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Mr. Willetts : I am sorry that the hon. Lady thinks that I am in the 18th century ; that is harsh, especially as I was about to say that the book is interesting. I was not proposing to descend to the same level as the hon. Lady.

The hon. Lady's analysis is interesting. She makes some valid points about the changes in the role of the sexes. No man can look at the figures that show that 75 per cent. of all divorces are initiated by women and the figures that show the amount of help that men give around the house without feeling a certain amount of guilt. The hon. Lady's analysis is interesting. In her book, she briefly discusses the question of employer-based and employer-financed child care. It is a carefully even-handed discussion. She describes some of the advantages of such child care. I quote :

"The advantage to the employer is that it creates an incentive for staff to stay. Parents will not want to move their child from the nursery unless absolutely necessary."

Although that is cited as an advantage, it seems to be an argument that cuts both ways. There are many parents who are worried about putting themselves in a position of greater dependence on their employer, as the hon. Lady appeared to recognise in her speech. The hon. Lady goes on to discuss the disadvantages of such child care. I quote :

"Travelling to and from work in the rush hour with a young child is often difficult particularly in big cities. And children may prefer to be involved in local activities rather than far from home.

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For the parents, the workplace nursery can seriously impair job mobility ; some feel that it is more difficult to concentrate on their jobs knowing that their child is close at hand."

As the hon. Lady has set out those disadvantages so clearly in her book, it is odd that her only practical proposal to encourage child care is one which adds further tax relief to a pattern of child care that already does especially well under the tax system as a result of the concession in the 1990 Budget which ensures that the provision of workplace nurseries is not a benefit in kind for which the employee has any liability to tax. These patterns of provision already do well under the tax system. If workplace nurseries have not sprung up in a large number all around the country, that may tell us something about the preferences and views of parents. However, it should not be taken as evidence that the tax regime needs to be even more favourable. Some of the rhetoric that we heard earlier about strategies and national programmes for child care did not seem to take as much account as it should have done of how parents lead their lives and their child care preferences for their children.

Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch) : Decent child care should be a priority for all of us. It is something that we should be thinking about this year--the Year of the Family.

In this country, we have an extremely poor record with regard to child care, as has already been pointed out in the debate. Indeed, we have one of the worst records in Europe with only Portugal ranking below the United Kingdom in the provision of child care for the crucial pre-school years.

Obviously, the Liberal Democrats would like to see a wide variety of provision for children, especially those under five. We are concerned that the provision of child care must be increased. In response to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), let me say that we are discussing a Finance Bill, not an Education Bill. Today, I shall talk about the new clauses that we have proposed, which extend the principle embodied in the Government's provisions for workplace nurseries. Our new clauses would widen the provision for employers to help with child care. There are some disadvantages to workplace nurseries. They are not always able to meet the needs of mothers at work, especially if they live a long way from their workplace. Regrettably, only a small fraction of child care is provided by workplace nurseries. Indeed, I regret that many workplace nurseries in London have closed down recently.

Child care vouchers are a method of administering a tax incentive and provide parents with maximum choice and flexibility. I know that during debates on previous Finance Bills there has been much discussion about the costs of the scheme. If our new clauses are passed today, many women will be able to return to work and the tax that they pay will have an effect on the total cost of the scheme. Indeed, increases in tax payments from parents who are able to return to work, together with contributions from employers and reductions associated with home-bound parents, can be shown to cover much of the increased child care costs that we are proposing. I hope that in the Year of the Family the Government will give a more sympathetic response than they have previously done.

In this country, we waste the talents and training of many women because there is no commitment to child care. Child care is one of the biggest problems for women when they wish to return to work after they have had

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children. Women have often been trained with public money--one thinks particularly of nurses. Women have knowledge and skills which have been gained in previous jobs over a number of years but which are often lost to offices, schools and businesses because women cannot get the child care that they need in order to return to work. Money spent on our proposals would reap returns for the public purse through tax, and also for our businesses because they would not lose the skills and knowledge that people have built up. Businesses give many benefits in kind to their employees which are not linked to the quality of work of their employees. Many of them have no general advantage in bringing people back into work. So why are the Government so opposed to an extension of their own scheme ? In addition, our proposals would enable small businesses in particular to keep the skills of employees who wish to return to work after having children. The current statutes discriminate against small offices and workplaces. We need a more flexible response to help with child care. In recent weeks we have heard a lot from the Government about the importance of nursery education, and I welcome the fact that the Government now believe in nursery education. As I said in the House last week, when I was a councillor in Southampton some years ago I was classed as subversive and left-wing because I thought that we ought to have nursery places at work.

