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that many can only afford a child minder ? Does he think that a nursery place should be a viable choice ? Does he think that a public policy issue is involved here, or is it simply a matter of parents who work fending for themselves ?

I look forward to the Minister's response to these questions. I hope that he will not say that it is a matter for his colleagues in the Department of Health, the Department for Education or the Department of the Environment. I can tell the Minister that each one is saying that it is a matter for the other. As the Minister is in the Chamber, perhaps we can hear from him the Government's response to this important economic issue.

Every Minister I have asked for information about the child care strategy has given a different answer. There have been different answers because there is ambivalence about the issue of what child care provision there should be for the children of working mothers. There is a similar ambivalence about nursery provision.

We have seen the Government going hither and thither in their approach to nursery education. On 14 November, last year The Sunday Times said that the Secretary of State for Education was ruling out universal nursery education and dismissing it as too expensive. He said :

"We haven't got any money. We are in a difficult public expenditure round."

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) : Would my hon. Friend agree that that kind of argument is very short-sighted, as keeping mothers who wish to work on benefit does not save the taxpayers money ? It means that mothers are stuck on benefit and are not making a contribution to the tax revenue, which they would be making if they could afford to work because they had access to affordable child care.

Ms Harman : My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I hope to return to that issue.

Without a nursery place, many parents--particularly single parents--are dependent upon benefits and cannot go out to work. That is quite apart from the fact that research shows that nursery education benefits children, and therefore should be seen as a long-term investment in children's futures.

Although in November the Secretary of State for Education ruled out nursery education for children as too expensive, and said that it was not possible because the Government had a "difficult public expenditure round", a month later, on 23 December, the Prime Minister changed the tune. He said that it was the Government's intention to move to universal nursery education. He added--we have been making the point for years--that the United Kingdom compares poorly with the rest of Europe in terms of child care, with only half our three to four-year-olds in nursery education, compared with 99 per cent. provision in France and 96 per cent. provision in Belgium. On the one hand, we can see the ambivalence of different Secretaries of State, Ministers of State and Government Departments about nursery education and women at work, but the Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave the game away when he said that the provision of public services sapped parental responsibility. He was saying that any public provision somehow confiscates the responsibility of parents, but he failed to recognise that, with the help of proper public provision of child care services, many parents who want to go out to work but who

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are at the moment stuck on benefit and living on income support could be financially responsible for themselves and their children if child care provision was available.

The Chief Secretary was in effect saying, "They're your children ; you had them, so you look after them. They are absolutely nothing to do with us." We believe that, of course, children are primarily the responsibility of their parents--no one would have it any other way--but the community as a whole has an interest in the well-being of our children and their preparation for adult life.

We all have an interest in children growing up to be adults who are, in the Prime Minister's words, "at ease" with themselves and able to take on adult responsibilities. The Government's attitude--"They're your children ; they are nothing to do with us, so why are you even asking us about child care ?"--is short-sighted.

When the Government have reluctantly taken action on child care, it has always been characterised by two features : it has been short-term--"here today, gone tomorrow" initiatives--and fragmented. We need not pump priming but a long-term strategy. When the Government have been pressed and felt it necessary to issue a press statement on child care, they have set up a pump -priming initiative.

I do not know whether hon. Members remember the under-fives initiative set up in the 1980s, which was to last for two years. What happened to it ? In the 1990s, grants via training and enterprise councils seem to be the fashionable way of affording the Government the opportunity to issue a press release, but there is no long-term strategy to deliver a national child care programme. What is lacking is not pump priming but a long-term strategy.

Child care should be regarded as part of the economic infrastructure, as important in getting women to work as the roads and railways on which they travel to work. Like other infrastructure projects, child care needs a long -term, strategic approach. Such an approach would match not only the demands of the economy but those of parents. Although the patterns of women's employment may be fragmented and changing, the needs and demands of their children are not. Their children need continuity and certainty.

