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Column 797with bringing forward new regulations and a radical improvement in the present provisions. That opportunity, sadly, has been missed. There have not been many scandals involving day care. When I consider the scandal about private schools which caused the Government to react in some parts of this Bill, I suspect that we will have to return to the House and claim that we should have done something in this Bill to prevent a similar scandal occuring in day care. I hope to God that such a scandal involving children being interfered with in day care does not occur, but I am worried about the possibility of that happening.
Mr. Cryer : A query was raised earlier about charging and the relevant amendments dealing with that issue. A cursory examination of the Amendment Paper will disclose that amendment No. 27 proposes to remove paragraph 1(3) of schedule 8, which states :
"An application under section 64 shall be accompanied by such fee as may be prescribed"--
that is, for the registration of child minding and day care for young children.
Amendments Nos 360 and 361 stand in my name and they provide an alternative for hon. Members to vote upon. The charging would be twofold : there would be a charge for registration and a charge for inspection. Schedule 8 7(1) states :
"where they shall serve on that person a notice informing him that the inspection is to be carried out and requiring him to pay to them such fee as may be prescribed."
Amendments Nos 360 and 361 either leave out the requirement to pay
"such fee as may be prescribed"
or add at the end
"However the local authority may waive fees in such cases as it deems necessary and any prescribed fee shall not exceed £10 per annum."
My amendment would be helpful and would meet the point about having a nominal fee. I hope that, when the House divides on amendment No. 360, Conservative Members will join the Opposition in the Lobby and ensure that there is a nominal fee. The amendment would also enable local authorities such as several in my constituency that are in particular financial difficulties--that is, if the Minister argues, for example, that the fee is absolutely essential for the good conduct and running of pre-school groups- -to help particular groups. The local authority has knowledge of what is going on in the relevant area and will be able to select groups on that basis.
I provide that discretion in my amendment, in spite of the knowledge that Bradford is under the temporary control of a group of as vicious and hard- hearted Tories as one is likely to come across. However, one should not necessarily legislate in the knowledge that there are such grim-faced tyrants in Bradford city hall. One should give discretion to Labour- controlled authorities, who would use it sensibly. In any case, Pickles and his cronies will not last very long in Bradford city hall, and we shall want to make use of this legislation, if my amendment is passed, to ensure that pre-school play group associations are given the help that hon. Members say they richly deserve.
I have about 18 letters and a petition containing nearly 100 names from Bierley community centre pre-school playgroup association. It is genuinely concerned about registration and inspection fees. It points out that it is a charity which offers a vital education service. It operates
Column 798on an estate in my constituency of nearly 1,000 dwellings, so it is a large community by any standards. It is much opposed to any financial penalty. That is how it regards the charges, whatever the Minster might say about regulation and a service being provided. The association regards the charges as a financial penalty.
Despite constant regular fund-raising, the association would find it extremely difficult to pay any additional fees because it must charge parents for its services in any event. We are talking about parents, many of whom do not enjoy an adequate income in the first place, who made the point that registration fees could lead to the closure of their group. No hon. Member would want that to happen. I have also had letters from Ambler Thorn play group and from St. John's church in Great Horten, which organises the St. John's under-fives playgroup association. The Bradford branch of the pre-school playgroup association has also written to me to express support for my amendments. People who actually organise and run pre -school playgroup associations welcome the amendments. I hope that the Government do the same.
Woodside play group in my constituency has also expressed serious concern at the proposal for registration and inspection fees. It says that it needs regular fund-raising to survive. It has a whirl of jumble sales and socials to raise £20, £30, £40 or £50 at a time, and is struggling week in, week out to pay the fees that community centres must charge for heating, which is vital for such young children, and lighting, general caretaking and so on. The provision of facilities or premises does not come cheap, but, at the same time, large sums are not involved. I emphasise that even if the Minister were to charge a modest fee--apparently he is minded to fix the charge at a low rate--an extra £50 per year might well mean the end of some pre-school playgroup association.
