Column 804either side of the House would disagree with the general propositions that Opposition Members have advanced about the importance of child care, especially for very young children. All the studies show that the influences on young children are critical in determining how they grow up and lead their later lives.
As my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said, we do not dispute the simple proposition that it is important to get mothers back to work after having a child, if they wish to work, because that is good for families and psychologically good for mothers, and it helps with the material circumstances of the families concerned. That is all to the good. And, as we all know, one of the smaller measures in the Budget was directed towards that end. So far, so good.
The real question was contained in my intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle)--an intervention that I had been tempted to make during earlier speeches, too. Taxpayers, and other people listening to the debate, will want the Labour and Liberal parties to tell them how the necessary cost of the desirable measures that they advocate would be apportioned, and how that will fit into the overall strategy on which Opposition Members say that they are so keen--although I have not heard a great deal of substance to it so far.
In view of the contrast between what happens here and what happens on the continent of Europe, the Opposition must answer the question : what is the appropriate balance for meeting those costs in modern society ? First, to what extent should we put the costs for those desirable extra measures on to individuals ? What contribution should the families themselves make ? Secondly, what contribution should employers make, in their own interests as much as for any other reason, so that they can recruit and retain the well-qualified women employees whom they need ? Thirdly, what proportion should be borne by the generality of taxpayers ?
We sometimes talk glibly of Government money--but there ain't such a thing as Government money, only taxpayers' money. There is an opportunity cost, and all those other things. I can think of other forms of desirable family financial support which could be made a charge on the taxpayer--for example, financial help for those looking after elderly people. Many women in families these days have to pick up the burden, both financial and human, of caring for an elderly relative. That will happen more and more in the future because of the changing demographic profile.
Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South) : Given our appalling child care record in comparison with that of any European country that the hon. Gentleman cares to mention, does he accept the proposition that, whatever balance the Government have constructed over the past 15 years, it is self-evident that it is not working ? Secondly, does he accept that the new clause represents but a small step in the direction of attempting to shift that balance more in favour of fostering child care, which, in view of our appalling record, is obviously not happening now ?
Mr. Forman : If the hon. Gentleman's argument were correct, it would be surprising that our rate of female participation in the labour force has climbed so rapidly to such a high level in recent years, so that we are now second only to Denmark in the European Union.
Column 805In an ideal world where there was plenty of money available for such things, whether from individuals, companies or the generality of taxpayers, it might indeed be desirable to increase the financial contributions from all those groups. But before the debate finishes I want to hear some authoritative guidance from the Opposition. I do not know whether we shall hear another speech from the Opposition Front Bench ; I apologise for not having heard the opening speeches, but I could not be in the Chamber at that time. I should like to hear an authoritative statement on how the Opposition would go about implementing the strategy about which they talk so airily. That is the key question with which we must concern ourselves during the Report stage of the Finance Bill.
Mr. Spearing : This debate should not be necessary. Indeed, if there were a properly co-ordinated and integrated Government policy on child care the debate would be unnecessary, and so would the new clause, and the speech by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman). The hon. Gentleman may have a point about the mechanics of putting the effects of the amendment into practice, but he and the Financial Secretary have to answer for the lack of integrity in the Government's present approach to child care. I use the word "integrity" advisedly. We often use it in a pejorative sense when we say, "That person has no integrity." But I am using the word in a collective sense to describe the Government, because their policy is not integrated. It is not a whole ; therefore it has no integrity in itself, and I shall prove that. In an earlier intervention the Financial Secretary claimed that the Government had a strategy. He nods, but I hope to prove to him, to the House and to the public that they have not.
The hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Carrington) castigated the 1906 Administration of Lloyd George--or rather of Campbell-Bannerman, and subsequently of Asquith and then, during the war, of Lloyd George. The hon. Gentleman said that the root of most of our troubles in the rest of the century could be laid at the door of that Government, and what it started. That remark illustrates the differences between Conservative Members.
Some Conservatives believe that we must have a collective form of public service whereby, together as a whole, we fund the professionals who provide care, whether that be in health or in education
Mr. Carrington rose
Surely, by definition, care is not a marketable commodity. We have been talking about child care today, and the hon. Member for Fulham is really saying that the tradition of public service that the 1906 Administration started, and that my hon. Friends have attempted to continue since 1945, is all wrong. But I maintain that it is essential to meet the challenges of the next generation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms Armstrong) properly and eloquently explained.