Ms Eagle : Does the hon. Lady agree that Conservative concern about child care rarely translates into policy ? When the former Prime Minister, now Baroness Thatcher, was at the Department of Education she was on record as saying that she would create what would be effectively a nationwide child care facility and nursery education facility. Yet 15 years of Conservative rule have brought us no nearer that desirable goal.

Mrs. Maddock : I wholeheartedly agree. It is extremely disappointing that we had a woman Prime Minister who we believed was committed to nursery education and yet many years later we are no further forward.

Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) : Does the hon. Lady accept that after Baroness Thatcher made that commitment there were five years of a Labour Government, two years of which included the Lib-Lab pact, and nothing seemed to happen then on a national policy ?

Mrs. Maddock : Is the hon. Gentleman saying that it is right to have gone on doing the same thing, if that was the case, for so many years ?

5.45 pm

We have heard a lot of talk, but not an extra penny has ever been committed to those words. Today, in the Year of the Family, the Government have a chance to put some finance to those words and I hope that they will do so.

Mr. Matthew Carrington (Fulham) : I start my few remarks on the subject of child care not by declaring a formal interest, but by declaring a past interest. My wife works and we have a child. Since my wife returned to work, which she did shortly after giving birth, child care has been a continual problem. It is a problem for all families, whatever their level of income, where one or both parents work or where a lone parent works.

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Child care is a continual difficulty, but it is not confined to pre-school time. It is a problem which goes on after school starts to a point well beyond that at which the child would no longer consider himself a child because in this day and age, unfortunately, it is not possible to leave even young adults alone for long periods without some degree of supervision and care. That care does not need to be of the professional level which is needed when the child is younger, but it should certainly ensure security, company and protection. I feel strongly about child care, and all families need it. It is not only a problem for families where both parents work, or where a lone parent works. It is also a problem for those for whom work is not the cause of the need for child care. It is important at various times for children to be looked after by other people--if only for the continuing sanity of the parents. Parents must have what is known in the social services and care in community world as respite care. I suppose that it is not politically correct to say that parents need respite care from their children, but if most parents were honest they would admit that they do--if only to allow them to go out occasionally and to re-establish their relationship with each other. Child care is very important. I suspect that there is unanimity across the House on that. It is even more important for the country because of the need to enable parents to get back to work and to contribute to the economy. There are obvious benefits in getting parents who are on low incomes off of benefit. It is also important when the parents have had a high level of training and have high skill levels. Those skills need to be used for the benefit of the community and the economy.

The importance of child care is not in dispute in the House. We all accept that we must ensure a diversity of available child care, which will become more important as our society develops. The need for child care is perhaps more important now than it was when I was young some 30 years ago, and it is getting more important as time goes by. If and when my daughter produces her family in the fullness of time, child care may be even more important for her.

Mr. Spearing : The whole House will agree with the hon. Gentleman that there should be diversity in child care, particularly for the under- fives, and last week the Secretary of State for Education agreed with me that there is a complementarity between playgroups and nursery education. In view of that, does the hon. Gentleman deplore--as I do--the fact that the Government have objected even to a debate in Standing Committee on the Nursery Education (Assessment of Need) Bill, which would reinsert elements of the Education Act 1944 taken out by the Government the hon. Gentleman supports ?

Mr. Carrington : The hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not go into the details of education because, as he may know, I am involved in the Department for Education and I would not wish to prejudice that. There is a clear commitment on the part of the Government towards nursery education and its provision. The Government have always sought ways of delivering that commitment in ways that parents want.

Mr. Willetts : While we are on the subject, is my hon. Friend aware of the following interesting historical fact ? It was the great reforming Liberal Government of 1906 who raised the school entry age ; children had previously started

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school at the age of three, but a Liberal measure raised the age of school entry to five on the argument that schooling for three and four year-olds was of poor quality. Should one therefore welcome the apparent shift in Liberal policy this century ?

