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Column 1468

Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)

Robinson, Mark (Somerton)

Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)

Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela

Ryder, Rt Hon Richard

Sackville, Tom

Sainsbury, Rt Hon Sir Timothy

Scott, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas

Shaw, David (Dover)

Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)

Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian

Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)

Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)

Shersby, Michael

Sims, Roger

Skeet, Sir Trevor

Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)

Soames, Nicholas

Spencer, Sir Derek

Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)

Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)

Spink, Dr Robert

Spring, Richard

Sproat, Iain

Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)

Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John

Steen, Anthony

Stephen, Michael

Stern, Michael

Stewart, Allan

Streeter, Gary

Sumberg, David

Sweeney, Walter

Sykes, John

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Taylor, Ian (Esher)

Taylor, John M (Solihull)

Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)

Temple-Morris, Peter

Thomason, Roy

Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)

Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)

Thornton, Sir Malcolm

Thurnham, Peter

Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)

Tracey, Richard

Tredinnick, David

Trend, Michael

Twinn, Dr Ian

Vaughan, Sir Gerard

Waldegrave, Rt Hon William

Walden, George

Walker, Bill (N Tayside)

Waller, Gary

Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)

Waterson, Nigel

Watts, John

Wells, Bowen

Whitney, Ray

Whittingdale, John

Widdecombe, Ann

Wiggin, Sir Jerry

Wilkinson, John

Willetts, David

Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)

Wolfson, Mark

Wood, Timothy

Yeo, Tim

Young, Rt Hon Sir George

Tellers for the Noes: Dr. Liam Fox and Mr. Simon Burns.

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Question accordingly negatived.

New clause 6

Premises for the provision of child care

`The following section shall be inserted after section 14 of the Capital Allowances Act 1990--

"14A (1) Where a building or structure which is not an industrial building or structure is used by a person carrying on a trade for the provision of care for the children of workers employed in that trade, this Part shall apply to that building or structure as if it were an industrial building or structure.

(2) The writing down allowances within section 3 which are made to a person by reason of subsection (1) above are not to exceed £10 in aggregate for a chargeable period.

(3) In this section--`care' means any form of care or supervised activity whether or not provided on a regular basis, but excluding supervised activity provided primarily for educational purposes; `children' means person under the age of eighteen.".'.-- [Ms Armstrong.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Ms Armstrong: I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The clause has been narrowly drawn because we are trying to deal with an important issue within the confines of what the Opposition can move on a Finance Bill. I have spent many hours trying to work out a method by which the House can respond more effectively to the needs and wishes of millions of families who want to put together the patchwork of care and education which they know is essential for their children. The House has failed to address that issue effectively.

The clause deals with the narrow issue of the way in which the Government treat employers who seek to provide child care on their premises and with employers whose workplaces are not necessarily factories or industrial buildings. A growing number of employers, especially those in the service sector and shops and supermarkets, want a fair tax regime in relation to the provision of child care and workplace nurseries. Many more who employ mainly women want to provide such facilities for their employees but are unable to do so. I admit that even if the clause were accepted and acted upon by the Government it would not fundamentally change the pattern of child care in the way that the Opposition seek to change it. Millions of families want access to high-quality, affordable child care and early years education because they know that that is essential for their children.

Children are growing up in a dangerous world. The common spaces to which children had access in my day and in which they could play are no longer available. Parents are often afraid to allow their children to play in the street or in the back lane. Whatever type of play young children are involved in, it is important that it is supervised in safe areas by people who know what they are doing. We should be able to check that those people have the proper motives and have received proper training.

