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Mrs. Dunwoody: The hon. Lady has been extremely generous in giving way, and I apologise to her. As she knows, I have been here a long time. It has always struck me that, when the House wants to find accommodation, it will hire suitable buildings and go to considerable expense, as it has at Millbank and elsewhere, in order to provide suitable accommodation. The provision of a creche is long overdue, but it could be done. We face the hazard of wasting the assets of many women here because we do not provide something--the right to a creche for their children--that is regarded as absolutely elementary in most industrial units. We are being wasteful and fairly short-sighted.
The House should carefully consider the number of children eligible for a place in a creche here. We should remember that we could have 1,000 children, babies and toddlers in this place.
Dr. Jones: I take the hon. Lady's point that there might be a large number of children involved, but surely the purpose of having an independently conducted survey was to establish the demand. There is a demand, and it is one for which we should be able to cater.
Column 331the matter than people outside, has examined the position at least three or four times, and decided that it will not back the idea of a creche in this place.
We are not talking only about the children of women Members of Parliament. We must recognise that there is such a thing as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and there is no reason why male Members of Parliament could not claim to use the creche, which could mean 2,000 or more children here. I am making a serious point, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) should not regard it as funny. Coping with 1,000 or 1,500 children in this place is a more serious matter--
Mrs. Currie rose --
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. I do not allow private conversations. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) has the Floor, and if she does not want to allow interventions, other hon. Members must keep quiet.
Dame Jill Knight: It is not a question of accommodating only a handful of children. We would be committed to making places available for about 1,500 toddlers and babies, which is a very serious matter. I am also worried about the cost. It is all very well to say that we have made money available for this and that, but we must remember that it is taxpayers' money. People outside are paying for the things that we demand.
Dame Jill Knight: My hon. Friend says that we can tax but, whether or not people are taxed, the cost of providing facilities for so many children would be very great. First, there would be the of renting a prime site in the most prestigious area of the city of London. The creche or creches would have to be kept in excellent decorative order. I can just imagine the scandal if the media were to discover a crack in a wall or that the paint was not in good condition. There would have to be an enormous amount of equipment such as sand pits, chairs, tables, potties, paddling pools, climbing frames, swings, seesaws, paints, toys, picture books and wendy houses. [ Laughter .] The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) may think that that is funny. Perhaps she has not had the advantage of having children, as I have had. I know what it costs to have children catered for.
The facilities that would have to be made available here are not cheap. Facilities would also have to be made available for cooking food and for serving it. There would have to be beds, cots, high chairs and staff.
Column 332I do not know whether any of the hon. Members who have backed this proposition have made the slightest effort to work out the cost. I reckon that it is only fair, when we are spending taxpayers' money, to consider carefully the cost we are imposing. One thing for sure is that employees in this place would demand subsidised child care and would be neither able nor willing to pay the extremely high cost that would be demanded for it.
There are plenty of ways in which children can be cared for when one is a working mother. I strongly believe in systems whereby women who need to work, perhaps because they are lone parents, are given every help in having their children cared for in a nursery--but not in the House.
Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch): I understand that we have had discussion, debate and campaigning on child care facilities in the House for about 25 years. In that time, there have been many good intentions, as well as quite a lot of opposition. I had not expected to see quite so much opposition today. A number of surveys and studies have been commissioned on how we might move forward on the issue. As far as I can see, in those 25 years we have hardly moved a step forward.
I had hoped that there would be consensus across the House on the issue. The past year has been the United Nations Year of the Family. There has been much discussion about how we can help and support families. There has been much cross-party consensus that good child care is part of that support, so I am especially disappointed to have heard comments today that seem to hark back to the old way of thinking--that we do not need to support families through child care. We are talking about recreation facilities. I find that being able to be with my family is a bit of recreation, as other people go to the gym for recreation; it is not somewhere I go for recreation. Listening to the debate, I am reminded of the time some years ago when I was a councillor. I was branded as being of the loony left because I thought that it was important to have child care facilities, or at least to discuss them. Memories of that time came back to me today.
I hope that some of my points will answer criticisms made today. Child care is important for women to be able to fulfil their potential. It is important to families, and it is important that men and women are able to share in the responsibilities of looking after children. Outside this place, there is an increasing awareness among British companies that child care provision is good for business as well. Companies have realised that it is in their interests to keep their women employees once they have had children and to hold on to the skills of those employees.
A couple of years ago, the Institute of Personnel Management studied a company with about 2,000 employees. It discovered that it was giving away about £500,000 a year without even realising it. It was losing about 50 women a year who were leaving the company--solely, probably, because they were not getting child care at work. It was a problem. Further calculations showed the company that that was costing it about £10,000 a head. The position is not quite the same in the House.