Mr. Carrington : I do not to wish to go into long disputations about the pros and cons of the record of the Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith Governments, although I point out that Lloyd George was not a Liberal Prime
Column 806Minister, but a coalition Prime Minister. The two principal achievements of that Government were the highest number of days lost in strikes at any time in the country until 1978, which occurred in about 1911, I believe, and the start of the first world war. Those two factors meant that most of our problems came from that Government.
Mr. Spearing : We may make a judgment about the causes of that terrible conflict, but if the hon. Gentleman considers the public institutions in what was the borough of Fulham or looks round any city or town at the public institutions and public buildings which were erected between 1906 and 1913, he will see that there is a great deal of good. The problem with Conservative Members is that some of them believe in public service, even if it is over a narrow range, and the rest of them do not. I rather suspect that the hon. Gentleman is one of those who does not.
The Prime Minister believes in public service. He has written a great deal in the newspapers about child care. It is he who said in an interview in The Daily Telegraph that we were to have an expansion of nursery education. Articles in the Daily Express further trailed the Prime Minister' dedication to that, even though the Secretary of State for Education appeared to have a different sort of view as to how it should be discharged. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) pointed out that, in their official report to the United Nations, the Government said : "It would like to see a widening of nursery and other pre -school education as resources become available . . . The longer-term ambition is universal availability for those who want it." We may ask "universal availability" of what ? It is clear that, as the Government have said, such availability relates to the widening of nursery and other pre- school education. Nursery education, playgroups and some form of minding all have a part to play. We must ask ourselves what are the best arrangements to create a balance and who should supply each of those commodities, as the hon. Member for Fulham calls them. I prefer to call it care.
That is the area in which the Government have not got the integrity of which I spoke. When I use the word "integrity", I do not mean it in a personal capacity. However, it is perfectly clear that, corporately, integrity does not exist and I shall show why. The Education Act 1944 laid a duty on every education authority to have regard to the need for nursery education for children under the age of five. Every local education authority had a duty to assess that need. They did not have to provide it, they could argue one way or the other and they did not have to provide for the full need. Indeed, in 1979, Oxfordshire council decided that it was going to disband nursery education. As a result, legislation passed through the House in 1980 which removed that requirement of the 1944 Act. However, it was passed in a way which did not make it clear to the House that that obligation and duty to provide care--at least the duty to see how much care was necessary or desirable--was being removed. It is interesting that that principle of providing nursery education was endorsed by R. A. Butler in his speeches on the 1944 Act. He said that the concept of nursery education was to support home life and was not an attempt to
Column 807supplant it. That is why, earlier this Session, I introduced the Nursery Education (Assessment of Need) Bill to put that duty back on the statute book.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris) : Order. I remember the hon. Gentleman's Bill, but the three new clauses are not about nursery education, but specifically concern capital allowances, child care vouchers and the self-employed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least address one of those three dimensions.
Mr. Spearing : Certainly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, you will recall that, in the course of the debate, the Government claimed--this relates to the need for the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman)--that their policy was integrated and met the needs of the hour.
I shall rapidly conclude my speech and address my remarks to the Minister, who claimed that that integrated policy was present. All that I shall say is that that Bill was talked out by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). It was blocked by Ministers subsequently and on Friday 15 April I moved, as was my privilege under the Standing Orders, that the Bill be sent to a Second Reading Committee for consideration of its merits. But the Treasury did not want the Bill, not because it could not be passed on the nod--at 2.30 pm on a Friday, which everybody understands--but because it objected to the principle of debating it in Committee. If Treasury Ministers are objecting to debating the principle which was enshrined in an Act in 1944 by a Government with a huge Conservative majority who were elected in 1935 and will not apply it to the needs of today, they have no integrity. That is why my hon. Friend finds it necessary to move her amendment.
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) : One of the reasons why I am grateful for this debate is that it moves us beyond the platitudes that presume that there is a shared and common interest existing on both sides of the Chamber about meeting the rights and needs of the child to pre- school nursery care and education. It seems that if we are to have a serious debate on those issues, we must at some stage address three of the key elements that must underpin any such commitment. Those elements are : what form the care and provision should take, where it should be located, and how it should be paid for.
