they can do, there is great competition for those jobs which meet and match school hours. I know that my wife faced that situation when our children were at school.
Ms. Armstrong : My hon. Friend apparently knows of the experience of interviewing women for a job at about £1.50 an hour for about 12 hours a week and receiving a huge number of applications for the job.
My hon. Friend also mentioned schools. Another aspect of Government policy has meant a great shortage of primary school teachers. Our recent research shows that a reason why we are losing primary school teachers and cannot keep them in the profession is that they are not eligible for priority places in nurseries, so they cannot work. The children of this country are beginning to suffer because of that. It is important to offer a variety of opportunities to parents and children. Workplace nurseries are only a part of that, and it is extraordinary that the Government should see them as a perk. This morning I visited a private nursery which is determined not to sacrifice quality to make money. Because of that, it has to charge £109 a week to cover costs. The nursery is prepared to offer its services in the work place. If the company subsidises it at, say, £20 a week, parents would still have to find £89. Under the Government's policy they would have to pay tax on top of that.
Column 884It is difficult to speak on this issue only in the terms of the Finance Bill because the Government are enacting so many measures that affect child care. Under the Children Bill, it is intended to charge for the registration of day nurseries and child minders. So the Government are placing another charge on childcare and workplace nurseries.
The Government cannot be serious about quality, because these costs put quality out of the reach of the vast majority of working women. We are asking for a minimum contribution, but if the Government accepted the new clause they would show that they had begun to grasp what the problem is about. It is not a simple issue, to be solved by throwing a few pounds at it. It is complex and it affects the future opportunities of millions of children.
I ask the Government to rethink. On the evidence of this debate there is clearly much misunderstanding about this subject. We have never argued that workplace nurseries are the answer to everything, but they do contribute to offering some parents the chance to place their children in a workplace nursery if they believe that that is best for their families.
The Government have erected many obstacles. We ask them to remove one of the small ones, which would cost them very little but would mean symbolically that they were beginning to realise the enormity of the task of beginning to compete with our European neighbours. Accepting the new clause would mean that the Government had begun to consider the future opportunities of our children and women. That is not much to ask, and I urge the Government to accept the new clause.
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North) : As an educationist, I strongly support the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) for nursery education for all children whose parents seek to avail themselves of it. However, we are in some danger in this debate of pressing for two-tier nursery provision. While I believe that, if nothing else is available, a workplace nursery would be of great value to a child, the fact is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) said, in some areas outstanding community provision is made for children aged from three to five years and from nought to three years. We could have the situation in which, on the one hand, children are in beautifully run, expensive community nurseries, surrounded by green fields, and, on the other, children are in workplace nurseries, perhaps in factories, begrimed, with vile surroundings-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) is shaking her head, but with me she visited an establishment in the United States where the children did not see daylight. I do not believe that it is fair, as a principle, to provide facilities for children in which there is such inequality. We should be saying that we want good provision for all children.
I have been listed as being in favour of workplace nurseries. If nothing else is available, there is a lot to be said for such provision, but it is second best. No inspections are made and no standards are laid down for the children--
Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill) rose --
Column 885No standards are laid down for the staff working in workplace nurseries, or for the facilities for the children. That is where the workplace nursery movement falls down. It does not hold a satisfactory standard to which we can point. The best nurseries are excellent, but the worst are not and cannot be satisfactory. I mentioned the visit of the hon. Member for Durham, North-West, who keeps interrupting from a sedentary position, and myself to the United States. We saw children in a nursery in Washington, which was very nicely appointed, but we were uncertain about the education being offered to those children. It was not of the kind that I would have sought. Children from two weeks upwards were in that institution, but the staff said that they ensured that all the children got out into green fields for at least three hours a day. That just could not happen in many workplace nurseries, which is one of my reservations about them. We must also face the fact that they are not inspected and that they have no agreed and established standards. People who advocate workplace nurseries do themselves and their cause no favours by ignoring that argument.
What I am saying is not to condemn workplace nurseries or the important argument that has been put by hon. Members on both sides of the House for supporting working women, especially those with young children. We must remember that in the United States 62 per cent. of women with a child of one year old or younger go to work, while in this country it is only 27 per cent. The figures are rising in each country. When my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said that the nation's attention should be drawn to the need to provide children with something better than a workplace nursery, he was speaking sound good sense.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) did not advance a single educational argument in favour of workplace nurseries.
