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Mr. Marlow : I apologise to the hon. Lady if she has answered the question that I am about to ask, because I had to go outside to get this piece of paper. If she did not do so, could she do so now? This is a very exciting and interesting provision that the hon. Lady has put forward in new clause 2. Could she tell the House how much it is likely to cost and who would be paying for it?
Ms. Armstrong : The hon. Gentleman should read the Government new clauses, because there is a similar proposal from the Government. Hon. Members have not had a costing, nor have we heard how the measure will be paid for. I shall be interested to hear the relevant information from the Government. I am talking about the differences that my new clause raises.
Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield) : My hon. Friend should ask the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) what value the Tory party places on child care and the prevention of abuse. That is the real issue. I should have thought that all hon. Members would be concerned not with cost but with the effects on children--that is, children first and costs second.
Ms. Armstrong : My hon. Friend makes an important point. The next issue which is contained in our new clause and not in the Government's new clause is the importance of considering parents' wishes when drawing up plans. The
Column 784omission of parents from the Government's plans for review is significant. They know what parents are saying about child care. Parents do not expect their lives to have to be in a state of collapse before the Government come to their aid. They believe that the provision of child care is right and that people in this country should at least have equal opportunity with their European cousins. Great numbers of people have been saying and will continue to say, as they did last weekend, that they expect and will look for a Labour Government who will actually take child care seriously. I can assure them that they will not be disappointed.
New clause 3 outlines the importance of a code of practice developed by the Secretary of State, and again demonstrates the importance of consulting bodies. On Friday, the Government announced the new child care accreditation scheme. They said that they were keen to encourage high standards of child care, but then said that they would hand the responsibility to a new body which they hope will be created and which we assume will be the nursery equivalent of the chamber of commerce. The Government also said that they wanted a new national body of private nursery providers to give information about availability in local areas and develop its own code of practice to which its members would subscribe. We have had plenty of experience of that. We discussed some of that experience last night when we discussed some of the vile practices that have been going on in some independent schools. The private market cannot and never has delivered high quality.
For the Government to abandon their responsibility and to transfer it to the private market is a tragedy for children and an indictment of the Government. The Government's approach is totally inadequate. We need a code of practice to be incorporated in the Bill, or at least a commitment from the Government, recognising their responsibility to develop a code of practice which would then be applicable across the board, in each authority.
This meek and mild new clause was tabled in the hope that the Government would take hold of the principle and work on it. It is not doctrinaire. It recognises that the Government have a public responsibility which they should not shirk.
New clause 4 underlines the importance of registration and a code of practice. Again, it simply seeks to ensure that we establish national guidelines by which local authorities can operate. I have been to local authority after local authority in England, Scotland and Wales, and each has said that it needs guidelines that it can adapt to its local situation, but which will give it power if challenged. They fear that many of the new private nurseries will wish to challenge their decisions and they want to know that they can go to court, with clarification as to the basic minimum standards they must demand. They want to know that they will be able to defend those standards in court. At the moment no local authority feels confident about going to court and saying, "We refuse to register this nursery because we do not feel that the staff are sufficiently well trained or qualified to care for children." It is a great indictment of the House that we have not given local authorities that commitment.
Amendment No. 30 gives the Government a clue as to how they could get near the basic minimum. We have said that each child must have a carer who matches the minimum criteria. The criteria that we have identified in the amendment are insurance and training. We want to be
Column 785sure that every child minder, play group and private nursery has insurance so that if a child is injured on its premises there will at least be some compensation. We feel that that provision will in itself ensure that those who care for children will be mindful of the health and safety needs of the child and will ensure that those needs are addressed.