If a mother gets a training place for six months, it is not good enough to offer her child care for six months at the local TEC. The child will just be settling in when it will be time for the mother to take him out of the nursery because she is looking for a job. She will have to make temporary arrangements for the child while looking for work and, if she gets a job, she will have to make other arrangements for the child to be cared for while she is at work. If she is on one of the increasing number of short- term contracts, what will happen to her child care when the contract comes to an end ? There is no set pattern for women's employment. The fact that women now form half of the work force does not mean that they are working according to the pattern to which men used to work. A woman might work full -time or part-time ; she might be out of the labour market for a while and then retrain and return to part-time work and then to full-time work. The point is that, although a mother's pattern of employment might be changing and

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fragmented, her child needs continuity and certainty, and child care cannot be fragmented to mirror the fragmentation of the new labour market.

Does the Minister believe that child care is part of the economic infrastructure and not a matter for individual parents, or does he believe that it is a private matter that can be left to parents alone ?

Mr. David Willetts (Havant) : The hon. Lady says that she does not want a fragmentation of the labour market, with women moving from one job to another leading to their child care also being fragmented. Why, therefore, is she advocating a change that specifically ties tax relief to the place of employment ?

Ms Harman : The hon. Gentleman has not read the new clause carefully enough. It would also provide more favourable tax treatment for employers who undertake joint ventures with local authorities. We have greatly welcomed that growing trend, which Labour councils have pioneered.

For example, when giving planning permission for a new Sainsbury store to be built, the council and the company embark on a joint venture to build a nursery there. When that happens, we believe that the employer should get the same tax relief on the nursery buildings that it would have received had they been a warehouse or factory. We are making two points. First, there is not enough child care. We need more, and we want to encourage it wherever we can. Secondly, we have to ensure that it is of high quality and embodies certainty and continuity.

Does the Minister believe that child care is an economic issue about which his team is concerned, or does he believe that it is solely a private matter that can be left to parents ?

Mr. Dorrell : I am happy to respond to the hon. Lady. Of course it is true that child care is an economic issue, and I should like the hon. Lady to expand a little on that point. She said that we need a national child care strategy, and her hon. Friends support that proposition. Is she committing her party to a such a strategy ? If so, would she be responsible for it, or would the shadow Department for Education ? If she were to be responsible for a national child care strategy, what would be its shape ?

Ms Harman : We have made it clear that we believe that working parents with young children should have a choice of child care. We also believe that the Government have a role to play--they must take the lead. I shall deal with the Minister's point a little later. We certainly do not think that child care provision is entirely a matter for public finance, although it is a crucial aspect of public policy. It is not only the Government who will foot the bill, although they must play their part. The Government must take a lead in galvanising the willingness of parents to chip in and pay some of the cost and to galvanise the willingness of employers to invest. There is a readiness to act, but the Government must take a lead to ensure that we have a national child care strategy. The Minister should examine what Labour councils have been able to do, and I shall deal in a moment with what the Government are saying about council provision.

Mr. Dorrell : The hon. Lady has conceded that child care provision is not purely a matter of public finance. I therefore do not understand why she is dismissive of

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developments in the infrastructure of child care in the private sector, such as private registered day nurseries. Why is she so dismissive if she accepts that child care does not have to be wholly publicly funded ?

Ms Harman : I am not dismissive of the increase in child care over the past 10 years, but I am making two points. First, the increase in child care has in no way matched the increase in the number of young children whose mothers are at work, what we call the "child care gap". Secondly, parents do not have a real choice of child care, often having to go for the cheapest option. That is why I believe that there should be a public policy on child care, and a national child care strategy. It is not good enough for the Minister to conclude that there appear to be more child minders, so everything must be fine. "Look," he says, "there appear to be more private day nurseries, so there we are, it is all happening."

The important fact is that we do not have a proper strategy that ensures choice and high-quality affordable child care.

Mr. Dorrell indicated dissent .