There are various estimates of how many people work in the House. If we use the figure of 3,000, that makes the House a fair-sized business. It is not unreasonable to
Column 333assume that we have here a similar loss of trained and experienced women who leave when they have children. There are women who work for Members of Parliament, in the Library service, in catering, in finance and in other parts of the House, who have valuable skills. I know just how skilled many people here are. This week--the people involved were men--I have had to deal with the Public Bill Office. We could lose just as much as any company in the loss of women who work here. There is no doubt that it makes economic sense for us to provide child care assistance for people working in the House. I have not done the sums, but I cannot imagine that this place is so different from other businesses.
When I arrived here, I was somewhat surprised to find a gym and a shooting range, but no nursery or creche. To a certain extent, we have got our priorities wrong. I know that space is at a premium. We have heard a great deal again today about just what a premium it is. I know that things have improved, but I also realise that we all work in difficult conditions. There are four people in my office, and I am sure that that is true for other people here. More offices are being built and planned. Surely we should at least be planning space for creches and nurseries in those buildings.
We have a family room, which has also been mentioned this evening. I have not had the opportunity to use it, but I have been to have a look at it. I understand that children are allowed to use it at the moment. I am not sure whether, if there was a health and safety check on it, it would be considered absolutely suitable.
There are some sofas and a number of small tables which have extremely sharp corners. There are some books and one or two toys, which are not complete. There is a small room where the children can wash and perhaps hang clothes, but there is no lavatory and there is no nappy-changing facility. Perhaps we could start with some nappy-changing facilities, a playpen for small children and some more suitable games and toys, not only for young children, but for older children who are here as well.
Mrs. Currie: When I arrived in the House 12 years ago, there was no family room. I for one am very grateful that we got it. It is, however, worth pointing out to the hon. Lady that it is available only for Members of Parliament; members of staff cannot use it.
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham): While the hon. Lady is busy sneering at the toys and other facilities available in the family room, she might bear in mind that it was the families of Members of Parliament who organised it, got it together and provided it. She might bear that in mind when she is so contemptuous.
Mrs. Maddock: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thought that I was sneering; I was not. I was merely pointing out that I would like to see better facilities there. Perhaps we could help the people who have provided the family room to get facilities rather better than those at present. We have had quite a lot of surveys in the House. Perhaps we should ask people what else they would like to see in the family room.
Column 334The latest survey published in the long saga of trying to do something about child care facilities shows that more people would prefer to have in-house facilities than a child care voucher scheme. Despite that, because of the long history of inaction, we should do two things. We should try to set up a child care voucher scheme, such as the one operating in the other place, and we should allocate some space in our future plans for a nursery or creche on site. A lot of building is going on, especially around Westminster tube station, and we should do everything we can to say, "Here is the space; we will use it."
Vouchers are often a better option for many people, because they provide a bit more flexibility. I have a personal view about the best way in which to look after young children. I spent some time living in Sweden many years ago, where I was very conscious of the fact that children could become institutionalised from an early age. The provision of child care vouchers gives people the opportunity to have their children looked after in a family-type environment. The scheme operating in the other place has been reasonably successful. I say to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) that in fact an enormous number of people have not been rushing to take up the vouchers. I tried to get the most recent figures. There are about 310 staff in the other place, and so far 17 have taken up the voucher scheme. If there are between four and five times that number of staff here, to start with, perhaps 100 people would try to take up the child care voucher scheme. Obviously, as Liberal Democrats, we would like the scheme to be even better value for money and child care vouchers to be tax free, but that is not part of the debate today.
Labour Members have talked about what their party was doing to get women into Parliament. I think that all the parties have discussed that with their women members. We certainly have. We discovered that one of the reasons why women found difficulty in becoming a Member of Parliament or even in getting involved in politics was that often they were the carers, not only of children but of older people. We are obviously discussing an important point if we are serious about wanting more hon. Members in the House.
Mrs. Maddock: Sorry: it did not occur to me that the hon. Lady was referring to that. I was merely pointing out that women care for other people too, but it is irrelevant to the argument today. Providing child care facilities for employees of the House is very important. It is important that we set an example to other people by being good employers. However, many people outside the House are ahead of the game. Even if we do not think that the provision of child care facilities is a good idea, when considering it from a
Column 335purely self-interested economic point of view, it would be worth our while. That has been proved by studies in the business world. We are a business here, whether we like it or not.