The second issue, which is of great importance, is training. I have discussed this matter with an authority which is trying to establish the practice outlined in these provisions as part of its registration process. Pre-registration training should be a requisite for any person or group applying to be registered. Apart from anything else, where this has been tried, it has meant a self-cancelling-out process. When people who want to be child minders attend short courses--the Open University has developed some good course material--and go through what it means to be a child minder in terms of one's own family, one's responsibilities and one's relationships with the child's parents and the child minder support network, there tends to be a self-weeding-out process. When some people realise what the job really entails, they say, "This is not for me--my family and I cannot match those needs." Pre-registration training also means that local authorities can discover what motivates those who put themselves forward as potential child minders.
We cannot overestimate the importance of this matter. This part of the Bill will touch many more children than the rest of it because it deals with the many thousands of children whose parents want them to have child care opportunities before they go to school and, when they are of school age, after school and in school holidays.
If we want to protect children, what is the point of developing a structure to protect them from abuse, or to help us to identify abuse and protect them? We want children to be in a protected and supportive environment from the beginning.
Amendment No. 31 removes the word "seriously" from the phrase "seriously inadequate" as the reason why a local authority can cancel registration. Local authorities are worried that "seriously inadequate" will be difficult to sustain. I do not believe that any hon. Member would be happy to leave his or her child or grandchild with someone who is inadequate, let alone seriously inadequate. The House ought not to be satisfied with such a definition.
Amendment No. 33 decreases the span between inspection from one year to three months. We believe that we ought to encourage best practice, not minimum standards. Many local authorities already inspect more regularly than once a year, and we want to ensure that that best practice is encouraged.
Charging is the issue which worries voluntary groups most. I am bewildered by the Government's attitude on the subject. I listened carefully in Committee and I have re-read the Hansard reports of our debates, but I am unable to detect why the Government have introduced this part of the Bill.
Last night, we discussed the contradiction between charging voluntary groups and child minders for registration but not, for reasons I understand, public and independent schools. The contradiction may be apparent to us in the House, but it will seem an enormous political blunder to the people who run voluntary play groups. More than that, it will demonstrate to them that the
Column 786Government simply do not understand or care what happens to them and their attempt to provide a public service.
How can the Government talk seriously about charging child minders and pre- school play groups, for example, when they recognise the problems of trying to charge independent schools? Do the Government understand what they are suggesting? The Pre-School Playgroups Association has 14,000 registered groups, which have 600,000 children. Parents already contribute, through fund-raising and charges made for the running of such groups, the sum of £50 million a year. The association's groups receive the magnificent sum of £4 million per year in grants from local authorities and industry. Already, they have to raise money just to stand still. Those groups do not want to bear additional burdens--they want to be involved in training and to ensure that their employees receive a decent rate of pay. At the moment those working for the PPA receive, on average, 70p per hour. Far from being able to bear the additional costs, the PPA is looking for support. It fears that its existence is threatened by the amendments, especially in areas such as mine where parents' resources are already stretched to the limit.
The House should recognise and value the voluntary play groups and community nurseries as part of a group of services from which parents can choose the most appropriate care for their children. We should be supporting those groups and should consider them as part of the public services provided for our children. Those groups have fought for better regulations and support. They have pressed the Government to give them greater involvement and closer working with local authorities. They want to be part of the national structure, but they are now under threat of closure.
We are simply unable to understand why the Government are pushing the issue of charging. In Committee and in the House the Minister assured us that he was minded to fix the charge at a low rate, but that he needs time to consult groups and authorities about the level of charge. If the charge is to be so low that it will not threaten the existence of play groups or community nurseries and will not discourage child minders from registering, it will be lower than the cost of collecting it. Such is the nonsense with which we are now involved.
The Minister also assured me that the charge was not meant to raise revenue for improving services, so why impose it? I can think of no other reason than political dogma. I have searched Hansard and the Government press statements--there are plenty of those--and I have searched my head, but I cannot come up with any rationale apart from Government dogma.
During the summer many press statements were made about child care. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science has told us that we are about to see the biggest push for child care since the second world war. We have had the famous five-point plan from the ministerial group on women's issues which was to sort out all the child care problems, but where is the substance? Where is the Government commitment to provide anything? The Government have said that they expect the market to provide.