5 pm

Ms Harman : The Minister appears to think that the Government do have a strategy. He clearly does not understand that, all over the country, working mothers, who are doing a good job, contributing to the economy and to their family budgets, are tearing their hair out because of the lack of child care provision, and because of the expense and the variable quality of the care that is available. As the Prime Minister hesitatingly acknowledged last December, in other European countries Governments have recognised the importance of child care and nursery provision. But Britain is at the bottom of the European nursery league table. Why should Britain's children be Europe's poor relations ? I should like the Minister to respond on that point.

The Minister said that he believed that there was a strategy, and that the Government recognised that child care is part of the economic infrastructure. I am delighted to know that he thinks that there is a strategy. Perhaps he would discuss it with some of his colleagues in other Departments.

I have addressed several parliamentary questions to all the Departments, and when we put all the answers together, it becomes clear that there is no coherent strategy. There is inadequate information about how much money is spent on child care and nurseries, and about the number of places. I asked all Departments to make statements both about child care for their own staff and about the contributions they make to other child care and nursery services. The Department for Education, which is responsible for nursery education, said nothing about its strategy. The Department of the Environment, which provides resources to local authorities for under-fives provision and out-of-school care, said nothing whatever about child care strategy. The Department of Employment, which provides resources for out-of -school care, could not say anything about a child care strategy, either. The Department of Health, which has overall responsibility for child care, said nothing about the importance of child care for working parents.

Four of the Departments that provide child care for their own staff--the Departments of Health, of the

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Environment, and of Employment, and the Treasury--said nothing about the strategy behind that provision. Clearly it is tacked on, with no coherence.

There is also a lack of information about what spending there is, and what it contributes to. The Department for Education does not know how much local education authorities spend in total on the under-fives. That is extraordinary. The Department of Health does not know how much local authorities spend on child care for the under-fives. The Department of the Environment knows how much is given to local authorities but not how much is spent, and the Department of Health does not know how much is spent on nursery provision in the national health service.

There is also a lack of information about child care places. The Department of Health could not provide overall figures for child care provision, because the figures for day care and for nursery schools and nursery classes are collected on a different basis. The Department of the Environment did not know how many child care places were provided by local authorities.

The Department for Education provided figures for under-fives in nursery and primary schools, but of course those include the rising-fives, who are already in full-time schooling. The Department does not provide figures for under-fives in nursery schools and classes. The Department of Health does not know how many child care places there are for NHS employees.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South) : Is my hon. Friend aware that this morning I received a written answer from the Department for Education about the statistics for provision for the under-fives ? That answer, which is recorded at column 379 of yesterday's Hansard , admits that, on the due date, there could be double counting of children who may attend both playgroups and nursery classes during the same year. So the statistics that the Secretary of State for Education constantly bandies around are open to question.

Ms Harman : Yes, I noted my hon. Friend's question, and the information he received in reply to it makes an important contribution to the debate. It proves that there is no determination to find out what is going on, what is working and what is not working, so as to build on best practice and take things forward. The Government seem to be collecting whatever figures they can to show themselves in the best possible light, without any concern about what is really happening on the ground, and whether that represents a proper national child care strategy.

The situation is a shambles. Working mothers and their children are being let down, and the child care deficit is growing all the time. Since 1984, there has been an increase of more than 600,000 in the number of children under five whose mothers go out to work. Yet during those 10 years, there has been an increase of less than 300, 000 in places with nurseries, child minders and playgroups ; and, as hon. Members will know, much of the provision counted in with the 300,000 extra places is not provision for working parents.

Playgroups provide an invaluable service, but most people recognise that many cannot be counted as child care for working parents. The same goes for nursery education. Nursery education is vital, and we want all parents who feel that their child can benefit from it to have a chance of a place in a nursery school or nursery class for that child.

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However, such places often cannot constitute child care for working parents. The official increase of 300,000 over- estimates the increase in provision for working parents.