It is all very well for the Minister to say that he is minded to fix the charge at a low rate--we do not question his determination to do that--but, as he knows only too well, Ministers do not stay in their jobs for ever. Indeed, there is constant chopping and changing of Ministers by this Conservative Government. I do not blame them because they are trying, in a desperate situation, to give a new gloss to their wilting Government and, in moving Ministers around, are attempting to give a better impression. However, the Minister of State cannot bind future Ministers. If he has power to prescribe fees, so have his successors. Although he may prescribe them at what he considers to be a low rate, his successor--a Right-wing
extremist--might decide that market forces--
Mr. Cryer : From what I can gather, the Minister has confessed to being a Right-wing extremist, but another even more Right-wing extremist may take his place and the fees may well soar. We know that the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) has ambition to move further down on to the Treasury Bench--it is gleaming out of his eyes--and we know the astronomical fees that he might charge.
Column 799Therefore, I am not satisfied by the assurance that a particular Minister will be reasonable because, although he or she may carry out that assurance, Ministers change and the next one would not be bound to prescribe only modest fees.
In the 1960s when my wife and I were involved in the formation of a pre- school play group association at Oakworth in Keighley, the premises were inspected by the local authority and, at the request of the local authority, the committee had to undergo a medical inspection. All that was carried out without charge by the Conservative-controlled local authority. In those days, before the Right-wing extremism of the present Government had spread its tentacles over the land, that authority would have been shaken at any suggestion that a service for the protection of children should be the subject of charging.
It is important that we note that this proposal comes from a Government who are supposed to recognise the value of the voluntary sector--
Mr. Cryer : Yes, as my hon. Friend says, of the family also. "The family" and "the voluntary sector" are phrases that the Government are prone to use, yet they are proposing to penalise the voluntary sector.
Earlier today we had defence questions and we learnt that about 21 Tornado aircraft have crashed. The Government expressed their mild platitudinous concern, but I remind them that that figure represents nearly £400 million-worth of aircraft, and that is quite apart from the several hundred thousands of pounds spent on training the pilots and aircrew. The Government seem prepared to lavish money on activities such as the provision of Tornados--indeed, the purchase of Tornados is the largest defence procurement in our history, totalling about £13 billion--yet when it comes to small children, taking their first few steps in the world, the Government propose to heap penal charges on the organisers--on volunteers. I recall that only last week we spent two days--obviously partly in prime time--on the defence estimates. Of course, they are important because they involve the expenditure of £21,000 million and yet only now, late at night, are we spending time on something vastly more important--our future generations. It strikes me that a better illustration of decent human priorities, with concern for our children coming first, would be for the Government, since they are so keen on market forces, to subject Trident to those market forces. They should give some small proportion of the money that they are lavishing on Trident to pre-school play groups.
It could all be left to market forces. The Government could have gone around collecting for Trident with charity boxes and seen how the market responded. If they could get the £10 billion from street collections, they could build it. That would be a splendid test of their philosophy. In the meantime, they could use some of the money they already have on provision for new generations. That would symbolise a determination to provide for a peaceful future, as opposed to one of an ever-growing threat of mass extermination. My attention was caught by the disparity between those two priorities. When the Labour party conference passed a resolution suggesting that some of our present defence
Column 800expenditure should be put into education and pre-school play groups, for example, what did we get from Conservative Members? Sneer after sneer that anyone should aspire to such a priority.
My proposals are modest. There should not be charging or, if there is, it should be at the discretion of the local authority not to charge if it thinks that there is a particular need. If a pre-school play group in my constituency is unable to keep going, its organisers will not be able to afford to go to Whitehall to see the Minister to ask for assistance ; they will go to the local authority. It therefore makes good sense to provide local authorities with discretion so that they can say, "We shall inspect the premises but waive the fee because we know that you are in financial difficulty. We have looked at your accounts. That is the right and sensible thing to do."