The rest of the Bill is designed to limit the market and private exploitation of children, but what we are discussing will touch more children than the rest of the Bill. The
Column 787Government, however, are stuck with the ministerial group saying that market forces should meet the needs of child care.
The market cannot protect children, we know that. It is our determination to demonstrate to the country and to the voluntary organisations that we recognise a central vote for Government in co-ordinating and regulating the quality of child care so that it is the best possible. We are determined that all children, not just those classified as in need, should have the best opportunity for quality child care. That is why we have said that it is the duty of local authorities to assess the need of all children in their area when they review the services for children.
The Government have a role and I beg them, for the future opportunities of children in Britain, to recognise that they are missing a chance to take that central and important role. The clauses, particularly when taken together with the statement about the new group on voluntary accreditation, will lead to confusion, with everyone paddling their own canoe, instead of co-ordination. Let us recognise that it is the duty of the House to lay down guidelines which will enable local authorities to ensure that every child in their area has the best possible opportunity. That should be done in co-ordination with voluntary organisations and parents. It is our responsibility to ensure that.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) : The issue of charging has caused a great deal of anxiety in the voluntary play group movement. It is my view and that of my party that we should seek to expand the grossly inadequate provision of day care and nursery education by working together with local education authority nursery provision, workplace nurseries and the voluntary play group movement. Charging is likely to present an obstacle to successfully achieving the registration and inspection system which, in itself, is desirable. Many play groups are already closely involved with their local education authorities in registration systems and some local authorities, including my own, seek to provide advice and support to play groups when possible.
In many areas introducing a charging system will drive parents towards back -street child minders instead of proper organised groups and will drive many good play groups out of business. That problem will be acute in urban and rural areas. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I have received representations from many different kinds of areas including urban and rural.
I quote from a letter from Bradford which states :
"Without doubt this new levy would result in the closure of many playgroups in Bradford, mainly those in the inner city areas where the state nursery provision is failing to cope with demands by parents."
That is certainly a serious threat in many inner-city areas. I know and represent rural areas in which my wife used to work for a play group. I too have been associated with quite a few such groups. In many cases they are the only form of day care provision available to children in the area. They are not the preserve of a small coterie of middle class parents, but are the only provision available and are used by the poorest families in rural areas. Rural poverty is particularly acute because it is usually associated with high-cost transport to the facilities which are available in urban areas, or no transport at all.
Column 788Many play groups in the scattered rural areas are extremely worried by the threat of charging and are uncertain about what levels of charges might be introduced. They fear that they could run into hundreds of pounds. Will the Minister look again at this aspect and say more about it tonight? If he is unable to do so, he must not be surprised if a note of controversy, which has been absent from much of the Bill, arises at this stage.
The Minister has an ally in voluntary play groups if it is his ambition to expand day care and make use of voluntary help. However, he will prevent his major ally from doing its current job if new charges are imposed which discourage groups from being formed and parents from making use of them. Therefore, I urge the Minister to look again at the issue.
Mr. Hardy : In Committee, Government amendments on the subject with which we are now concerned were tabled late, making it difficult for the voluntary organisations to react. Nor was the matter debated fully in the other place. For that reason it is appropriate for the House to discuss the issue in considerable detail now. It also provides hon. Members who were not fortunate enough to be members of the Committee with an opportunity to express observations on behalf of themselves and some voluntary organisations. For example, the NSPCC welcomes the opportunity that we have at this stage of the Bill to discuss certain issues at greater length.
About 11 years ago I initiated an Adjournment debate on the subject of child minding and on that occasion I made a number of recommendations, some of which are embodieds in the Bill, while others appear in various amendments. For example, while registration is necessary, that process is not assisted by the imposition of a charge, and I urge the Government to review that aspect of the measure.