Many more mothers, especially lone mothers, would come off benefit and go out to work if child care were available. But the increase in child care nowhere near matches the increase in the number of mothers already going out to work, let alone the number who want to work but are prevented from doing so by the lack of child care.

The Government's own figures show that 90 per cent. of lone parents currently out of work, who are claiming benefit and bringing up their children on income support, want to go out to work, but lack of child care is a major obstacle for them. If we examine the map of participation of lone parents in the work force and the map of child care provision, we see that, in the countries that have developed child care, there is much more participation of lone parents in the work force.

Instead of Ministers moaning about single parents claiming benefits, let them listen to the demands of single parents. Single parents want to go out to work and to be able to provide for themselves and their families, but the lack of a Government national child care strategy prevents them from doing so and keeps them in forced dependency, bringing up their children on the breadline.

It is not only the Labour party and other such organisations that recognise the child care gap, and the importance, both present and future, of child care. Howard Davies, the director general of the Confederation of British Industry, speaking at an employers' conference called Working for Child Care, described the position accurately :

"Clearly, the demand for affordable, good quality childcare is greater today even than it was at the beginning of the 1980s. It is a demand which is not being met by the current supply of child care provision."

Sometimes, the Government say that there has been a great increase in council provision of nursery education, so everything must be fine. However, we should recognise that, in so far as we ever hear Ministers boasting about nursery schools and classes, they are talking about Labour councils, which provide nursery places not because of the Government but in spite of them. The Government continually claim the credit for the child care and nursery provision that exists, but it is Labour councils that should receive that credit. Conservative councils have followed the Government's lead and lagged far behind.

According to Government figures, of the 40 best local education authorities in providing places in nursery schools and classes, 34 are Labour, just two are Conservative, one is Liberal and three have no overall control. The message is absolutely clear : on the ground, local Labour councils are working with employers to provide more nursery places, they are providing more nursery education schools and classes, and they are trying to help. Without the Government taking a lead, it is difficult, and is bound to remain patchy.

Against the background of a growing child care gap, the very least that the Government could do is seriously examine the anomalous treatment of employers who provide workplace nurseries or enter into joint ventures with councils to provide workplace nurseries. The system works as follows : the Capital Allowances Act 1990 makes a distinction between capital expenditure

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on plant and equipment and capital expenditure on buildings. All companies are allowed to claim capital allowances on plant and equipment, no matter what sort of employer they are --shop, office, warehouse or factory.

That means, among other things, that any expenditure they incur for fixed equipment associated with nurseries is allowable against tax. On the other hand, expenditure on buildings is covered by a different set of rules. The industrial buildings allowance is restricted, as the name suggests, to factories and warehouses. Other types of premises, principally offices and shops--where women are largely employed--receive no allowance at all against corporation tax. That distinction also applies to premises built to provide workplace nurseries. Therefore, workplace nurseries attached to industrial buildings qualify for the buildings allowances, but those attached to other types of building do not. Capital expenditure falling under the Capital Allowances Act is deemed to include investment not only in wholly owned ventures but in joint projects. The tax rules that I have described therefore also apply to instances when companies enter into agreements to provide workplace nurseries, either with other companies or with local authorities.

It is clearly anomalous that employers whose businesses are based in offices or shops and who wish to provide workplace nurseries should receive less favourable treatment than industrial employers when providing nurseries for their employees. Obviously, there is a more general argument about the need to discourage excessive office building, but it cannot reasonably be applied to a situation in which either an office building already exists or where the decision to build has already been made and the question is whether a workplace nursery should be included.

The tax rules already provide one exception--for company sports and recreational clubs which qualify for the industrial buildings allowance even when they are attached to an office or a shop, irrespective of the nature of the employer's business. Women who work in offices and shops will think that it is wrong that, if their employer provided them with a workplace nursery, they could not claim tax relief against the buildings, whereas, if they worked in a warehouse or a factory, they could.