May I simply outline the starting point ? I am grateful to a number of my hon. Friends who have pointed out that, in the European league of comparisons, our starting point for three to five-year-olds is as follows. While in France and Belgium 95 per cent. of children have access to nursery education, in Italy and Denmark the figure is 85 per cent., and in Germany, Greece and Spain up to 70 per cent. of children receive nursery education, in the United Kingdom only 35 per cent. of children have such access. We are second to bottom of the European league. [Interruption.]
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I should be most grateful if the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) would recognise that her hon. Friend is addressing the Chair.
Mr. Simpson : Our best is less than half the best of the rest of Europe. Therefore, we ought to place our debate in a somewhat humble context. We perform no better if we stretch the age range and consider the provision for the under-threes. In Denmark, 48 per cent. of its children have
Column 808access to nursery education and nursery care. The figure for France and Belgium is 20 per cent., but for the United Kingdom the figure is 2 per cent.
Against that relatively humble background, the House must ask what the starting point should be for a coherent and strategic policy that delivers to children their rights of access to pre-school nursery care. I take as my starting point the report of the Education, Science and Arts Committee in 1988. It reported :
"We recommend those LEAs which have not already done so should review their existing plans to ensure that under fives provision is not adversely affected by the rise in pupil numbers."
The report went on to say :
"It is unlikely therefore that any significant expansion could take place in provision for the under fives without provision of additional resources by central government."
Sadly, the Committee had to recognise that the Government had stated that it was their aim
"broadly to maintain the present level of expenditure on under fives in real terms."
When the Committee questioned the Government further, they said that the
"maintenance of the current participation rate seemed incompatible with level funding given the increasing number of under fives." The Committee asked the Government to clarify whether that would guarantee increased funding in absolute terms. The Government's response was that they would not at present
"envisage providing resources on the scale necessary to expand provision"
in the way that the Committee was recommending. The Committee concluded that the gap between public policy and public provision was a stark one that had to be addressed in unambiguous terms and commitments. It stated :
"in the long run, we are brought, by the evidence on the value of nursery education, by the picture of the child situation in the eighties, and by the evidence of parental demand to our second major conclusion, that the way forward is the provision of a place in a nursery classroom for all children whose parents wish it." Those conclusions, which were set out in 1988, have not been honoured. We have made no significant progress towards meeting those observations or commitments.
If we are to identify any pathways of hope, they are to be found not in Government policy but in the policies pursued by local authorities ; virtually in defiance of the successive and swingeing cuts that central Government have imposed on local authority spending.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) for saying that the local authorities' record of provision for the under-fives is exemplary when compared with central Government provision. In the main, the record is exemplary for Labour authorities rather than for those that are controlled by the Conservative party. As my hon. Friend said, a child is three times more likely to have access to a nursery place if it lives in a Labour authority than in a Conservative area. Of the best 40 providers of nursery places, 34 are Labour authorities. Of the worst 25 providers, not one is Labour controlled.
I am even prouder to say that in Nottinghamshire the record of the Labour education authority since it came into power in 1981 has been outstanding. Nottinghamshire is now the leading shire county in the provision of child care. Every year since 1981 the authority has increased the number of places for children under five in local authority nurseries. The numbers increased from 4,700 places in
Column 8091981 to 6,900 last year. It meant, last year, that there were 13, 500 children throughout the county in full-time or part-time nursery places.
The authority has been struggling to hit a target that it set itself. It wishes 50 per cent. of the under-fives to have access to nursery places. It has reached 49.68 per cent. and sadly failed to reach its target. There has been a shortfall each year simply because the numbers of under five-year- olds outstrips the number of places that the authority is able to provide, in defiance, as I have said, of Government policy.
Within that commitment I am even prouder to recognise that 65 per cent. of children in Nottingham city have access to nursery places. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) for saying earlier that it is not sufficient to talk about the generality of provision. We must ascertain whether provision is being made available, first, to those who are in greatest need.
I invite the hon. Member for Havant to examine the record of Nottinghamshire's education authority. It is against the criterion that the hon. Gentleman outlined that it has decided where to make provision for nursery places. Unless that quality criterion is built into any general policy, there is a risk that those who are most able to demand will be first in the queue and those who may have the greatest claim on a needs basis will be at the end of the queue. The hon. Member for Havant made this an important point that we should all bear in mind in any strategy that we claim to put before the House that reflects favourably on the extension of the rights of children under five in terms of access to nursery care.