The steps that need to be taken today to protect young children may not have been necessary in earlier generations. For example, children of five and under watch an average of 23 hours of television a week. Whatever the quality of the programmes, that is bound to cause concern. It frequently happens because parents do

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not have the physical resources to engage their children in active learning and, rather than allow them to be in situations in which they do not know what is happening, parents sometimes stick them in front of the television. The House should not treat that as normal. If children are to grow up able to deal with the enormous complexities of 21st century society--many of which we do not yet know--it is essential for them to get the best experiences in their early years. Children learn much more quickly when they are very young and their behaviour and experiences set patterns for later life that are difficult to change. Report after report speaks of the value of high-quality early years education and care. The House has failed to address those needs. That is why we have tabled this modest clause. It gives us the opportunity to raise these issues and to expose the incredible poverty of the Government's response to the needs of children and families.

8 pm

When my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) moved a similar clause last year, she drew attention to the changing nature of the work force. I am sorry that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not in the House. The largest town in my constituency is Consett, where in 1980-81 the steel works closed, not to reopen. Consett had virtually an exclusively male work force at that time: hardly any women in the town worked. Now more women than men work in Consett and that has happened in an incredibly short time. It has revolutionised community activity, family life and social activity.

Work has always described family and community life in many areas of the country and that was certainly true of Consett. Life consisted of hard shifts of skilled labour in dirty jobs and that constructed a pattern of life for families. Women spent most of their lives at home caring for the children, but that has totally changed and women have had to find ways to make sure that child care and the raising of children became more than just their preserve. Some have done it gladly, some with caution. Women have had to go out to work to earn an income for the family because of the change in the nature of the jobs available.

In Consett, the jobs are no longer highly skilled and highly paid. Indeed, according to the Government's latest figures, during the past year the average wage for women in that area has actually dropped by £12 per week. Those women and many others like them throughout the country now have to go out to work to support their families, whether they like it or not. Their wage levels have been squeezed to the point where, as I said, the average wage dropped by £12 a week in one year. I find that staggering.

It is obvious that the changing pattern of employment will have an incredible effect on the need for affordable, accessible, quality child care and early years education. The need for that is glaring. It is critical for those families to have such a facility. Like it or not, many of them have had to change their family patterns--although I accept that for some it has been a positive move. Nevertheless, overall it has had a devastating effect on family life.

There is a responsibility on the Government, who made the decision to close the Consett steel works. It is telling to note that the young Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry in 1980 who received a delegation from Consett protesting about the closures was none other than the current Chancellor. One would have thought that the

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right hon. and learned Gentleman would have remembered that. One would have thought that it might have clicked with him that he met with people from a town that was about to be devastated by the closure of its steel works. That tells us a great deal about the minds of Cabinet Ministers.

I use Consett merely as an example of what has happened in communities throughout the country, where family life has been radically overturned by the changing patterns of employment. We neglect the effect of that on the children at our peril. The experiences that children have in their early years literally stay with them for the rest of their lives. During the past year, there have been a number of studies--primarily from America, but also from this country--showing the value of high-quality early years education. That should surely lead the House to question how, as a priority, we can provide a pattern of child care sufficiently flexible to allow parents to make real decisions that fit in both with their employment and with what they want for their families. Their children need access to high-quality early years education and care.

In view of the amazing changes in family life brought about by changes in the pattern of employment, it is nothing short of a scandal that the House has not debated the matter regularly. Indeed, our last serious debate on the importance of early years education was on an Opposition Supply day, following the 1988 Education Select Committee report on nursery education. That is why we wanted to have this debate on the Finance Bill, even though we could table only a very restricted new clause.

We had hoped to have this debate in Committee because the Liberal Democrat party had tabled new clauses on child care. We do not support the Liberal Democrat suggestion of vouchers because we believe that the first priority for the use of public money must be to expand and develop the pattern of child care and early years education. There is no guarantee that vouchers would achieve that. They might simply ensure that those who already have access to child care take up what money is available. Nevertheless, the new clauses would have given us the opportunity of a debate, but unfortunately that did not happen.