I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) about play groups. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) said there were 14,000 such groups in Britain, and I have a few in my constituency. They do a good job. If, in addition to their existing responsibilities, they must raise money to pay a fee, the people running the groups will bitterly resent that imposition.
I hope that the Government will accept our amendments. The proposed cut-off age of eight is not reasonable. Children between eight and 14 merit consideration and there should be adequate provision and safeguards for children of that age. Some voluntary bodies will no doubt be prepared, given the approach of the Government, to accept a cut-off at the age of 12 rather than 14, but few outside the House would agree that care of this type should cease at age eight. Some of the proposals in the Bill are of a historic nature and the Government have made some concessions. Indeed, this is the first major piece of legislation concerned with nurses and child minders since the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948. Should future electoral fortunes turn out to be different from what my hon. Friends and I expect, the Bill may stand as the major basis of law and practice for generations to come. That makes it even more important for the Government to take a more forward-looking view of the area we are discussing.
Column 789If the measure is to be relevant for, say, the coming 20 or 30 years, more generosity should be shown by the Government to the issue of day care for young children.
Registration fees must not be imposed in such a way that unsavoury or inadequate practice might be encouraged. The argument that I adduced 11 years ago was relevant then and, unfortunately, remains relevant today. More progress should have been made in the intervening years. The Government now have an opportunity to make progress, particularly in view of the co-operation and bipartisan approach that, I understand was evident in Committee. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that, if there is to be a charge, it will be minimal--minimal as the Opposition might think of it, not as Tory Members might. In many of the poorest areas of Britain what might sound modest sums to Conservative Members can seem penal --
Mr. Michael Welsh : This point is vital in mining areas in which a great deal of unemployment has occurred in recent years. My oldest child goes to a play group ; if there was a charge for it, the group would close. Where would we go from there? It exists now only because of the kindness of the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church. If there were a charge, what would happen to the young people who are being prepared, during their formative years, for when they start going to school seriously?
Mr. Hardy : My hon. Friend is right. I have been compiling details of cases of low pay in my constituency. Only four days ago I encountered a case of an adult who is working full time, from 8 am to 5.30 pm with half an hour off for lunch, and being paid £39 a week gross. Another is being paid £43 a week gross. When that sort of wage is being paid and people are facing the stark horror of poverty, there is no scope for their children to attend groups for which there is even the "nominal" contribution that Conservative Members may want. I am extremely anxious that children from ordinary and poor homes shall not forfeit the opportunity and educational advantage that membership of and activity in these groups and schemes provide. It is essential, if the Government want in any way to remain the one-nation party that their party once sought to be, that they re-examine these fees. If, in addition to their application to pre-school play groups, fees are to persuade child minders to operate unlawfully and improperly, the Government will do great deal to undermine the many good aspects of this Bill. To maintain bipartisan support and to command the respect of the voluntary bodies which have developed a considerable regard for this area of Government endeavour, the Minister must reveal a little more generosity than we have been led to expect from the Bill that emerged from the Committee. I did not intend to make a long speech, but this matter is important enough for us to call on the Minister to offer a response that will relieve some of the anxieties that have grown up about this part of the Bill.
I have no doubt that child care will become one of the most important political issues of the next five or six years. It is central to equality of opportunity, to the aim of
Column 790getting more women into and back to the work force, and to keeping them there if that is where they want to be. It has all sorts of connotations in relation to preparing children for education. It is a major subject and there is no doubt that the House will return to it. The Bill is not the instrument in which to set out a whole new policy for pre-school child care.
I was recently lobbied by play groups in my constituency and they expressed considerable anxiety about the effect of a registration fee. I have no doubt that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister has the best possible motives for introducing such a fee. I am not trying to put words in his mouth, but I am sure that he will think that there is great security to be derived from creating a contractual relationship between local authorities and groups and child minders so that there is a mutual obligation for groups to register and for local authorities to inspect the groups to see that standards are sufficiently high.