Certainly, women who work in offices and shops and who realise that the buildings qualify for tax relief if their employer provides sports facilities, but not if their employers provide nursery facilities, will think that it is wrong. It only leaves us all wondering why sports facilities qualify for tax relief and workplace nurseries do not. I hope that it is not because there is more interest among men in sports and more interest among women in child care.

Our new clause simply extends the industrial buildings allowance to all companies which invest in workplace nurseries, either on their own or jointly with councils. That will provide an incentive to employers to construct their own workplace nurseries, to go in with other companies to provide joint nurseries, or to enter into partnership with local authorities to extend provision for child care.

The new clause has attracted the support of the employers' organisation Employers for Childcare, which has said that the different treatment in tax relief of sports facilities and workplace nurseries and of shops and offices as opposed to industries and factory premises was

"another example of the inconsistency which exists in the field of childcare provision . . . It is a further demonstration of the need

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for the Government to undertake a full review of the situation in Britain today. Employers for Childcare believe that this is an essential first step in developing a coherent national strategy to offer accessible, available, affordable, quality childcare services for all."

I should like to hear the Minister tell us how the Government justify those anomalies. How can they allow tax relief for sports clubs, but not for nurseries ? How can they justify relief for nurseries attached to factories and warehouses, but not for nurseries attached to offices and shops ?

5.15 pm

The new clause is merely a probing clause, but it probes an important point. The Government have a history of tax treatment in child care. For many years, we argued that taxation should not be in the hands of the employee for the employer's contribution to workplace nurseries. When that issue arose in the House of Commons in 1989, the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont), said, putting the straightforward, free-market view :

"if married women want to work and if employers want to employ them, the market will work and employers will pay the necessary wage to encourage married women to return to work."--[ Official Report , 11 July 1989 ; Vol. 156, c. 892.]

However, a year or so later, the Prime Minister, who was then Chancellor, slightly changed his mind when he said :

"I have decided to exempt the value of workplace nurseries and playgroups from taxation as a benefit in kind."--[ Official Report , 20 March 1990 ; Vol. 169, c. 1023.]

He said that it was a small, but important, supply-side measure. Although we shall vote on the new clause, unfortunately we do not necessarily expect the Government immediately to see the light, but we are hopeful that as the arguments are put the penny will drop and the Government will recognise it as an important public policy issue.

Women's entry into the labour market and the new family patterns needs to be recognised in public policy. The demands of the economy and of working mothers are the same. We need a national child care strategy that aims to see that parents have a choice of provision--child minders and nurseries for pre-school age children and provision for school-age children.

Not all the investment in child care needs to come from the Government. Employers and parents may play their part, as will local councils. Unless the Government take a lead, it simply will not happen.

Mr. Willetts : The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) speaks rather more confidently and certainly at greater length on child care than she does on taxation. Her speech concerned a subject with which she appeared to have rather more familiarity than the subjects that she addressed in her performances in Standing Committee.

The principle of greater choice and diversity in child care is one that, of course, we on the Conservative Benches completely support. I should like to draw the attention of the House to some of the practical problems in the approach set out by the hon. Lady. I thought that the Labour party had some concern about the distribution of income and wealth. One of the great difficulties in trying to provide extra tax relief for working women is that, by and large, it would benefit two-earner couples. We cannot speak with enormous confidence about

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patterns of income in the country, but one thing of which we may be sure is that, by and large, two-earner couples are not at the lower end of the income scale.

Ms Eagle : Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that new clause 1 deals with capital allowances and that my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) was talking about the provision of child care, not tax relief for child care ?

Mr. Willetts : The speech of the hon. Member for Peckham covered most aspects of child care. The new clause specifically concerns capital allowances, but the hon. Lady ranged widely in her comments and I do not see why Conservative Members should not range as widely.

Assistance that is focused especially on working women is likely to be of particular benefit to two-earner families, who, generally, are not at the bottom of the income scale. Poverty among families is concentrated in one- earner or zero-earner couples. They are unlikely to be the families that will benefit from the measures that have been set out by the hon. Member for Peckham.