The House has an opportunity to remove registration inspection fees. It can say, "We recognise the importance of pre-school play groups and believe that voluntary work in the community should be recognised. We shall not penalise these people and send them out on even more fund-raising events to the point where they spend more time on raising money than they do on developing facilities and caring for children."
Pre-school play groups fulfil an important need in rural and urban areas such as mine, where nursery facilities are less than adequate. We would be foolish and misguided if we imposed a charge on such organisations. I very much hope that the House will reject charges. I hope that it will recognise that local authorities have to make some provision. That is what they are there for, but that function should be recognised through the rate support grant. The cost of providing such facilities should not be borne by the people who do the hard work of providing them.
I hope that the Minister will accept our amendments. His assurance about low charges is not likely to carry much weight with me. I chair the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and, every 12 months, we have the round of 150 or 200 statutory instruments raising charges, sometimes by as much as 100 or 150 per cent. When that happens, we ask whether it is an unusual use of powers. In every case, when we raise the matter with the Department concerned, we have to accept that the power for the Minister to prescribe fees exists in legislation. So we retire defeated as what the Minister has done does not constitute an unusual use of powers.
I recognise the good intent of Ministers in some cases, who say that they will keep fees low. That assurance is not adequate as they have the power to prescribe fees. We are dealing with primary legislation and once that legislation is out of our hands we are left with a cumbersome and inadequate method by which to try to redress the damage.
If the Minister prescribes fees that we do not like they will be subject to the negative procedure. Someone must then put down a prayer to annul the instrument. The debate on that may or may not be held as there is no guarantee that a prayer put down to annul an instrument will be debated. There is no Standing Order--itself a minor disgrace--requiring that a prayer which is tabled should be debated and a decision taken. The only thing that we can cling on to is that if an instrument is produced by the Minister which the House does not like, we may have a debate and, possibly, a vote. The chances are, however, that it will not get that far. That debate would be, in any case, limited to an hour and a half. That means that
Column 801a few minutes would be available for about eight hon. Members, followed by the Front-Bench spokesmen, and that would be it. I am unhappy about giving Ministers powers through negative procedure instruments and therefore I am not much taken with any assurances that the Minister may give.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : My hon. Friend has described the Government's abuse of statutory instruments. Does he recall that the budget for the Inner London education authority, which included its pre- school provision, of almost £1 billion was decided on a vote after a debate lasting less than an hour and a half during which a minority of hon. Members representing London were able to participate?
The Government make good use of the statutory instrument procedure. Conservative Members should recall that this is the Government who were going to take legislation off our backs. The number of statutory instruments, rules, regulations and orders produced by the Government is rising each year they are in office. They make use of the statutory instrument procedure and therefore it would be far better to get the primary legislation correct to ensure that we decide in straight forward cases. I accept that, in some instances, there may be technicalities and that Ministers must take into account so many variables that it is difficult for hon. Members to reach a decision. In this case, however, the issue is clear. The voluntary organisations are making provision for young children and providing a magnificent service. They have limited financial means at their disposal, but it is proposed that charges should be imposed at the Minister's discretion. The House should say that it accepts the argument, but that there should not be charges and that it will not give the Minister the power to prescribe the fees as it does not want such fees prescribed, especially in view of the uncertain nature of the prescription.
In view of the argument deployed overwhelmingly from the Labour Benches, I hope that the Minister will accept it and will withdraw the relevant sections.
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) : In Committee I had to declare--I do so again to the House--that I am not a parent. During exchanges in the frivolous time that we spent in Committee the hon. Lady the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) made me an offer that I could refuse. Shortly afterwards she was dispatched to Beijing to prevent our relationship flourishing.