In my county play groups are inspected as often as three times a year and that is done without a fee. The one matter on which I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Durham, North-West is that if the fee is set low so that it is not a burden it may well prove to be too expensive to collect. I am uneasy about that matter. I am certain that we cannot continue with pre-school play groups outside the voluntary organisations that are nationally recognised. We cannot have haphazard, casual groups being set up and accepting standards that none of us would accept as appropriate. I have no doubt that the Minister's proposals are intended to correct that, but I ask him to think carefully before he demands a registration fee.
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : The hon. Member for Mid- Kent (Mr. Rowe) was wringing his hands both figuratively and physically during his speech. I am not surprised because I am sure that he feels a little uneasy about what the Minister has proposed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) for proposing the new clause and the group of amendments which refer to the valuable work carried out by pre-school play groups throughout the United Kingdom. I understand that the amendments apply to my country of Scotland as well as to the other nations of the United Kingdom.
As always, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) helped to concentrate our minds when he intervened in the debate. He asked my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West how much it would cost if the amendments were incorporated in the Bill. May I turn that question around and ask him how much it would cost the nation if it failed to make adequate provision for our youngsters? The children of the nation are its future and if we neglect them it will cost the whole nation dear.
Pre-school play groups do a valuable job. From time to time I meet the members of such groups in my constituency and, happily, they are well supported by Lothian regional council. It is Labour controlled and generously supports voluntary organisations in terms of finance and in the provision of premises. It is right for the authority to do that. Would it not be ridiculous if the Scottish Office were to be required under this legislation to
Column 791require local authorities to give grants to play groups and then to take money back in the form of fees? Such a provision does not make sense.
The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) highlighted the importance of such nursery provision in rural areas. While it should be the objective of any responsible Government--that rules out this bunch--to provide nursery education to the best possible standards of pre-school education, that will not be possible in the remote rural areas. Therefore, it must make sense to encourage the voluntary sector to carry on with its valuable work. I fail to see how that will be possible if we tax these people for the work that they are doing.
I should declare an interest as my wife has, for a long time, been a member of the executive committee of the Scottish Pre-School Playgroups Association, so I get lobbied on this subject. She has often made the point that it is galling for mothers who have to make costly arrangements to attend the education and training sessions and the meetings of groups, deal with highly paid civil servants, have to do so in their own time, often with considerable travel expenses. Here we are considering the imposition of yet another burden on people who do such voluntary work, and there can be no justification for such an imposition on that voluntary sector.
The Minister may recall that the Prime Minister, on numerous occasions, has sung the praises of the voluntary sector. I suppose she is trying to kick over the traces in regard to the undertakings that she has given about nursery places for every child. She has spoken of the great job that the pre-school group movement is doing, but this provision will kick that movement in the teeth by imposing a tax on it. I hope that the Minister will think again.
Mr. Paice : I am in somewhat of a quandry in that I had expected the debate on charges to come on a later amendment, but as it has been raised now, perhaps the debate should be complete now. One aspect of charging has not yet been mentioned. The role of the pre-school play groups is recognised and endorsed by both sides of the House. Concern for their welfare is not the sole domain of the Opposition, and I recognise their value, particularly in the rural areas described by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). They have a vital role to play and are often the only provision in such areas. I do not want them to be jeopardised by the implementation of anything that would be to their disadvantage. However, some play groups are run on a commercial basis. A number of organisations covered by the schedule to which these new clauses refer set out to make a profit from their operations. I should be surprised if the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) and her colleagues did not believe, as I do, that such organisations should pay a realistic fee for the necessary registration and inspection of their premises.
That is important, but it has to be set against the larger number of play school groups which are run on a charitable basis and on a shoe string, with voluntary help. We should not dismiss charging, as the Opposition suggest, but my hon. and learned Friend must devise a charging mechanism flexible enough to recognise that those organisations which set out to make a profit from
Column 792their operations should pay a full cost recovery based fee but that all the others working on a charitable basis should pay a nominal fee, in the order of £5 per year. I appreciate that that is hardly worth collecting, but such a charge should not prejudice the excellent work that is being done. We must try to distinguish between the different operations that are undertaken. Accordingly, I could not support the proposal to abandon the idea of a fee. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will recognise the need for a mechanism which is sufficiently flexible to cover the various forms of provision.