Mr. Carrington : I should be more than happy to bandy anecdotes with my hon. Friend about the Liberal Government of 1906, who in many ways were the architects of our misfortunes in the 20th century. However, with all respect to my hon. Friend, it seems to me that 1906 is a long time ago.

The debate should concentrate on how child care can best be provided and the best way of encouraging the right form of child care. It is apparent that no form of child care is appropriate in every case. That is something which the House has to consider. Some parents work normal working hours from 9am to 5pm in jobs which are fairly well regulated. They can conform to standard patterns of child care in a nursery which opens at a certain time in the morning and they can collect the child at a specific time in the afternoon. Unfortunately, more and more patterns of work these days do not conform with the requirements of institutionalised child care. Parents, particularly working mothers, frequently find themselves working in the evenings. Parents who undertake work such as shop work may well find themselves working early in the morning or late in the evening, so one of the characteristics that has to be provided is a high degree of flexibility in the types of child care available to parents to choose from.

The needs of children, particularly young children, vary enormously from one child to another, and they vary much more in pre-school children than in children over the age of five. The emotional development of children below the age of five is much more varied--much more rapid in some children and much slower in others--than the development of children as they become more mature. The needs of older children are much more uniform. Again, that means that parents have to judge what type of care is needed for their child. Some children are happy to be left in institutions while others will need much more love and attention from someone who is less a teacher but more cuddly.

Mr. Burns : Does my hon. Friend agree that there is an important distinction between nursery education and creches or child care ? Does he agree that all too often there is a confusion and that "nursery education" is used as an all-embracing term for the provision of child-minding facilities for working mothers when nursery education itself is a different proposition altogether ?

Mr. Carrington : It is indeed a different proposition. My hon. Friend is right that education in that sense is by no means appropriate for all children, particularly at a very young age, when they need qualified and progressive emotional development which is not necessarily provided in an institutional education framework. Children frequently need more a framework of guided supervision or perhaps even child minding. There are many types of arrangement within which such care can be provided. I do not propose to describe all the variants, but I will give one example other than institutionalised child care.

Parents often get together as a group and provide someone to look after their children in a group in a way that suits them. Ideally, and in many cases, the person

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employed in that way is professionally qualified to look after children. That is very much to be encouraged. Child care by people who have nursery nursing qualifications is to be highly recommended and encouraged, and it is frequently provided outside the institutional framework.

What worries me about the new clauses is that a bias is being introduced in the tax system in favour of institutionalised child care-- [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) wishes to intervene, she is welcome to do so. I would rather she did that than that she should shout.

Ms Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West) : I was suggesting that the hon. Gentleman might think about changing his language. Not all collective care is institutionalised. In the English language the word "institutionalised" has a negative aspect. I assure the hon. Gentleman that much nursery education and nursery provision is far from negatively institutionalised, but is good collective child care and nursery education.

Mr. Carrington : I am sorry that the hon. Lady finds the word "institution" derogatory

Ms Armstrong : The word "institutionalised".

Mr. Carrington : Or "institutionalised". As a Conservative, I strongly believe in the institutions of Britain and the institutionalisation of elements of this country. It is sad that the hon. Lady feels that the word has negative connotations. I believe that we have many fine institutions, and I suspect that many child care institutions are very fine. I would rather encourage institutions, but if the hon. Lady would prefer me not to use that word, in the interests of harmony across the Chamber I will use another word.

Mr. Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam) : My hon. Friend is too nice to the Opposition.

Mr. Carrington : My hon. Friend is right. I am sometimes too indulgent to the Opposition.

Child care organised by people other than the parents has a place and is appropriate, but I doubt whether it should be encouraged over and above child care organised by parents for the benefit of their children. What worries me about the new clauses is that the taxation system would be structured in such as way as to favour one type of child care over another. That seems inherently undesirable. My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) read out from the book of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) the criticisms of workplace nurseries. Those criticisms are right. Particularly in London, workplace nurseries are often inappropriate, if only because most workers commute some distance to work. Travelling with a small child on the underground or on buses in London in the rush hour is extremely difficult and certainly not to be encouraged. I therefore had reservations when my hon. Friends introduced in the Finance Bill of 1990 provisions on workplace nurseries in preference to support for other types of child care, and I should be reluctant to see that move encouraged still further by new clause 1.