I support the new clause that has been moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong)-- [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Lady is in Beijing. The issues she has raised are of great importance to the Bill's progress. When I introduced a ten-minute Bill on 13 July 1988 I recall that I was contacted, shortly before the Bill was to be read the First time, by two parliamentary private secretaries for two different Ministers because there was then, and there remains, confusion among Government Departments about who is responsible for dealing with these matters. I felt then, and feel now having listened to contributions from my hon. Friends, that there is a clear need to clarify this aspect of the law. New clause
Column 8022 is, therefore, an attempt by Opposition Members to ensure that there is a clear plan and strategy about the way in which we approach these matters.
The inconsistencies and differences between Government Departments are mirrored at local authority level. Hon. Members have rightly said that there are differences between the way in which different local authorities appear to support the idea of child care. Those inconsistencies cause great hardship and distress to those who wish to be part of that system.
My Bill, which unfortunately did not become law, sought to put these changes into effect. I gave a long history going back to 1936 and cited the report of the board of education on nursery schools and classes as our authority for ensuring that all children under the age of five should have the right to education. I said then, and repeat now, that the Opposition believe that education begins at birth. The legislation and the intentions that followed the board of education's report endorsed that view.
I also mentioned the Education Act 1944, which originally placed the discretion on local authorities to provide such education, the 1965 Plowden report, which strongly supported the idea of nursery education and the 1972 White Paper on education, which was introduced by the Prime Minister in her previous incarnation. In those days, 48 to one was regarded as a defeat. The White Paper stated that the "aim is that within the next 10 years nursery education should become available without charge "
The Prime Minister's words never became law.
I mentioned the Treasury Committee's White Paper called "Better Schools" and the Select Committee's report, which endorsed the views of so many hon. Members that the right to nursery education should be supported.
The plan, which is essential to new clause 2, recognises the changing role of women in our society. I remind hon. Members of Mr. Malcolm Wicks' report, "Families and the State", which was published at the end of last year. It states :
"Certainly it remains the case today that the lives of many families, particularly mothers, are dogged by the sheer difficulty of finding, and retaining child care."
Mr. Wicks added that, although 47 per cent. of children aged three and four were receiving pre-school provision in 1985, there was evidence of inadequacy in the quantity and quality of it. In 1931, only 13 per cent. of married women aged between 25 and 34 were working, but by 1986 64 per cent. of married women were economically active. Those are appropriate words-- "economically active"--with which to announce the return to her place of the hon. Member for Billericay, who I hope will take part in the debate and support my hon. Friends and me. On the other hand, I may be wrong and find that she will disappoint us.
The importance of recognising the changing role of women is essential to the new clause. It is an essential part of the way in which the Government have approached other aspects of the Bill that we should have planning and appropriate training. Yesterday, the Solicitor-General, when moving amendment No. 37, spoke of the need for planning and timetabling in respect of courts dealing with child care matters. We say that if it is good enough for the courts to timetable, it is good enough for local authorities, in those circumstances, to plan.
My hon. Friends have referred to the position in their constituencies and have appealed for more resources. I
Column 803endorse their comments. Before introducing my Bill last year, I spent a considerable time speaking to people who ran mothers and toddlers groups, who were involved with pre-school education societies and who were active in promoting provision for the under-fives.
As I visited neighbourhood centres in my constituency--at, for example, Netherhall, Northfields and Coleman--I met women who were active in the campaign. They pointed out that they could not play their full role in society unless provision was made for their children. I watched with anxiety the ways in which they tried to raise money for their causes and felt then, as I feel now, that central Government should make the money available.
Were the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) in his place, he would probably ask, "What about the cost?" He always asks that question. It is important for us to show that Parliament is prepared to invest in the nation's children, recognising that the mark of a civilised society is the way in which it treats its most vulnerable members, its children.
That is why we on the Committee spent many hours deliberating various aspects of this historic Bill. Mothers and others in my constituency are forced to rely on jumble sales and raffles to raise funds for what we recognise--as was recognised in 1936--to be an extremely important measure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said, they are forced to spend their time on fund-raising exercises when it would be better spent on activities concerned with the children.