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West) : The Government's proposal to levy a registration and inspection fee on pre-school play groups has sparked considerable controversy in Bradford. The hon. Member for Berwick-on-Tweed (Mr. Beith) told us that he had received representations from people in Bradford. During June and July I received petitions signed by more than 400 of my constituents who are involved with various play groups, including the Trinity Methodist church play group, Thornton play group, the Manningham Asian Women's Centre play group, the Horton Bank Top play group and the Millan Centre play group. In Bradford, there are 30,000 children under five years of age and there are no more than 500 public nursery places. One of the petitions that I received stated :
"We should like to draw to your attention that this group is a charity, run by volunteers, to meet the needs of children under the age of five in our community. Play groups provide a vital educational service to the community, using volunteers, and we strongly oppose the suggestion that a financial penalty should be imposed on this service.
Despite constant, regular fund raising--jumble sales sponsored events, etc. --it is still necessary to charge a fee in order to pay the rent, provide equipment (paint, paper, glue, climbing frame, books etc) and pay expenses. The imposition of a registration fee could lead to the closure of our group with grave implications for the children of our community."
My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) said that she had searched high and low for an explanation from the Government of why they were pressing for the introduction of a registration and inspection fee for pre-school play groups.
Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have searched the group of amendments that we are discussing and I cannot find any reference to charging or not charging. I ask you to advise me whether the issue comes within the group. I do not believe that voluntary play groups should be charged, but I seek your advice.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I can tell the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce), who is signally ignorant about these matters, that amendment No. 27, and the two amendments which I have tabled, Nos. 361 and 360, deal specifically with charging. I have no doubt that in the early future I shall be given the opportunity to elaborate on these amendments.
Column 793I was about to say, before I was interrupted by the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce), who has only recently entered the Chamber--it is no wonder that he has no grip or understanding of these matters--that the Minister, who replied on 23 August to a letter which I sent him on 17 August, wrote :
"I know that there is a lot of anxiety about this change to the registration system. Local authorities are already faced with an enormous increase in requests for registration, particularly from the private sector. They need to be able to provide an efficient and reasonable quick registration service and I think they should be able to charge for this. It seems to me that anyone proposing to provide a service where there is a statutory registration requirement should look on a fee as part of the setting up and running cost. I believe that in time these fees will be seen in that way."
It is clear that the Minister and the Government are seeking to introduce the fees because they look around and see a burgeoning private sector which, as the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) said earlier, are organisations charging fees and seeking to make a profit on a commercial basis.
I, along with the majority of those hon. Members who have spoken tonight, are worried about the voluntary organisations, in many cases charities, who provide an important service in working class areas for working class children whose parents find great difficulty in making ends meet. The introduction of a registration and inspection fee will, as the petitions to which I have referred show, force the closure of many groups in my constituency and will put others in considerable financial difficulty.
It is extraordinary that the Minister should come to the House proposing such a fee without having the foggiest idea of what its effect would be. On 20 July I asked the Minister :
"what research he has undertaken about the likely impact of registration and inspection fees being imposed on pre-school playgroups (a) in Bradford and (b) elsewhere."
His answer was brief. He said :
It is extraordinary that the Government should be proposing to introduce such fees without having any idea of, or without having undertaken any research into, what the effects would be.
I also asked the Minister :
"if he will take steps to provide grants for pre-school playgroups in areas where there is no public nursery provision."
Again, the Minister's answer was brief. He said :
"No. This is a matter for local decision."--[ Official Report, 20 July 1989 ; Vol. 157, c. 297 .]