We have procrastinated for far too long. I hope that, after today's debate, we will take some action, rather than having to come back again in another year to ask if we have conducted another survey and what we are to do about it. It is time we did something, and took some action.
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham): In this debate, we should differentiate clearly between the idea of an in-house creche and that of providing vouchers. What seems to have been debated tonight is the provision of an in-house creche, which, in my view, would be mere feminist tokenism. I have listened carefully to the hon. Members for Bristol, East (Ms Corston), for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) and for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson). All of them are talking about the wonderful tokenism. Is it really sensible to expect women to drag very young children and infants across London, through the rush hour, to central London to a creche or child care facility here? It is wildly inappropriate to think of any such thing.
Then, take that argument--
Mr. Arnold: No, not for the moment. Take that argument a little further and listen to what the hon. Member for Christchurch said about the creches that she saw in Sweden and her concerns about institutionalisation of the children concerned. I know that it is not the Liberal Democrats' practice to carry forward their own logic. They did not with the carbon tax as they then opposed VAT on fuel. I ask the hon. Lady to take forward her logic. The place to bring up young people, especially infants, is in the home with their mothers.
Mrs. Maddock: If the hon. Gentleman had listened carefully, he would have heard me propose two things--that we had a creche here and that we provided child care vouchers. It was precisely because I agreed with many of the points that the hon. Gentleman has made that I was talking of my experience in Sweden. Providing both gives the parent a choice. Parents can decide where they want their child to be and what is most convenient for them.
Mr. Arnold: The hon. Lady outlined the disadvantages of bringing up very young children throughout the day in creches. So, let us not be under any illusion. Let us consider where that creche would be in Westminster. Let us look at our facilities. Mention was made of the rifle range. I wonder whether hon. Members have been down to the rifle range and seen it in the cellars of this place without natural light. Should youngsters be brought up in such Dickensian surroundings without natural light? That is a fatuous suggestion. Let us look further into the proposal to consider whether the facilities would be provided in the outbuildings or even outside the parliamentary estate. Committees of the House considered precisely that and came up with a cost liability of £234,000 to the taxpayer if we were to advance down that line. That was for only six children--admittedly, over a five-year period. Hon.
Column 336Ladies on the Opposition Benches are talking not about children, but about many hundreds of children. Have they begun to address not only the impact on the development of the children concerned, but the cost to the British taxpayer of their proposals?
One of the hon. Ladies on the Opposition Benches said that she had been a councillor and had been involved in such matters. I should have thought that the hon. Ladies coming here from the weird and wonderful Labour councils would have looked at some of the weird and wonderful projects that they had carried out at vast expense to the council tax payer. The talk of an in-house creche in this ancient building in Westminster has more to do with posturing and posing for photo opportunities than much else. I can think only of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), who seems to have made that kind of photo opportunity into an art form.
Ms Corston: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Ministry of Defence creche in Northumberland avenue is extremely successful and well supported? Clearly, staff in the Ministry of Defence--both men and women--feel that it is perfectly possible to take their children to that creche without it creating any problem whatever. Is he also aware that although nobody has ever suggested that the rifle range be turned into a creche, that range is surely symbolic of the priorities of the House of Commons?
Mr. Arnold: The hon. Lady refers to a creche in the Ministry of Defence. If I believed that some of the hon. Ladies of the Labour party would submit their children to the proper, disciplined instruction that is to be found in the armed services, I might even favour the idea. But that is not what they are suggesting. They would bring in their weird and wonderful approach to child rearing, with all its disastrous consequences.
What about the demand for child care? We should look at it properly. Indeed, it was looked at properly. The Administration Committee and the House of Commons Commission commissioned a report to go into that matter, and we have been able to consider that report in quite some detail tonight. Incidentally, what was the expense of that report? I asked the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)--who, as a leading member of the Liberal Democrats, believes in open government--the cost of that report. His answer was that it was confidential and that he could not give that information to an hon. Member in this House. I must say that, when it comes to cost, there seems to be an extraordinary approach to matters such as the one before us.
What did that report show? If the cost to parents were £150 per week, out of all the Members of Parliament, Members' staff and staff of the House, 38 only would take up the use of such provision and only 18 of them would do so immediately. Even if the price were only £75 a week to those people, the take-up would be 69 only. The matter has been considered very carefully by the Administration Committee under the genial chairmanship of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin). It is no coincidence that, after many years of consideration of the matter, the Committee turned down the proposal not once, but twice. It was turned down unanimously by the Labour members of the Committee and by the lady members of that Committee. They turned down the proposal because they looked into the matter,
Column 337used their judgment and then decided against it. The House should accept the judgment of that Committee and of those hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen.