They must go from one local authority to another, from charitable trusts to other bodies, trying to raise funds. I congratulate my authority, Leicester city council, and its chair of recreation, Derek Fryett, and its director of recreation, Alun Llewellyn, on picking up the tab for many of the activities which should be paid for by Leicestershire county council.
So often groups and individuals have gone to the county council to seek financial support. The county council, like so many other local authorities, has faced enormous difficulties because of the Government's restrictions on local government expenditure, but it has been mean about this issue, to such an extent that only 23 per cent. of the under-fives in Leicestershire receive education of this sort. Often these individuals and groups have had to go to Leicester city council, which I am happy to say is Labour-controlled, and ask its recreation department to supply the grants necessary to ensure that their organisations are successful. That is a pathetic way for central Government to treat such an important matter.
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North- West about the need for a multi-agency approach and for other organisations to be consulted. The Minister of State was described yesterday as Mr. Nice- -or was it Mr. Nasty?--and I am sure that he will consider my hon. Friend's points. These organisations must be consulted because they are working at the grass roots.
I should have liked the Bill to contain considerably more than it does. I would have liked much more about the need to treat child care as part of a wider package to encourage women's equal access to jobs. I should have liked provisions to allow all pregnant women the right to
Column 804maternity leave, and to introduce maternity and family leave in all areas of work. I would like increased opportunities for part-time work--for job sharing and so on. I want credits for child care allowances for employers, and the abolition of the iniquitous employers' tax on work-based nurseries--an issue that has been the subject of many parliamentary questions to the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I should have liked tax relief on child care in the Bill.
Opposition Members would have liked all these measures in the Bill, but, alas, they have not been included. The debate on the new clause gives us the chance to put our case in good faith to a Minister who has shown in recent negotiations that he is prepared to listen and to meet the objections of those with experience. Here is an opportunity for him to show that he is prepared to put his faith in children and to recognise that child care facilities and opportunities should be available for all. This is a unique chance to put the law right. I urge the Minister to seize it and enfranchise the children of our country.
Mr. Corbyn : Like my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) and for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), I am sponsored in the House by the National Union of Public Employees. We have a particular interest in the debate as our members provide a large proportion of the pre-school facilities in this country.
I find it strange that we are here at nearly one o'clock in the morning discussing the care of children. In this place there are no facilities for that and the hours of work here are not conducive to looking after children.
The new clause adds up to a charter which would revolutionise the treatment of children and the opportunities for parents--especially women--to go to work and take up fulfilling careers. My constituency is probably one of the most densely populated in the country. It has the least amount of open space and it has some very bad housing, as bad as in almost any part of London. There is much overcrowding. Many children live in high-rise flats or in overcrowded flats in converted Victorian houses with no garden space and there is limited and inadequate provision of pre-school facilities. The chances of those children being able to develop their personalities, abilities, interests and excitement to the same extent as children growing up in a wealthier, more suburban environment with greater access to open space are limited. The House should be concerned about that. The lack of pre-school facilities discriminates against the children of working-class parents and against the parents themselves and denies such people many of the opportunities for achievement that are available to others. The new clause brings to our attention the way in which children would be able to develop much better and shows how this country should treat its children.
The provision of pre-school facilities in Britain is very uneven. However, that unevenness is not based on wealth or on areas or counties but largely on the political complexion of local authorities. Labour local authorities, such as the one in the area that I represent, do everything that they can to provide pre-school facilities. They provide children's day centres, day centres, nurseries, play groups and training for child minders.