Rather than suggesting the introduction of a fee, which will inevitably cause the closure of many groups and create even more financial difficulties for many others, the Minister would have been well advised to provide extra money for local authorities so that they could fund existing pre-school play groups in areas such as mine, which are doing an excellent job. That would be far more welcome to the groups than the proposal that he has put before the House tonight.
A constituent of mine who has been involved in play groups for a long time has written to me saying :
"Most playgroups get no financial assistance, make no profit, run on a shoestring--do not pay their workers anything or if they do only £1- £2 per session and endeavour to keep costs for parents to a minimum-- they are not middle class institutions and very often serve as the beginning of the road back to employment/training/further education for working class women. They are used not only by parents but by childminders grannies etc. in areas where no state facility whatsoever exist--how anyone (the government) can suggest
Column 794that such groups pay a (yearly) registration fee makes my blood boil--they should be making grants to playgroups not the other way about."
We are told that we are now confronted by a listening Government. If the Minister has been listening to the contributions made in this short debate, he will be clearly of the view that there is no support for the introduction of fees for inspection or registration. Even those Conservative Members who have spoken have not supported the proposal. The sensible action for a listening Minister from a listening Government who wishes to respond to the genuine concerns and anxieties of the voluntary sector and charities doing vital educational work, preparing young children for their state education, would be to take the proposal away and say that he will seriously reconsider it. Let us all hope that he will throw it in the ministerial dustbin as soon as he possibly can. If he is not prepared to do that, I urge those Conservative Members who have expressed their deep reservations about the proposal to join us in the Lobby and vote down this silly and regressive proposition.
Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield) : I am pleased to see so many hon. Members present at this time of night to discuss an important issue. I am grateful for the support that those of us who have worked on the Bill have been given tonight by others who share our concern about day care and provision for children.
I have always been worried that the issue of day care has been regarded very much as a Cinderella service within social services. It is important to make the point that the new clause relates to Cinderella provisions which are the worst in the Bill. One or two of us vigorously opposed certain aspects of the Bill last night, but our worries then were as nothing compared with our worries about the provisions we are discussing now.
I have long been concerned about day care, and I have been worried by the fact that many local authorities have not given sufficiently serious thought to the importance of day care. I discussed with one of my colleagues a few minutes ago the position in Wakefield in 1983 when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Buckley) who was on the council with me will recall, the then leader of the council, Mr. Jack Smart, came up with the proposal that we close the entire day nursery provision in Wakefield district to meet the Conservative Government's targets on spending. Many of us in the group felt strongly about that, so we took the issue to the High Court. Eventually Mr. Smart, who was given a knighthood by the Government for the work he was doing on behalf of the Tories at the time, was replaced, not before time, as the leader of the Labour group in Wakefield. I am pleased to say that in my own area we are now rebuilding the day care provision for vulnerable young people. The Bill gives only scant consideration to a fundamentally important part of child care provision. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) a few minutes ago when he talked about his worries on day care. It struck me at the time that I was not alive when the Act that currently regulates day care was passed by the House in 1948, which was shortly before I was born. My hon. Friend probably remembered the Bill going through the House and he may have taken part in the debate, if he was here at the time.
Column 795The regulations that currently govern day care stem from the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948 and they are wholly inappropriate to day care in 1989. When I worked in social services, I had to administer the regulations and put them into practice and I am worried because they are incredibly loose and insufficiently clear. One worrying factor is that it is obvious that they are interpreted in widely differing ways by different authorities, so the arrangements in the Act are not applied consistently throughout the country.
An area of great concern to me and, I suspect, to many others involved in social work is what is called the "fit person" clause, which is the definition of a person who is fit to offer services as a child minder or day carer, or to run a nursery. That provision leaves much to be desired in assisting those who have the task of registering people concerned with day care.