I was intrigued and somewhat attracted, however, by the possibility of vouchers in new clause 6. Vouchers have been rumbling around in political theory for a great many years and have considerable attractions, but they have always been found to be difficult to implement in practice because of the administrative complexity of such a system.

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My anxiety about new clause 6 is the one which I am afraid also applies to capital allowances for providing nursery care. The measure proposed in new clause 6 is indiscriminate. If we are to support people who cannot otherwise make provision for their children, the money will inevitably come from scarce resources. The money would be better given to people who need it more.

To take my own case as an example, my wife and I both work and we are capable of making financial provision for child care, so it would be wrong for either or both of us to receive vouchers to pay for child care. I suspect, however, that new clause 6 would provide for both parents to receive vouchers. If any money is to come out of the tax system for child care, it should go to those people who cannot afford to provide for child care themselves.

Equally, money for child care should not be concentrated on the employer. That is the problem with new clause 1. If money from the tax system is to be given to anyone to provide child care, it should go to parents who need assistance to get themselves back into work or to provide proper care for their children other than straight child minding, which is frequently of a questionable nature.

Taxation support for child care must be targeted on the people who need it- -parents who cannot provide for such care out of their own resources, but who can be encouraged back to work with a little help from the state. That is why the provisions made in the Budget last November were the right way forward, rather than any attempt to extend tax reliefs which, by definition, probably give help to those who need it least. We must get the relief to those people who do not pay tax.

Ms Eagle : The hon. Gentleman makes the same slip as his hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts). New clause 1 deals with capital reliefs, not income tax reliefs, for the use of workplace nurseries.

6 pm

Mr. Carrington : The hon. Lady is mistaken. I do not make that mistake. Capital reliefs come off the corporation tax paid by companies providing nursery places, so the relief is targeted on the company rather than the employee. But inevitably all employees may benefit : from the managing director, who may be highly paid, down to the less highly paid-- they will all be paid, as they are all employees.

Ms Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : Can the hon. Gentleman therefore explain why, when employers give their employees health benefits through a private health scheme, it is deductible from corporation tax ? The Government have not closed that loophole, but the hon. Gentleman advances the case against child care being treated according to the same principle.

Mr. Carrington : The argument is straightforward : if a company gives private medical insurance to an employee, it is not taxed but the employee is taxed.

Ms Primarolo : That is not true.

Mr. Carrington : I will give way to the hon. Lady again.

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Ms Primarolo : I am sorry, but I must correct the hon. Gentleman. Companies which give private health insurance to their employees as a fringe benefit are able to offset the cost against corporation tax. It is true that the employee has a tax liability as a result, but the company benefits. The hon. Gentleman is arguing against that happening with child care.

Mr. Carrington : The hon. Lady is repeating what I told her. Of course the company can offset the cost against corporation tax, but that merely avoids double taxation because the employee pays tax on the benefit- -probably at a higher rate than the company would have done. We are talking here about a benefit that would be given to employees without their being taxed on it. Companies would get a deduction, but that is not my objection.

Mr. Dorrell : My hon. Friend might like to know that there is no difference between the treatment, for corporation tax purposes, of expenses currently incurred by a company when providing health benefits to employees and those incurred when providing child care facilities for them. They are precisely analogous cases and are dealt with in the same way under the corporation tax regime.

Ms Primarolo : The Minister should tell his hon. Friend, not me. He is arguing the wrong case.

Mr. Dorrell : I am telling the hon. Lady.

Mr. Carrington : The difference comes down to the treatment of the employee, which is what I was saying. Employees are taxed on premiums paid for private health insurance whereas under new clause 1 they would not be taxed on child care costs. That seems wrong as it would benefit people who do not need that help--the more highly paid rather than those on lower wages.

We need to place the money that we are giving to encourage child care in the hands of those parents who need it, so that they can be encouraged to provide the type of child care from which their children will benefit most, meet their circumstances and needs in terms of the amount and hours required, and encourage people back into the economy. We must not target it on people who would return to work of their own accord because they can afford to do so, but on those who need a little incentive to return to work. That is proper use of the taxation system.