Ms. Armstrong rose--
Mr. Greenway : I should also like to have heard some educational arguments from the hon. Lady, who persists in trying to intervene. She said nothing about what workplace nurseries are intended to do for children aged up to three and even between three and five. The case for workplace nurseries can be made. In particular, the child must develop self-esteem above all things, but it will not do so if it is cast aside, uncared for, and not given proper nursery provision. So much flows from self-esteem. The whole philosophy of the headstart programme in the United States is based on giving children self-esteem, which is quite right. More needs to be made of the value of nursery education and of the precise roles that workplace nurseries have to play. Is it right to expand the provision of workplace nurseries, or would it be better to expand the provision of nurseries of a broader and more general nature?
Column 886impractical, and that is because so few right hon. and hon. Members bear the responsibility for having their children looked after while they go to work. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) said, how can the Government claim that they are responding to demographic changes by trying to get more women into the work force when they are unwilling to look favourably upon the ideas contained in new clause 9?
Conservative Members speak about workplace nurseries and tax relief as though they are simply cash benefits. Clearly no Conservative Member who has spoken has experience of getting children out of bed, getting their breakfast, taking them to a child minder, and then going to work. If they had, they would know that for many millions of women throughout the country workplace nurseries are, first and foremost, a practical provision. Without it, many women--
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman rose --
Ms. Abbott : Without a form of child care--be it a workplace nursery, child minder or nanny--many women are unable to work. We are keen to see new clause 9 implemented because it will enable women to do a day's work without worrying.
Conservative Members complain and vilify mothers of single parent families who claim benefit. I know thousands of such women in Hackney who want to go out to work and not be dependent upon either state benefits or an errant male. If proper child care facilities, such as workplace nurseries, are provided, those women could be self-reliant--as they wish to be. We seek to encourage that spirit of self-reliance in new clause 9. Every week I meet constituents who are stopped from working because they have no access to child care facilities, so work place nurseries have a role to play.
Conservative Members also remarked that Britain has the highest, or one of the highest, proportions of women in the work force in Europe. They do not realise the kind of child care that some women have to put up with.
I was brought up in a community where many women had to work, not because they wanted to do so, not for entertainment or for a diversion, but because they had to pay the rent. Many had to abandon their children to child minders against their better judgment. If Conservative Members had seen, as I did while growing up, the child care that some women were forced to use because of their economic circumstances, they would not be blocking a sensible provision that will provide high-quality workplace nurseries. For some women, the alternative is not to stay at home. Sadly, with heaviness of heart and great misgivings, they entrust their children to child minders who do not have the necessary training or facilities. If Conservative Members had more idea of what life was like for working women, they would not argue against the new clause.
For three reasons--the importance of encouraging women to go into the workplace, the importance of generating high-quality workplace nurseries and the fact that this is much more than a cash benefit--I ask Conservative Members to support the new clause. It is about the practicalities for working women. No Labour
Column 887Member thinks that workplace nurseries are the only solution, but it is wrong for Conservative Members who do not have our experiences of helping and supporting ordinary working women, struggling with the problems of bringing up children and giving their children decent care while they go out to work--
For Conservative Members with no experience of the problems of working class women, who are trying to give their children decent care and go out to work, to block a measure that is at least part of the answer suggests great ignorance, callousness and lack of thought about demographic trends. I urge hon. Members to think about the struggles of working women, many of them single women who wish to be independent and who despair at the options offered to them, and to support the new clause.
Mr. Win Griffiths : Some of the contributions to the debate would have been better made in an education debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) that our objective should be good quality nursery education available to all parents who want it for their children, but this debate on the Finance Bill is not the time when that should be developed.
The new clause is important in terms of the way in which local authorities provide nursery education. The sad fact is that the hon. Member for Buckingham would be better off tramping around the Tory shires and preaching this message to them. The worst providers of nursery education are Conservative-controlled authorities. Money provided by the Government in rate support grant for nursery needs is not even spent by those authorities. Some of them do not provide one state-funded place in a nursery school. The nursery place is a second best provision for those who cannot go to nursery schools, but if workplace nurseries spread there is no reason why there cannot be state regulation--however much Conservative Members may not like those words--to ensure that the quality and environment of workplace nurseries are good.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) kept referring to high-quality provision at the workplace. The trouble is that there is no machinery to ensure that there is other than what she referred to as child-minding. The hon. Gentleman's point is good--the workplace nurseries must be of high quality- -but how does one ensure that there is uniformity throughout the land?