That outcome seems not to interest the Labour party, which is supposed to be especially concerned--we are used to its ritual denunciations--about widening gaps in the income scale. Its lack of interest is rather odd.

The argument of the hon. Member for Peckham seems to rest on the assumption that the only women who have an interest in child care are those who want to go out to work. It is equally important that women who are working but not in paid work--those who are at home with their children in one-earner families--should be entitled to benefit. That argument is even stronger, of course, for zero-earner families. The new clause is remarkably narrowly focused on families that are likely to be at the upper end of the earning scale.

It is strange that a significant measure which was announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget statement has not been referred to by the hon. Lady. That, of course, is the extension of family credit to provide a new disregard to help single parents especially, but other low-income working families as well, with their child care costs.

Ms Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West) : Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge what was acknowledged eventually in parliamentary responses from Ministers, which is that the poorest people on family credit will not benefit from the Government's proposals ? That is because they already receive the full amount of family credit. People will be able to receive the benefit that he is talking about only if they are currently receiving an extremely small amount of family credit and can therefore reach the maximum by claiming the extra benefit. There will be nothing like the quality of benefit that the Chancellor hinted at when he presented his Budget. As the facts have emerged, it is clear that very few people will benefit, and only those who are at the bottom of family credit.

Mr. Willetts : I am surprised by that intervention. There will be a disregard for costs incurred in buying child care.

Mr. Dorrell : My hon. Friend is right to be surprised by the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) because she is wrong. The fact is that 150,000 families will gain as a result of the

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change announced by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor on Budget day. I cannot believe that even the hon. Lady regards that as an insignificant number.

Ms Armstrong : The gain will be fragmented.

Mr. Dorrell : The hon. Lady might describe it as fragmented, but it will be targeted--that is the word that I would use--at those who need assistance.

Mr. Willetts : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention.

There will be a disregard for the costs of child care, which will help many of the families in receipt of family credit. It is particularly well targeted because it will help low-income working families. One of the ironies of family credit is that the beneficiaries generally fall into two categories, which may be at the opposite ends of the spectrum of family life styles. One of the main groups of beneficiaries is single parents who have low incomes but are in work. They will benefit, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor made clear in his Budget statement.

The other significant group of recipients of family credit is one-earner working families where the mother is not in work but is likely to be at home looking after the children. They similarly will benefit from the assistance. It seems to be well targeted in terms of income and tolerant of the diversity of families.

Ms Harman : Will the hon. Gentleman recognise that, even if the Government's target is met and about 50,000 women who are now on income support go out to work and claim family credit, there will be many more low -paid women who as a result of the tax changes set out in the past two Budgets will find themselves out of work and on income support ? That will happen because tax increases, by virtue of the freezing of personal allowances and the freezing and cutting of other allowances--and especially increased national insurance contributions--make it more expensive for people to go out to work. That will hit low-paid women, many of whom will find that it is no longer worth their while to go out to work. They will find instead that they are better off on benefits. The hon. Gentleman is talking about those women who will go off benefits and enter the labour market, but will he recognise that probably double their number will go out of work because of tax increases and will return to benefits ?

Mr. Willetts : The hon. Lady is assuming that many women go out to work only if their income is entirely exempt from taxation and national insurance contributions. Surely that is not a reasonable basis on which to plan any sensible approach to taxation. She is saying that as soon as they find themselves brought within the income tax net they will find that they no longer have an incentive to go to work.

One of the difficulties of financing public expenditure with taxation is that tax increases bring more people into the tax net. I accept that that is a consequence of the measures that were announced in the Budget. The alternative--not taking measures to reduce the public sector borrowing requirement--would have been far worse. I move on to another approach to the proposals set out in new clause 1 and in the new clauses that have been tabled by Liberal Democrat Members. The hon. Member

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for Peckham said that a large amount of child care is informal : much of it is provided by relatives and friends. The statistics are dramatic. They show that 65 per cent. of mothers in full -time work use as their main provider of child care the husband, the grandparents or other relations. It seems that 87 per cent. of mothers in part-time work choose above all members of the family to provide child care.