Mr. Beith: I explained earlier that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) is attending a funeral in Scotland today. He would want me to point out that he moved a motion from the Chair, which was defeated by the Committee. As Chairman, he did not cast a vote on either of the occasions to which the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) referred.
Mr. Arnold: Therefore, we cannot know the hon. Gentleman's view of the matter. However, that does not alter the fact that no members of the Committee were in favour of the proposal. That point is worth bearing in mind.
The answer to the question whether we should give Members of Parliament vouchers for child care is a categorical no. The public already think that we are gravy-train merchants. If hon. Members had such vouchers, the public would think that we were once again helping ourselves.
It has been asked whether vouchers should be provided to the staff of Members of Parliament. They can already be provided as part of the office allowance, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said. I wonder how many hon. Ladies on the Opposition Benches can stand up, put their allowances where their mouths are, and say that they have already made that provision for their staff.
With regard to the staff of the Palace of Westminster, in respect of their other pursuits and duties in this place, there is plenty of merit in a child care voucher system. However, that should be considered within the global employment package of the staff concerned. We should consider who are the most relevant and who are the least relevant. Any enlightened employer would make that consideration.
We should be under no illusions: with widespread eligibility, many hundreds and possibly thousands--as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) said--would apply for vouchers. As usual, the poor infantryman--the taxpayer--would have to pick up the bill for the wild enthusiasms of the feminists in this place. 7.2 pm
Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East): I thank the Leader of the House for finding time for this debate. It has been long awaited and very gratefully received. It is about time that the issues were aired. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight). Although I did not agree with a word she said, I admired her courage and honesty. I sit on the Accommodation and Works Committee with her--at least, I have had that pleasure for the past year or so; the membership keeps changing and I am not sure whether she is still a member of that Committee. At least she is honest and open enough to come to the Chamber to tell us what persuaded her to support the decision of that Committee. I point out to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that the decision was
Column 338not taken unanimously. However, at least the hon. Member for Edgbaston expressed the honesty of her convictions.
The House sometimes surprises us. Sometimes its generosity catches one's breath, but sometimes its meanness does the same. This is one of the latter occasions. When we discuss this issue, hon. Members may say in self- defence, "Well, I have survived for 20 years in this place, so I don't see that it's necessary." That view may be a reflection of the fact that there are so few women in this place. One can recount all sorts of reasons why the provision is unnecessary. However, I simply cannot understand why so many bars, a shooting range, a gentleman's hairdresser or a gym are necessary, but child care provision for the children of the staff--and for Members' children, if we wish--is not.
In response to the questionnaire, only 12 per cent. of hon. Members--52-- showed an interest in the proposal. Hon. Members are not pressing for the proposal. They do not seem to be anxious about it. There is not a majority in favour of it. However, the staff have expressed a very serious interest in the proposal.
It is not simply a question of, "I want". More than 200 members of staff who replied to the questionnaire said that they were willing to contribute up to £50 a week for child care. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) said that they would not be so keen to contribute if they had to pay £150. He should wander along the Corridor into the Tea Room and have a nice intimate talk with the Tea Room staff. He should find out how much money--
The hon. Member for Gravesham should find out how much those dedicated staff earn. That is the approach that we should take. We are not talking about a perk for Members. Members of Parliament are not pressing for it. The proposal should be the response of an enlightened modern employer.
From the moment hon. Members walk through the front door of this building, we are cosseted by first-class staff--the catering staff, the messengers, the cleaning staff and the Library staff. Wherever we go, we receive first- class treatment from the staff. However, we never step back and see them as individuals raising families, with all the problems that children create. So long as they are there and at our beck and call, fine; we do not care what they are paid and we do not care about their problems. That is what it is all about. More than 800 members of staff responded to the questionnaire and said that they were interested in the proposal as they had a need. What is so offensive about the Administration Committee's report is that it was aware of those details, but the Committee voted four-nil to pay no attention to that request.
While all that was happening, the hon. Member for Gravesham may be aware that the Government sent out a document entitled, "The Best of Both Worlds". The views in that document are not those of loony left councils. The Government made space in that publication to say what Leicester county council is doing in respect of day care
Column 339nurseries. The document referred to the experience of the Midland bank and American Express, and said that there should be more of it and that that was best practice. However, when it comes to the staff of this building, we do not care. They are here simply for our convenience.