What is the response of central Government to the provision of such facilities? Since 1980 there has been an unremitting press and political attack on our local authority with allegations of gross overspending. It has
Column 805been suggested that we should cut expenditure on pre-school facilities. Councils which refused to do that were rate capped. Local authorities in areas such as mine have been penalised for attempting to provide some of the facilities that my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) suggested when she moved the new clause. I hope that the House recognises the importance of that. We are also debating the range of child care facilities that should be on offer. The Labour party strongly believes that there should be statutory provision of pre-school facilities for parents who want to use them. It is a matter not of forcing people to use such facilities but of ensuring that a choice is available so that parents may have their children looked after safely in an educational environment which will ensure their development or may look after them themselves. They should not be forced, as are many people in my constituency, to live in grossly overcrowded flats with limited access to pre-school facilities because that is detrimental to the development of children. It is a serious issue.
I am always amazed at how badly Britain provides for pre-school-age children. We compare badly with every other country in Europe, east or west, and with many countries elsewhere which have taken seriously the question of pre-school provision. When overseas visitors visit the House or my constituency they often ask about pre-school facilities. I tell them that in my constituency the facilities are good compared with the national average but that they are still inadequate, as the local authority would be the first to recognise. We are also debating registration and regulation. The provision of pre-school facilities should be subject to tight regulation. The facilities should be safe and should not be overcrowded. Staff should know what they are doing and be properly trained and the children should be properly looked after.
If the Government pursue their line of charging any voluntary organisation, whether it is a playgroup, a child minder or anyone else, for those facilities and for registration, that will be an incentive not to register and to dodge the register. If there is an incentive to do that, and to make as much money as possible, many people will do that. These provisions will encourage child minders not to register, and to take on more children. Those who will suffer will be the child minders and, of course, the children.
I recognise that the vast majority of child minders are good, do a good job, work extremely hard and are dedicated and loving to the children for whom they care. However, it is important for the security and benefit of those who mind children that there should be proper registration and regulation. The Government appear to believe totally in the free market economy. If that were taken to its logical conclusion, anyone could take on the care of children of pre-school age for whatever amount of money they could get. Those who will suffer will be the poorest children in the poorest areas. They will be the most exploited.
We have an appalling mess and mish-mash of pre-school facilities. In the west end of London, there are private nurseries for the children of business people which charge between £150 and £200 per week--up to £10,000 per year. That is way beyond the ability of many people to pay. At the other end of the scale there is a lack of local authority provision at a cost which anyone can bear. Such
Column 806provision should be free. As a result of that lack, there are only the private nurseries, and many people cannot afford them, so both children and parents suffer.
I hope that the House will recognise that the 1948 regulations, advanced though they were for 1948, are inadequate and that the proposals in new clauses 2, 3 and 4 are very much in line with Labour party policy. They set out a system under which children could be properly cared for and given proper opportunities for development, and their parents could be given real opportunities for working with the security of knowing that their children will be properly looked after. All that comes under the charter in the new clauses. The lack of adequate pre-school facilities for children is damaging to children, but also to parents. Usually, women have to stay at home to look after the children where there is no public provision. Many of those women lose their career prospects as a result, and few facilities are available for education at a later stage for women who have had to stay at home to look after children, so they lose out on fulfilment. Often the children lose out, too, because of the difficulty of the housing conditions in which such families live. We are proposing a radical change to the lives of those people. If we allow this crazy free market philosophy to envelope everything and to take over the provision of pre-school facilities, the losers will be the children of the poor, the parents who are not wealthy. The gainers will be those who can afford to send their children to expensive private schools and those who can make money out of them. Education should be universally available and free at all ages--not just at the school starting age but well before that, when the crucial stages of child development take place. It is a scandal that the House is debating this at this time of the night. The subject is too important to be debated at this time, and in this atmosphere. I hope that the Government will recognise the importance of this and support our new clauses.
The Minister for Health (Mr. David Mellor) : I shall begin by referring to the three Government amendments that are part of the group of new clauses and amendments that are before us. Amendments Nos. 388 and 484 provide a power to make regulations about the requirements that local authorities have to attach to the registration of a person providing day care and prescribe requirements which authorities must not attach. Amendment No. 130 is a drafting amendment which is intended to correct a mistake in clause 67(2)(c)(ii) in relation to persons providing day care.