It is also important to make the point that the current regulations mean that the physical arrangements for the children involved are vague. The criteria on matters such as the suitability of the premises offered, the amount of play space and the ratio of staff to children are left, under the regulations, entirely in the hands of the relevant local authorities. People who move from one local authority probably find wholly different interpretations of the regulations in another.
It is not surprising that our present problems were not anticipated in 1948. The Act failed to lay down any form of national standards, resulting in patchy and viable provision among local authorities. Some split responsibility for nurseries, play groups and child minders between three departments. There is no coherent policy among local authorities. Recently I found that the designated officers involved in day care in Kent work in six separate areas, lacking any common approach. That is nonsense in a service that should justify a coherent approach and common standards.
The Opposition are attempting to tighten the legislation and provide for proper regulation of services. I am worried because, unless the Government have amended the Bill in a way that I have not picked up--I have studied the amendments carefully--there will be complete deregulation of the provision of care for children over eight. That conflicts with the rest of the Bill's provisions, which set clear standards for child care and which will ensure that we promote the welfare of children in different circumstances. I should like to know the thinking behind this measure. I am worried about the Government's reasoning. I suspect that they want to remove the need for them to provide local authorities with more funding for registration and inspection. Undertaking registration and inspection costs local authorities money. Knowing the Government's philosophy, I suspect that they also want to free the market to make it easier for people to provide. I am not happy with that. We had a free market in the independent sector in education, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North- West (Ms. Armstrong) referred. It allowed the serious abuse of young children. To their credit, the Government have dealt with that problem, but why did it take so long for that serious issue to be tackled? I am worried about the Government following the free market approach to the welfare of children and easing the regulations to attract more people into the business.
I take seriously some of the comments made by people with detailed knowledge of day care. The National
Column 796Childminding Association has done a great deal in pressing for national regulations. Sue Owen of the NCA said :
"They've tried to exempt as many things as possible because they're concerned at the resource implications".
She predicted that change would mean
"that we'll probably see armies of unregistered child minders, which we've been trying to prevent for years."
There are still many unregistered child minders. I suspect that the majority in certain cities are unregistered. Rather than tackling the issue, the Government are making things worse through the Bill's provisions. The chief executive of Gingerbread said that deregulation was "absolutely horrendous" and completely against the rest of the Bill's provisions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West referred to training. I am concerned that the Bill does not do anything to assist with the training of those who work with young children. My four-year-old son recently started at a nursery school. I see at first hand the care that the teachers provide. Their skill has come about not by accident but because they have been properly trained. We should accept the need to train people beyond the level that they willingly undertake in the excellent courses offered by the Open University. It is vital that we establish proper training, but the Bill does nothing to move us in that direction.
As has been said already, the Government are offering a bias in favour of the private sector and against the public sector. The Bill requires local authorities to provide only for children who are defined as in need. That is a very narrow definition which will cause no end of argument. It restricts authorities in what they can do. That is a bias against the public sector while the private sector can provide for children who may not be in need or require the limited service available in a particular area.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) referred to the effect of the charging particularly on the voluntary schemes. The voluntary day care schemes offer a fundamentally important service which is often lacking in many local authorities. Those schemes will be hammered by the financial constraints being placed on local authorities which at the moment offer grant assistance. The Government are changing the regulations laid down by the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968. Organisations which previously received grant assistance on a year-by-year basis will be restricted to five years after which the core funding will end. That will directly affect the provision of many voluntary play groups in areas like mine.
Hon. Members have come here to argue in favour of charging. It is astonishing that hon. Members can consider costing issues like this while they disregard the welfare aspects with which Opposition Members have been concerned throughout the passage of the Bill. I am worried that the charges for registration and inspection will particularly affect the voluntary sector which, in many areas, is doing an excellent job. Charging could well mean the end of many local voluntary groups that operate on extremely tight budgets. Reform is long overdue. In a sense it is 40 years overdue. We should have grasped the issue many years ago in the interests of thousands of children who have not had the deal that they should have received. The burial of the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948 and the regulations stemming from that Act should have coincided