We all know about the painful and difficult negotiations that are involved. We suddenly become remarkably keen on our in-laws. We find ourselves negotiating complicated arrangements to try to get child care help provided. It is not fair to regard it as evidence that everyone would rather have formal, institutionalised child care provided by the employer or in another structured setting, and that we have informal arrangements because of the failure of individuals to obtain the institutional arrangements that they would prefer. On the contrary, informal arrangements are often the pattern of child care which people prefer and with which they are comfortable. There is some interesting evidence from America. As part of their programme to help single parents, especially, into work, and as a result of the greater diversity of approach that is now permitted by federal legislation on programmes for single parents, some states have set up large funds that are aimed at helping single parents to purchase child care when they return to work. They have found that the funds are not being drawn on to the extent that they expected. That is because, lo and behold, single parents in America prefer to negotiate informal arrangements with their neighbours or with relatives wherever possible rather than rely on institutional provision.

The trouble with the new clauses is that they all favour institutionalised and formal rather than non-institutionalised and informal patterns of child care. I do not believe that that approach matches the preference of most parents in this country.

Ms Eagle : The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that those who are lower down the income scale prefer their mothers or grandmothers to look after their children in an informal way. Presumably those who are high up the income scale and use a very institutional form of child care that is known as the public school are allowed to get away with that approach. Indeed, it is seen as a good thing. How can the hon. Gentleman account for the difference in his analysis of the social classes ?

Mr. Willetts : I do not regard that intervention as a serious contribution to the debate ; I hoped for something more serious from the hon. Lady.

I shall turn to another aspect of the debate. The measures proposed by the Opposition parties are entirely concerned with the demand for child care rather than the obstacles to supplying it. They are entirely concerned with trying to lower the cost for employers of providing child care or, in the case of the Liberal Democrats, to assist people to buy child care.

There is another more important aspect--the regulatory burdens under which the providers of child care find themselves. I shall quote from the experience of one lady who was trying to open a new nursery. This is an account of what she had to go through when she was opening the nursery :

"When I was setting up my nursery school it took 6 months for the Social Worker to come and see me. She made it quite clear

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that the state should provide. She encouraged the two local play-groups in neighbouring villages to object to planning permission on the grounds that I would take children from them. She said only mothers with cars would be able to come as my village is small and isolated. She insisted that I must have water play and sand inside. I do think they are both important but it is not easy in a house and I have a sand pit outside and I told her that most of my children had . . . plenty of water play with mothers who played with them. She wanted more dressing up clothes and to stipulate what toys I should have."

5.30 pm

Of course, we would love to have ideal child care. We could all sit around in committees--people sat around in committees during preparation of the Children Act 1989 and the regulations that followed--trying to design ideal child care. However, the problem with designing regulations which are intended to set out a picture of the ideal is that it makes it more difficult for new providers to enter the market.

I hope that, as part of the Government's deregulation initiative, the way in which some overprotective local authorities interpret the regulations made under the Children Act, making it more difficult for new entrants to supply child care, will be examined. I also hope that local authorities-- often they are left-wing Labour-controlled local authorities--which seem to be averse to granting planning permission to anyone who applies for a change of use to set up a nursery or child-care facility will be more tolerant. Instead of perpetually debating finance arrangements in the form of tax breaks or subsidies, we should also examine the obstacles that have been erected by successive Governments and local authorities which stand in the way of increasing the supply of child care.

Finally, I shall consider a few other aspects of help for child care that are focused particularly on the employer and the workplace. The book written by the hon. Member for Peckham, "20th Century Man : 21st Century woman : How both sexes can bridge the century gap"

Ms Harman : You are in the 18th century.

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