I am always deeply suspicious of grand strategic plans of any sort, so I am not sure whether we should have one for child care. Parents are the best people to decide what care is right for their children. If we are to have distortions within the taxation system, they should best be used to encourage people back to work who would earn very low wages or who are on benefit. We should probably use the benefit system to get those people back to work, as we did in the Budget.

Ms Armstrong : I was interested to hear the contributions from the hon. Members for Havant (Mr. Willetts) and for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) but I was most disappointed with that of the former. We were given to understand that he was the intellectual force behind Conservative policies on the family and children, which shows what a desperate state that policy is in.

Today's debate comes hot on the heels of our debate on family policy last week and it is impossible to separate the two. We are debating child care within the context of the Finance Bill because we are anxious to make the

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Government think seriously, at every possible step, about the way in which their policies are undermining our economic future and the future for families.

Because today's debate is on the Finance Bill, it highlights the fact that a child care strategy is central to the economic future of the country. Everyone talks about a more flexible work force--one that is able to respond to the needs of the next century. Opposition Members would say that that is important, but that we will create enormous problems if we develop such a work force at the expense of children.

Children live in a much more dangerous and complex world than the world in which we lived when we were growing up. We were simply not aware of many of the challenges, fears and threats that they have to face. We cannot even imagine the complexities of relationships and negotiations that they will have to steer themselves through. That is why their experience--whatever their family and wherever they are based--is a critical aspect of both social and economic policy. Whatever the Government may wish, women go out to work. Three years ago many Conservative Members would have told us that that was wrong and that they did not want it to happen.

Mr. Dorrell indicated dissent .

Ms Armstrong : The Minister shakes his head but I think that I have sat through every debate on child care since I came to the House in 1987--I accept that that is not a long time--and I could name the Conservative Members who are uncomfortable with, and resisted, women going out to work. They are not all here today, but I suspect that they would still resist it.

Whatever the Government or any hon. Member want, women are working. Many do so because it is an absolute necessity and what their family requires. In my constituency, many work because there is no work for men--no work that they would be accepted for or that they are taking up. Because women are largely responsible for child care, it is critical that we know what we are going to do about it.

Some hon. Members have got themselves into a dreadful mess over the difference between nursery education and child care and all the rest. It is clear. Of course children have individual needs, but all children have intellectual, social and emotional needs that must be met in whatever setting they are--whether they are with a child minder, in a day nursery or in full-time care. I hope that in his reply the Minister will not insult the House with the statistics that are usually peddled from the Conservative Benches about the number of children who receive care. We all know that none of us should take those statistics seriously.

It is true that 90 per cent. of the under-fives may be with a person other than their parent at some stage in the week, but that does not mean that they are in care that lasts for any period. Children who are in a playgroup for one session of an hour are included in the statistics. That is not the child care and nursery education that we are so serious about, and that is not being serious about the needs of those children or the needs of parents. Many parents want their children to be with child minders when they are very young. The important thing is that those child minders are supported and that they have the opportunity to speak to other child minders. They

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should have the opportunity, perhaps, to go to a local nursery, where the children can be with other children for an hour or so while the child minders think their way through the ways in which they can improve themselves as child minders and the ways in which they can give a better service. That is happening, but only in small areas of the country. In many rural areas, opportunities for women and for child care are minimal, as the recent report of the Development Commission clearly showed.

When I was working, before the general election, on the shape of a potential child care strategy, I was taken by the number of employers' organisations that were springing up and coming to me saying, "For goodness' sake, let us work in partnership. We want to do things, but our expertise is not child care and we do not want to set up, or become involved with, ventures that will not provide the highest quality care for children. We do not want to get the blame if something goes wrong."

Ms Eagle : Does my hon. Friend agree that, as a result of the recession, often some of the good teams to provide child care that have been set up by companies to help women advance in their structures are cut if the firm gets into financial difficulty, so that the services that those firms provide are unstable and likely to disappear if the firm experiences difficulties ?

Ms Armstrong : My hon. Friend tries to take me too far ahead. Those employers were mainly saying that, rather than setting up their own facilities, they wanted to enter into partnership with the public sector in their locality so that they could offer choice and opportunity to parents. There are some very good schemes of that nature.