Every child in Nottinghamshire with a place in nursery education must, though, understand that the vote of thanks that he, she and his parents need to make should be addressed to the Labour local authority that has obtained, maintained and sustained those places. Several Conservative Members have talked about parental choice. I spent a number of years before entering the House as an inner-city community worker. For much of that time the level of child care provision was well below the needs of the local communities with which I was working. In many instances some of the best initiatives were taken by groups of parents who gathered together and said that, despite the rigours of central Government finance, which were restricting the expansion of nursery provision, they would do their own thing. In effect, they said, "It is better that we make common provision to offer some stimulation for our children than to make no provision at all." I can only praise the parents who made that sort of commitment.
At the same time, I would not want anyone to be under the illusion that the approach that I have outlined constituted a free and positive choice that was being offered against the widest of all possibilities. Even the widest of the possibilities that stretched across these parents' horizons denied them the choice of a nursery place for their children. It was the denial of that choice that forced them into making other provision.
There may be some people who, given the widest range of choices, would still wish to say, "I would like to have a hands-on involvement, along with other people in my community, for the pre-school care and education of my
Column 810children." That is fine. There may be others who say, "I would rather that my children were with members of my family." Again, that is fine, but I want people to be able to exercise such choices in the knowledge that they also have rights of access to free and comprehensive child care provision of the highest quality that the country can provide.
If people make personal choices to invest their own time and effort in education within extended family networks, that is fine. Unfortunately, we are a long way from having that range of options as a positive choice.
I am grateful again to the hon. Member for Havant for trying in an intervention to question whether the House should be concerned about the general provision of child care as opposed to questioning or examining the prospects of children in households where there is low income, one income or no income. It is an extremely important question which needs an answer if we are to address the rights of all children in our society.
In addressing the new clauses, we must look at the nature of the recent changes in the employment market so that we can ask ourselves some fairly serious and searching questions about whether employer-based provision will work and whether it is desirable. I draw the attention of hon. Members to a recent survey conducted by the Low Pay Network, which was referred to in an article in The Observer on Sunday. Some fairly stark evidence was provided in that article which must raise the most serious question about women in part-time work being able to buy places for their children in either employer-based nurseries or private or community-based schemes. The study related to part-time jobs which had been generated in the Stirling area, and examined 91 part-time retailing jobs and the incomes of those who took up the jobs. Virtually all of the jobs were taken up by women.
The consequences for those women, and for the House, must be understood and considered. One consequence is that the earnings of those women were equivalent to 28 full-time jobs. The tax contributions they paid fell by a staggering 96.5 per cent. They fell from some £42,000 in tax and national insurance contributions to a total of £1,470. What we have is an increase in the activity rates in the work force of people who will not be able to pay for access to private nursery care or full-cost nursery provision by an employer. They will certainly not have the money to pay for child minding on any responsible and reputable basis.
The question is : how do those working mothers then gain access to decent nursery care for their children which meets the highest standards which their children have a right to expect ? That question is important not only for the employer but for the Government. As the Government widen the base between the tax take that they get from the shuffling of the employment market, and as they retreat from their commitment to direct nursery provision, a massive and serious shortfall is being loaded on to society
Column 811which it will have to pick up in the future. Any party that has a serious commitment to a comprehensive policy on access to child care must address that issue.
It must be understood that those who are caught in the employment revolution, which the Government frequently laud in the House, are faced with a choice whereby they are pauperised in employment or stigmatised out of employment. Access to child care through the employer then takes on a different notion. The most sinister and disturbing context in which it could be construed is that the most cynical employers--if they were drawn into provision because they could make tax gains from it--would use it in precisely the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) pointed out, in terms not of extending access to children but of restricting the rights of parents. Employers would not allow access to the caring father in case the mother sought employment elsewhere, especially with a competitor. That would make access to nursery care not a child's right or a parent's right but an employer's right. There is something deeply disturbing about seeing a solution to the rights of child care provision for children mainly in the hands of employers. Given the Government's ideological commitment to free market forces, the logic of the argument is that we will see child care inexorably tied to permanently low pay, to the maintenance of poor conditions and to the continuation of discriminatory practices in the workplace.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. That has become plain, but I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to recognise that this is a specific debate on three new clauses. He has not mentioned one of the new clauses for one moment of his speech.