I shall deal with the substantive matters that we have been discussing and the range of new clauses which have been proposed by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong). The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) and others have been kind enough to observe that where it was possible to make changes in Committee and at other stages of the Bill's consideration to ensure that there was a substantial--indeed, overwhelming- -measure of cross-party support for the Bill, I endeavoured to do so. The Amendment Paper is littered with amendments that pick up agreements to reconsider as a result of the Bill's examination in Committee. The hon. Lady and her hon. Friends will
Column 807know that the issue that has been the subject of this debate, which we discussed fully in Committee, reveals a philosophical difference between the two sides of the House which I fear that it will not be possible to bridge tonight. I shall, however, say a few words about the new clauses 2, 3 and 4, beginning with clause 2.
Government policy is based on the philosophy that parents are responsible for bringing up their children. If they need or want help with this task, they should make the necessary arrangements and meet the cost where they are able to do so. We believe that it is up to parents to decide, in the light of their own circumstances, whether both should work, for instance, while their children are young. We consider that the state should not be involved in that decision and that the welfare of the child must be of paramount consideration in reaching such a decision. We believe, however, that assistance should be given to children who are in need, and that is the thread that runs through the Bill.
Unfortunately, new clause 2 goes further than the duty that is provided for in clause 17, and avowedly so. The hon. Member for Durham, North-West makes that point. The new clause would require every local authority to plan for the development of day care and education facilities for all children under the age of five who require such facilities, and "requirement" appears to mean, in effect, all those who ask for these facilities.
New clause 3 provides a statutory code of practice to which local authorities would have to have regard when deciding whether to register an intending child minder or day-care provider under part X. A code of practice would set down standards to be met by child minders and others providing day care for young children. I do not think that there is much difference between us in this instance. We recognise that local authorities are likely to find guidance helpful in exercising their registration function efficiently and effectively. We shall be issuing guidance in the form of a departmental circular to local authorities on this and many other provisions in the Bill. In preparing the guidance we shall consult widely with statutory and voluntary bodies. We shall have regard to matters that are raised in this debate.
I hope that in the light of what I have said the hon. Member for Durham, North-West will not feel it necessary to push new clause 3 to a Division. If the clause were to form part of the Bill, a formal code of practice would be invoked for one item alone. We have accepted that for other parts of the Bill it is appropriate that there should be guidance under regulations. I hope that the hon. Lady will not consider--I can see no basis for it--that there is a need to establish a special way of dealing with guidance under this part of the Bill when, arguably, some even more significant areas are subject to guidance under regulations in the normal way.
Let me deal now with new clause 4. Good quality day care is crucial. Clause 69 asks for an annual inspection. That is a duty on local authorities and they have the power
Column 808to enter the premises in question at any reasonable time and, if appropriate on the evidence then gathered, to cancel registration. It is only after an institution has been established that it is possible to determine whether it is working appropriately. To give a local authority the powers in new clause 4 at the time of registration would place an invidious burden on local authorities because it would be difficult for them to make an objective judgment about whether the care to be given to an individual child was likely to be seriously inadequate until the institution was running. However, if the person concerned was not regarded as a fit person there is power to exclude such a person under the Bill.
The real meat of this is that, provided the institution is being run by a fit person, there cannot be a fair opportunity to judge standards before an organisation is up and running. Therefore, I regret that I am unable to accept any of the new clauses or amendments that have been proposed in the group.
An important issue in the debate has concerned pre-school play groups registrations and fees. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South -East (Mr. Paice) made an important point when he said that an increasing number of commercial organisations are providing child-minding or play group facilities. Many of them are of a high standard and I am glad that they are there. But there is no reason why they should not pay a proper fee for the cost of the registration arrangements under the Bill. After all, the Opposition rightly point out that when we place burdens on local authorities there is a cost attached. There is no reason why those who are registered should not pay a reasonable fee, not one that would involve the making of any profit, but one that would cover the costs involved.