I bring to the attention of the Minister again the scheme in north Tyneside, which has been established in full co-operation with local employers and with the Government. The Government have used the north Tyneside scheme for, I think, eight workplace nurseries in their own facilities. That scheme has enabled employers to consider the parents' needs. They have spoken to their employees and found out the different types of child care that they would like.

The north Tyneside scheme has supported the whole range of child care--all- day child care, nursery education, child minders and child minders in the parent's home, who are called nannies in the south of England. It provides, first and foremost, quality care wherever the child is placed and, secondly, the real opportunity of choice. That has not placed additional cost on the public purse because it has linked the public commitment and the public child care strategy for that borough to the needs of employers and their employees in a way that has increased opportunity throughout.

I say to the hon. Member for Havant that, far from simply providing for those women who are in highly placed jobs, the north Tyneside scheme has so improved the opportunities for, and the experience of, child care in the day nursery that now working parents and middle-class parents bring their children to it as well, and that has uplifted the experience of those parents who thought that their children were there only because they qualified because they were deprived. Bringing all of that together with a strategy, knowing what is wanted for the whole borough and offering the opportunity for all parents to be involved in discussing what they wanted and the quality

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that they expected, has uplifted the experience, not simply of the parents, but of the children and those people who work with them. 6.15 pm

The new clause does not tackle all the child care issues that we want to tackle, but it gives us the opportunity to say to the Government once again that this issue, which is critical for our future, ought not to be bandied about across the Benches. Unless we are prepared to invest in the best quality care for our children, they will not grow up with the confidence and commitment to be the active and participating citizens that we know that they will need to be in the next century. Unless we are prepared to invest in child care partnerships with employers, they will be unable to train and support the type of work force that they need, and that the country needs, to develop and improve. That is an economic issue, but it will also affect the patterns of community and of our society. I hope that the Government, far from treating that issue as something that they can throw back at us, saying, "This is silly. If you do not like the exact nature of the clause, suggest something else", will recognise that unless we develop a child care strategy that centres on the economy, the future will be bleak for us all.

Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East) : The debate is timely because it is reported that, by the end of 1994, women will outnumber men in the labour market. That especially challenges women with young children. In the mid- 1980s, 24 per cent. of women with children aged under five were working. By 1991, that figure was 45 per cent. As my hon. Friends have said, those mothers work through necessity as well as choice, because the Government's policy of low wages and deregulation means that women need to work to pay the mortgage, to support the family and to provide extras that they consider important for their children. That explosion in women's employment, especially when the children are under the age of five, has led to a child care gap that, in the past 10 years, has grown to number about 400,000 children. The Pre-School Playgroups Association set up a telephone help line in October 1993, which was soon inundated with telephone calls from parents, especially lone parents, who were desperate to find child care.

Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton and Wallington) : I am listening to what the hon. Lady says. Does she know what proportion of the 45 per cent. of women with children aged under five to whom she referred who are in work are in very much part-time work rather than full-time work, according to the conventional definition ? Obviously, if they were in part-time work, as I suspect that many of them are, that is more compatible with children going to pre-school playgroups and so on.

Ms Corston : Whether they are in full-time or part-time work is irrelevant if there are 400,000 children with unmet need. I shall talk about the various kinds of child care, but that is what I am concerned about, as all hon. Members should be. We all agree that women should be allowed to go out to work for whatever reason. In February 1994, the Government published their first report to the United Nations committee on the rights of the child. It is revealing as much for what it does not say as for

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what it does say. The Government claimed that the number of day nurseries and child minders had increased "quite significantly". In 1992, England had 91,600 places in day nurseries, 108,000 registered child minders with more than 252,000 places and 409,000 playgroup places for three and four-year-olds. There are nearly 2 million children aged two to four and the growth in the number of working mothers with children of that age has outstripped the growth in places, as I have said.

There were 24,000 children in local authority day nurseries and 330,000 places in local authority schools and classes, but they have been unable to expand to fill the gap because of the Government's squeeze on local authority resources. Yet the Government, in their report to the United Nations, had the cheek to say that they

"would like to see a widening of nursery and other pre-school education as resources become available."

They went on to say :

"The longer-term ambition is universal availability for those who want it."