I am aware that employer-based nursery provision is an important but second -best option in a comprehensive strategic policy that delivers child care opportunities to all of our children. I do not discount employer-based child care as an option. However, in order to place it properly in a strategic policy, we should not deceive ourselves that what may be an answer in part is in fact an answer in the whole. We need to place its provision in that context. If we are considering moving along that path, we must be willing to open up a debate about partnership which moves beyond the terms by which the Government have structured this debate. I am not averse to a partnership between the public and private sectors. However, the benchmark of that partnership must be judged not by whether we can come to an agreement between ourselves but whether we can devise provision by the public and private sectors that meets the desires and demands of parents and their children.
All provision must eventually be measured and judged against the rights of children. That does not get in the way of a diverse and pluralistic approach to such provision, but
Column 812it sets down clear, common standards against which the provision must be judged. It is not a question whether the provision should be tax deductible ; it is a question whether it is based on shared obligations which the public and private sectors take on board with regard to meeting the needs of children.
In constructing whatever debates we have, we must be clear that the issue is not about a parent's desire for a job but about a child's right to a nursery place. We must understand that we have a common interest in making access to child care a universal right for all under-fives in this country. We have that common interest for two simple reasons. First, a study which was done in the United States a couple of years ago asked the question : what can we best do to deflect young people from crime ? The answer that resulted from extensive research throughout the United States was that public and private initiatives needed to invest in provision for under- fives. If society wants the best "bang for its buck" in terms of anti-crime initiatives, it should invest in the under-fives. It is in the interests of industry and employers as much as it is in the state's interest.
We also need to know that employers, as much as anyone, have an interest in producing a generation of children who are highly literate and numerate, and who are capable of finding a place in a high-wage economy. If we do not invest in that for the century ahead, then the gap between those who are retired non-earners and who are dependent upon tomorrow's earners and pension contributors will be increasingly unbridgeable.
We need, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Chisholm) mentioned, a strategic and co-ordinated national policy about child care provision. That must take on board the issues of staff training and take-up rights. It must extend from the question of funding buildings to books and also toys. It must recognise that if we do not develop a comprehensive and strategic approach which delivers access to child care and nursery care for all under-fives who wish it--as of right--we will be doing little other than stealing from our own future.
Mr. Dorrell : I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson). Those who have sat through the debate have heard many calls for a national child care strategy, but he is only the hon. Member who has not merely spoken in favour of the idea but has sketched out some idea of what a national child care strategy would look like.
The only problem is that there appears to be a difference of nuance between the hon. Gentleman and the Opposition Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman made it clear that he is not in favour of employer-provided child care. I look forward to welcoming him in the Lobby if the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) chooses to force a Division, because the purpose of the hon. Lady's amendment is to provide a tax concession for employer-provided child care.
Mr. Simpson rose
Column 813The hon. Member for Peckham responded to more than one intervention this afternoon by avoiding answering the question of what a national child care strategy would look like. A large number of speeches have called for a national child care strategy, but all of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues neatly avoided setting out what that meant. The hon. Gentleman was clear that what he means by a national child care strategy is free access to child care and nursery education for all under-fives at the choice of the parent. That is his view, and it is perfectly clear, but I fear that he has yet to persuade the Opposition Front Bench that that is either affordable or desirable.
Mr. Simpson : I hope that the Minister will recognise, given the difficulties that I had in making my way through the interventions from the Chair, that the terms of the debate are specifically limited. There is not a great deal of scope for setting out a national strategy and there have been other occasions when those on the Opposition Front Bench were more than forthright about what the framework of that should be.
May I simply clarify a point that I made about employer-based provision ? I am not opposed to it and I said clearly that it is an important strand of a second string to the provision of child care rights. It must be judged against what is in the best interests of the child, rather than the employer, and it must deliver universal access to all those children who are under five who wish access to such provision.
Mr. Dorrell : The hon. Gentleman said that it was difficult, in this debate, to have the opportunity to sketch out a full strategy for child care. I congratulate him on finding a way to do so that his hon. Friends were not sufficiently ingenious to find.