Mr. Griffiths : A debate on the Finance Bill is not the time to discuss ways to regulate workplace nurseries. We must ensure that they are of a high quality, and there are plenty of ways to achieve that. What amounts to a tax on working mothers who happen to have a child in a workplace nursery is a disincentive for companies to spread and develop nursery provision.
The scale of the problem can best be shown by comparing Britain's provisions with those of Denmark. In Britain, only about 8 per cent. of women with families are in full-time employment, yet we provide only 1 per cent. to 2 per cent. of nursery places for children under the age of
Column 888one. In Denmark, 40 per cent. of women with families are in full-time employment and it provides more than 40 per cent. of nursery places for the youngest children.
The hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) suggested that such a provision would introduce an anomaly into the tax system. Many such anomalies already exist. In general, the 20 best providers of nursery education are Labour-controlled authorities which, in many cases, spend even more than the Government allow to ensure good nursery education. Let us take the example of a working mother who sends her four-year-old to a state-funded nursery. There is no tax impediment and the child receives a full-time education. Let us now take the example of a similar woman in a Conservative-controlled authority which provides no nursery places. If the child is placed in a workplace nursery--if there happens to be a place available--the woman is taxed on the estimated financial benefit of that nursery place. I hope, incidentally, that my remarks will not encourage the Minister to tax the assumed value of state-funded nursery education. The new clause would remove that anomaly.
Miss Widdecombe : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as it is not the first time. What would be the position of the working mother in a Labour-controlled authority who cannot put her child into full-time nursery education because the child is under the age of two and does not have the benefit of a subsidised workplace nursery, who thus has to pay for child care?
The new clause would help a relatively small group of women to return to work, in the knowledge that their children were being well cared for because the nurseries would be well regulated and educational. For only a negligible sum of money, the Government are being mean and parsimonious towards working mothers. They are not helping them to return to work.
standards--Conservative Members appear to have forgotten that we are debating a tax Bill, not a children's Bill. If it were appropriate tonight, we would be more than glad to discuss educational standards. The Labour party put forward proposals in its recently published policy review document--I should be glad to lend it to Conservative Members--for a variety of childcare schemes designed to meet the needs of both children and their parents. Workplace nurseries are only one aspect of the variety of child care that we would wish to offer. The objection on educational grounds comes from a Government who have presided over the worst level of nursery provision in all the EEC countries, and from a Government whose Prime Minister recently told a women's magazine that mothers with childcare difficulties should get together to cobble up some informal
Column 889arrangement among themselves. She was apparently unaware that in doing so she was advising them to break the law. In addition, this is a Government who refuse to make care of under-fives a statutory responsibility for local authorities. The result is that the best provisions for the under-fives happen to be in Labour-controlled local authorities, and they are doing that with great difficulty on their constrained budget. Because they do not have a statutory responsibility to educate the under-fives, they are doing so under enormous difficulties.
If the Government took on board all the points that we have been making, we would be delighted to have their support. But we all know perfectly well that if we were proposing all that tonight, they would vote against it in the Lobby, so let us not have such hypocrisy on the subject.
The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) referred to maintenance of quality. We want high-quality provision in all sectors of care for the under-fives. But would the hon. Gentleman say that if he could not have dinner at the Ritz he would not dine at all? Of course he would not. Working women might want a convenient nursery in their locality. Mothers would not want to take their children through the wind, rain and snow to a workplace nursery and back again if a more convenient local nursery provided high-quality care. When such provision is denied to them and they know that it will continue to be denied to them as long as the Government are in office, they are interested in workplace nurseries. Provided that they are properly run, there is nothing wrong in that.
The Opposition argue for high standards in nurseries whether they are in the workplace or elsewhere. We would not dream of advocating that a workplace nursery was a place where children were dumped during a working day and that no standards were maintained within it. A Conservative Member asked from a sedentary position how such standards would be maintained. The answer is simple--by an inspectorate, just as schools and factories are inspected. That would be the obvious way.
While the Government are attempting to make the excellent the enemy of the good, offering absurd arguments, they are forgetting one good argument. Our proposal would benefit mainly women, but it would not benefit only women. When I was a Glasgow district councillor, we wanted to set up a workplace nursery for the entire work force, but we were frustrated in doing so because the tax put the cost beyond the pocket of many council employees. However, I recall a male worker in the building department who had five children, two of them under school age, whose wife had left him, who was delighted with the proposal and would have used the nursery. In case Conservative Members fear that backwoodsmen and women in their constituencies would consider this to be some kind of feminist point which they would deplore, let them remember that men, too, could benefit from this. That might make Conservative Members view it more favourably. I find it hard to understand those who are prepared to dream up every possible argument in favour of the preservation of the life of a child before birth but who do not care tuppence what happens once a child is born. I hope that the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) does not think that that is a brutal argument, but I must make that point. Mothers who do
Column 890not get a workplace nursery place or a local education authority place are often forced to accept an unsatisfactory arrangement, having their children looked after by someone who is untrained and unregistered, who may not do a good job in caring for their children. If people genuinely care about the needs of children they should support the new clause.