That is a welcome commitment by the Government to universality, but I hope that the same commitment can be made today, because it demands a rational plan and a timetable.

Article 18 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child specifies the objective :

"States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that children of working parents have the right to benefit from child-care services and facilities for which they are eligible."

As my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) has pointed out in her recent book, the United Kingdom brings up the rear of the member states of the European Union. It shares with Portugal the lowest provision for the under-fives. In France, Italy, Belgium and Denmark between 85 and 100 per cent. of three and four-year-olds are in publicly funded nursery schools and classes. What is at stake is investment in children.

Families with children have suffered a great deal from the Government's policies of cuts in public expenditure, deregulation, privatisation and failure to promote employment. Let me spell out a small part of that sorry story. On 28 February 1994, in response to a parliamentary question, I was told that the percentage of households with less than half the average national household income was 10 per cent. in 1979 but as high as 27 per cent. in 1990-91. That deterioration is unparalleled in the rest of Europe. If the richest and poorest are compared, the scale of the growing divide in the 1980s in the United Kingdom is without precedent in the history of the collection of statistics.

Figures from the "Social Trends" survey show that since 1979 the disposable incomes of the poorest 10th have decreased by 3 per cent. while those of the richest 10th have increased by 155 per cent. Families with children are particularly at risk. On 22 February the Prime Minister told me that the incomes of people

"at all ranges of income has increased".--[ Official Report , 22 February 1994 ; Vol. 238, c. 146.]

According to Government statistics, that is untrue for the poorest 10th, whether their incomes are measured before or after housing costs, and that also applies to some of the next poorest 10th of the population.

In answer to parliamentary questions tabled by me in 1993 I was given figures showing that there were altogether 5.7 million people in families with children who had a smaller disposable income in 1990-91 than similar

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families in 1979. That information was confirmed to me as recently as 13 April 1994. After undertaking various forms of standardisation, the Treasury produced figures which, after taking account of inflation, show that for families with children, the poorest 10th and the next poorest 10th had a lower real disposable income than such families had in 1979. The poorest 10th had lost £438 per household per year, a 10 per cent. cut, compared with 1979. The next poorest 10th had lost £281, a 5 per cent. cut. Those two sets of families include more than 3 million children. How can those parents provide decent child care in what we are told is a child care market ? A huge number of reports by organisations in Britain and overseas help to explain those statistical results. They include reports from UNICEF, the Child Poverty Action Group, Barnardo's, the National Children's Home, the Rowntree Trust and the Family Policies Study Centre. For example, a 1993 report by UNICEF entitled "Child Neglect in Rich Nations" describes why some of the wealthiest nations on earth "have short-changed children." The United Kingdom and the United States were found to have the highest child poverty rates among eight industrialised countries including Germany, France, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden.

There were such wide differences that a European model of child welfare was contrasted with what UNICEF described as a

"neglect-filled" Anglo-American model. Thus France was quoted as having

"The most comprehensive child-care system in Western Europe" and

"recent governments have all recognised that proper pre-school care and education are an investment in the nation's future citizens." That statement from UNICEF is one with which all hon. Members should agree and to which any Government should commit themselves. UNICEF went on to point out that in the United Kingdom the Children Act 1989 set high standards, but said :

"and yet at present the Government seems unwilling to provide the resources necessary to meet those standards."

According to the same report, the

"swelling tide of child neglect has potentially disastrous consequences."

It said that there were problems of raising a generation of uneducated and unskilled adults and went on to say :

"Unless countries such as the US and the UK invest in their children on a new and a massive scale, a burgeoning human capital deficit will trigger an economic tailspin".

Women are criticised by the Government for being on income support and some of us suspect that the number of women on income support has been more of a trigger to the creation of the Child Support Agency than the so-called responsibility of fathers. Despite that, the Government have made no effort to will the means to enable women to go to work by providing affordable child care.

In the debate on sex discrimination initiated by the Opposition in the House last month, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) gave us the benefit of her wisdom and told us that she had managed to go to work because she had had a nanny. I remember an article in The Guardian some years ago which reproduced an interview with the then Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, a newly elected Member of Parliament, now Baroness Thatcher, who said that she had managed to keep working after she had had her twins because she had had her nanny.

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