The hon. Member for Peckham was quite right to say that the debate about child care takes place against the background of a major change in the labour market over the past couple of decades. There has been a large increase in the number of women at work and that has led to a substantial increase in the number of two-earner households. For a number of other social reasons, there has also been a substantial growth in the number of single-parent families.
Those are all important factors, which demand an increase in the level of provision of child care. That is not in dispute. The problem is that Opposition Members appear to be dismissive of the fact that that demand for increased child care has been met. There is clear evidence in the figures of a substantial increase in the number of places in nurseries and in child minding. That is responding to precisely the kind of social phenomena that the hon. Lady identifies.
It became clear in the debate that the attitudes of the Opposition were accurately summed up by the hon. Lady's article in this morning's edition of The Independent . She wrote :
"The number of children in private day nurseries . . . is 90,000 and increasing."
That is a fourfold increase on the figure of 10 years ago. She goes on :
Column 814"But the demand for child care for working mothers has been met above all by a huge increase in child-minding. More than 250,000 children are being cared for by child-minders".
That is a rise, as the hon. Lady accurately says, of 155,000 or 150 per cent. in the past 10 years.
The attitudes of the hon. Lady become clear when she goes on to say :
"For many parents, child-minding is their preferred option." One could say that there is clear evidence that they are taking up opportunities which are there. She continues :
"But for many more, it is not. It is unsatisfactory that the increase in women at work is being underpinned by a major expansion in a type of child care which is not the first choice of parents or experts."
The last word is the giveaway. The truth is that the Opposition are more interested in the views of experts on collective provision than they are in the views of parents about how their children should best be cared for.
Before I pursue the argument any further, I should declare an interest. I am the father of an 18-year-old son-- [Interruption.] An 18-month- old son. My wife works and I must declare to the House that, despite the opinion of experts, my son Philip was taken on Monday of this week from a nursery and given to a child minder because that met the needs of my family more directly. I am sorry if that contradicted the opinion of the hon. Lady about what we should have done as parents. However, the choice of parents should determine our child care policy.
Mr. Spearing : The Minister has claimed that the Government are responding to the various needs, whether in child minding, nursery education or playgroups. Why do the Government persist in rejecting what the House accepted in 1944--that local authorities should assess the need, even if they are not to supply it ?
The hon. Member for Peckham called for a national strategy for child care. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) was absolutely right to point out that--with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for Nottingham, South--no Opposition Member sketched out in any degree what he meant. The new clause does not constitute a strategy. It provides an industrial buildings allowance for child care facilities in commercial buildings. It is based on the proposition that that is available for sports facilities in commercial buildings. That is not correct. There is a specific industrial buildings allowance provision for sports pavilions, but sports facilities in commercial buildings would be treated in precisely the same way as child care provision in commercial buildings. That is, their access to capital allowances would be determined by the status of the building and, if it is a commercial building, no capital allowance would be available. So on her own logic, the hon. Lady's argument falls.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) said, the hon. Member for Peckham's argument was in direct contradiction to the concerns that she expressed about employer-provided nurseries in the book that she wrote on all those subjects, and from which my hon. Friend quoted. The hon. Lady and her hon. Friends called for a strategy and, with one honourable exception, made no attempt to set one out.
The Liberal Democrats on the other hand offered us something that at least cost a substantial amount of money,
Column 815even if it did not constitute a strategy. The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) argued that we should introduce tax relief for child care vouchers. That in itself is a relatively low-cost proposal, but I have to ask the hon. Lady and anyone else who may be attracted to child care vouchers as the way forward what we would do when employers and employees agreed that, as child care vouchers were tax deductible, it was in the interests of both to provide vouchers, if necessary at the cost of a reduction in pay, in order that employers could meet directly the child care that was previously met by employees out of their own pocket. It would clearly be in the tax interests of both employers and employees to do that. Such an arrangement would substantially increase the cost of the hon. Lady's proposal. She would then have to explain why it applied to employees but not to the self-employed. When she had done that, she would have to explain why child care was tax deductible when all those convolutions were gone through, but not when employees paid for it out of their own pocket. Once that concession was made--the lobby groups make it clear that that is their objective--the cost to the Exchequer would be £300 million a year. Not a single extra child care place would be provided as a consequence. I do not regard the hon. Member for Christchurch's proposal as a strategy or a sensible use of £300 million when it would not lead to the provision of a single extra child care place.