Let me dispose of one serious point that ran throughout the debate. It would be wrong to place any unfair burden on voluntary organisations, such as the Pre-school Playgroups Association, running play group facilities on a shoestring, as I recognise they do. I want to make two points clear. First, if, in order to levy a registration charge on the commercial or semi -commercial organisations, it is necessary to make a charge on Pre-school Playgroups Association play groups, that charge will be purely nominal. I give an undertaking that it would not be more than £10 per annum. There is also power under clause 88(4) for regulations to be made to provide exceptions from the requirement to charge at all. As part of the consultations that will take place, I should like to consider whether it would be possible to ring-fence that category of play groups in order to remove any obligation to make any charge. At worst, there will be a maximum charge of £10 ; at best, it may be possible, after consultation under the regulations, to find a way to create a ring fence.
I hope that that will meet any legitimate concern about this. Whatever else may divide us in this group of amendments I hope that there will be no more suggestions that we shall put Pre-school Playgroups Association play groups out of business by making any unfair charge.
In conclusion, I hope that the House will not mind me making one other remark. It was a matter of sadness to me that there was an unnecessary Division on new clause 32, the first new clause to be debated tonight. I regret that. The Division was forced by the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh)--for whom I have the highest personal regard--who had not previously played a part in the
Column 809proceedings on the Bill. I hope that at this late stage such Divisions will not become a trend. We went through 16 sittings in Committee and had only seven Divisions.
I appreciate that there is a genuine division of opinion on new clause 2 and I fully accept that the Opposition will want to divide on that. However, I hope that, in view of my undertakings on charging in relation to pre-school play groups and other matters, it will not be necessary to force a Division. The proceedings on the Bill have been a happy experience for all of us and I wholly exempt the Opposition Front Bench from any suggestion that there is an attempt to go back on any arrangements into which we entered. It has been a happy experience to take the Bill through with give and take and with a genuine alliance with Opposition views, as those who served in Committee know, which have been incorporated in the Bill as far as possible.
I hope that the Bill will not now be hijacked by hon. Members who have other intentions, and who may force unnecessary Divisions and prevent progress on a Bill that is important to the welfare of children. I hope that it will be possible to do what we have always intended to do, which is to continue to debate the Bill fairly and properly, having Divisions only when they reveal real differences of principle between the Opposition and the Government, so that we can make a fair attempt to complete progress on the Bill this evening. I hope, therefore, that common sense will prevail, as it has done otherwise throughout the Bill.
Ms. Armstrong : The Minister was right in his remarks about the new clauses. His understanding of our motives in tabling new clause 2 is exactly right. We think that there is a public responsibility for the care and protection of all children under the age of five and for children involved in child care up to the age of 14. We shall come later to the debate about the age level. I know that hon. Members of all parties are worried because the Minister has set the level at eight. We make it clear in the new clause that our age limit would be 14. We think that the local authority has a duty to review and regulate the child care opportunities and nursery education opportunities for all children.
When the Prime Minister was Secretary of State for Education, she made a commitment that nursery education would be available for all children who wanted it. We want to ensure that it is available for all children who want it and that it is included in the review of day care and education, so we shall divide the House on new clause 2. I hope that the House will see the Division on new clause 2 as symbolising the Opposition's concern about the manner in which the Government have dealt with the provisions that we have been discussing. We make it clear by omission that charges would be no part of our plans and I shall return to that in a moment. New clause 3 concerns the area that local authorities have made clear in their representations that they feel is necessary. As a result of their experiences with the existing legislation, they believe that there should be a statutory code of practice. The essential element of new clause 3 is that it would ensure that, whatever the code of practice, it would come to the House and would be subject to a resolution of the House. We must monitor the code of practice, especially as we know that there will be expansion in the private sector. It is necessary that we have a view on that and that we are able to regulate and to know what is happening.
On new clause 4, we have had numerous representations from local authority associations and the voluntary