Mrs. Currie: I wish to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the excellent staff in this place. I invite him to ponder the fact that almost the first action of the new Republican House of Representatives in the United States was to decide to remove from itself all the special privileges that exempted it from employment laws in the rest of the country. In doing that, it asserted that it was a normal place of employment.
Mr. Mudie: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention as it gave me time to calm down. I would urge the approach described by the hon. Lady on the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon- Tweed.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed ended by asking us for our views. He wanted to know what we thought should be done. The first thing that the Commission should do is to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and his colleagues that one priority is not enough when one is doing a job: more than one priority can be handled. It is not good enough for the Accommodation and Works Committee to say that its priority is that every hon. Member should have an office to himself or herself and, until that is settled, it will not do anything else.
The sting is in the tail if we listen closely to the hon. Member for Edgbaston. The Accommodation and Works Committee's priority takes us to the end of the century. Once that objective is reached, we know what will happen. Members' allowances will mean that there will be more staff in the House. It is no longer sufficient to have one secretary's desk; one needs one or, possibly, two researchers' desks as well.
The dinosaurs in this building always have an excuse. It would be better, if the dinosaurs will not give way, to consider the capital works programme on the Floor of the House. All the money is not being spent on Members and their secretaries--far from it. Some very interesting money is being spent. I shall spare some blushes in the Chamber and in the building by not going into detail. Details would be-- [Interruption.] I shall give one example.
Why do we intend to spend a vast amount of public money moving the gentlemen's hairdresser from one side of the corridor to the other? Have hon. Members ever seen a queue in that barber's shop? If they have, they are at the wrong end of the building. The man is feared. I have parliamentary privilege, I hope. He is feared. I shall never go to him for a haircut--I have not gone to him for a haircut. We are going to spend that money when we say that we cannot find money for a nursery. We are going to build a plush new hairdressing salon--it is not even going to be unisex; it will be a gentlemen's salon--on the other side of the corridor.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed should look quietly at the building programme. He will find, as I have found, that there is sufficient brass in the budget to
Column 340build more than one day nursery. I should like the right hon. Gentleman also to tell the Accommodation and Works Committee that it is not good enough to wait until the end of the century for the new building to be completed.
We want, either in the parliamentary estate or reasonably close to the building, suitable day care facilities such as those which we are urging private employers to provide. We should end the intolerable situation in which a girl in our Tea Room receives no child care vouchers, whereas a girl along the corridor in the other House receives child care vouchers. It is intolerable that staff in the Palace should be treated differently. The hon. Member for Edgbaston fears that 2,000 people will come out of the woodwork and demand such facilities. Child care vouchers would meet that demand without the need to find another building.
As a modern employer approaching the 21st century, we need day care facilities on the premises, that is, on the estate or nearby. If that would take more than 18 months, the Commission should consider awarding vouchers to staff and Members. I would even settle for staff being awarded vouchers. If great cost were involved, the staff should have precedence. Staff should be paid child care vouchers equal to if not more than what is offered along the corridor. I would even shame the other place into raising the value of its vouchers, because the level is too low now. That would immediately assist the first-class staff who look after us. We should reciprocate.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Time is precious. I know that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) wishes to respond to this good- natured debate. I fear that I might incur the wrath of Opposition ladies by saying what I am about to say--it might be a high-risk strategy--but I hope that what I say will be reasonable. I have just a few observations which lead me to believe that setting up a creche would be not an enlightened move, as the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) suggests, but a regressive step.
The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) said that the House should set an example. Indeed it should. It should set an example by not having a creche within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster or immediately nearby, as hon. Members have suggested. The position from which I start is not the jibe which some might level at me that a woman's place is in the home. That is not my view at all. I want as many women as possible to be active in the labour market and at work.
By and large, it should principally be up to the individual family unit to decide how to afford the care of children, what arrangements should be made and how it should be provided. In essence, behind this matter is the principle that the state should pay and that the state should subsidise women in work for the care of children. I find that philosophically objectionable, by and large, except in respect of women Members of Parliament, to whom I shall return in a moment. This matter, in effect, is a plea for a job subsidy.
Column 341Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). I am sorry that it is not in the spirit of the debate from which she has largely been absent. The argument about the House of Commons not having space is not significant. If space is needed, it can always be found. The point about which I feel strongly is that it would be in the wrong place. The place where one needs child care is near one's residence, not one's place of work. It would be inappropriate to have a large creche in or near the Palace of Westminster, to which mothers--or fathers--have to bring their children, perhaps across London, at very peculiar hours because of the nature of the work patterns of this place. It is far better to have child care premises close to where the mother, father or parents live.