Miss Widdecombe : The hon. Lady said that some of us who care for children before birth do not care tuppence about them once they are born. That is categorically untrue. I have taken part in many debates in which I specifically talked about the rights of born children. The hon. Lady does not make a fair point. There are many ways of caring for children. I have not made any speech tonight against child care or nursery provision. I have talked about the anomalies created by various childcare arrangements. Childcare can also be a mother looking after her child at home and I have never done or said anything that militates against that. Will the hon. Lady withdraw that personal insult?
Mrs. Fyfe : I am sorry, but I have not heard anything to make me withdraw those remarks. If the hon. Member for Maidstone is sincere about caring for all children after birth, she would not only support the new clause but make a point of supporting our proposals to make nursery education and playgroup provision the statutory responsibility of local authorities. She would ensure that the Government provided funds to make that possible. If she fails to do that, she will not put her stated objectives into practice. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) spoke from experience about standards in the United States where children at nurseries get out into the fresh air. That was an extraordinary remark. No hon. Member has argued against children getting fresh air. When we talk about standards we are not thinking of cooping up children in fume-infested factories. We are thinking of sensible provision which includes fresh air and an inspectorate to maintain high standards.
We do not wish to make workplace nurseries compulsory. Our point is that if the tax were lifted, parents and their employers could judge whether a workplace nursery could be provided and what standards could be offered. They could find a nearby site if it was not convenient to have a nursery at the workplace.
Another specious argument was about the equality of provision. It was asked what would happen if the local authority provided a better standard than the workplace nursery. If people want to compete to provide the best standards, no Labour Member will argue against that. We want the best possible provision. I am sure that the different sectors could learn good practices from each other and the best way to provide for our children.
As has been said, a large part of education is encouraging self-confidence and self-esteem in children and making them aware of their worth as human beings. When the education system achieves that objective we shall never again have a Tory Government because people will have learnt to value themselves more highly and they will drop their deferential attitude which sustains that bunch in Government.
Column 891I find it deeply regrettable that we should debate the matter yet again this year, and that this year not one Conservative Member has spoken in support of the move that we are debating. The hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) tried to lead us along many false trails and brought many red herrings into the picture, but we are actually discussing a very simple proposal. I was, however, even more concerned by the implication of the hon. Members for Buckingham (Mr. Walden) and for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) that Opposition Members were arguing for second best, and should be arguing for nursery education. Both hon. Members know that this is a debate on the Finance Bill, not an education debate. They also know that the Labour party wants a considerable improvement in the provision of nursery education. We shall make that very clear in an appropriate debate. We were not party to the points of view expressed by the hon. Member for Buckingham when he was a Minister at the Department of Education and Science, but I hope that he advocated what he has been advocating today.
Opposition Members have pointed out that most of the best nursery provision is found in Labour authorities. I must add that I do not know of one-- including Lancashire, my own county council--which is satisfied with the service that it is able to provide. They would all like to do much more if the finance were available.
The new clause might not achieve what we would consider the best possible provision for children--and for parents who wish to work--but it would help by removing tax from workplace nurseries. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) has pointed out, the amount of money that the tax yields to the Government is in any case so small as not to be worth bothering about.
As well as enabling parents to pursue a career and to provide income for the family, the new clause would benefit the industries and commercial institutions which provide nursery facilities. They do not do so only for the benefit of their employees ; it is to their advantage if those employees return to work. Only 100 or so workplaces provide such facilities at present because many are deterred by the fact that tax will be payable. Employers must consider what package of conditions to offer employees as an incentive and, they hope, to benefit themselves as well. The provision of workplace nurseries will benefit the parent, the family and the institution involved.
If the new clause is carried, I am certain that there will be an increase in the provision of workplace nurseries. Although we realise that the Government's days may well be numbered, we want to help people to go back to work. There will be a growing need for parents of both sexes to do so. I hope that we shall approve the new clause, stop penalising parents and enable more employers to make such facilities available. That will be of advantage to all parties concerned, and to the nation.