We have not moved a new clause seeking greater extension of tax relief because, again, that is not how we want to use public money. I know from work that I did before the last election that employers are desperate to find ways to co-operate with the Government so that they can use their commitment and their money to match public sector money and expand provision. In her speech on the Finance Bill last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham quoted Howard Davies of the Confederation of British Industry, who at its conference on child care said how important it was to employers.

I have met employers and I have worked with employers groups, so I know how much they want to extend partnerships which would link public sector, private sector and voluntary sector money to provide a variety of methods of delivering child care to meet the needs of families. However, the Government have chosen not to act on the enthusiasm of those employers. I recently met some employers, involved in the child care lobby, who told me how extremely disappointed they are at the Government's lack of progress in providing early years education and child care.

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Last October, at the Tory party conference, the Prime Minister promised nursery education for all four-year-olds. We have heard nothing of how the Government intend to fulfil that promise--yet he said that it would be delivered before the next election. Time is beginning to run out. I know the cost, the time and the energy needed to fulfil that commitment. People will have to be sufficiently well trained to ensure that the children's experiences are of the right quality. Premises will have to be adapted.

During last week's education debate, the Government criticised the Opposition's attitude to surplus places. Surplus places and a commitment to nursery education could be brought together. The Government could really do something. They could sort out some of the problems that they talk about by bringing those two objectives together and delivering something--and, goodness knows, we all wish that they would do that.

The Prime Minister's commitment has not been followed up. I suspect that the reason is that the Government do not want local authorities to be involved. The Government's dogma is such that they want any expansion to take place purely in the private sector. That is my suspicion. I hope that I am wrong because the most effective delivery of early years child care and education will be achieved through a partnership approach, bringing together the talent and commitment of the private, public and voluntary sectors to develop the highest quality of opportunity. None of us should rely on dogma or return to it to avoid making the commitment that young people deserve. The Government have failed to honour their commitments. The Secretary of State for Education seems to have reneged on them. She said that her Back Benchers should examine local authority education spending that was targeted at non-statutory areas--which include, of course, nursery education. By implication, she was saying that Conservative Members should attack local authorities which spend money on nursery education. She will live to regret that. The Secretary of State made those comments because, despite severe financial difficulties, many Labour authorities have fulfilled their commitment to the youngest children and their families. They have ensured that nursery education is available. Nursery education, however, does not solve families' needs or deal with the changes that have taken place in families. For that reason, we want to give the Government the opportunity to return to their commitments, even if they do not go back as far as Baroness Thatcher's commitment in 1972, but simply go back to the Prime Minister's commitment. That will be better than nothing.

Nobody should kid himself, however, that that commitment will be sufficient to meet families' needs today and in the next century. If the House is really concerned about the chances, opportunities and quality of life of the youngest children and of children yet to be born, it will take far more seriously the issue of how we can unlock the resources and the will that we know is there to develop a child care strategy that will meet children's needs, wherever they live, and whatever their families' decisions about what will best suit them. The new clause would be just a small token effort, but it would be better than nothing. If the Government are not going to accept it, I challenge them to say what they are going to do.

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Children's needs will not go away. It does not matter what class or group they are in--they have those needs. We know that the quality of child care is inherently enhanced if there is a mixture of children in classes. If child care is available only for the most disadvantaged, children are locked into a culture of disadvantage, and that is the last thing that we want. We want child care to be available much more widely than it is. The Government could make a gesture this evening. I hope that they will.

The Select Committee on Employment recently issued an important report in which it carefully considered what was happening to women and working mothers. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) will catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, as she was a member of that Committee. I do not propose to go into that matter any further.

8.15 pm

It is important that the House takes its responsibility to ensure that children grow up with the best opportunities far more seriously. We can achieve that only if we give them the opportunity to have the best early years education. We know that the more parents are involved in their children's experiences at an earlier age, the more they will be involved in their children's education as they go through life, and the more they will feel that they are part of the provision for their children throughout their lives.

We are talking not just about the under-fives, but about children's opportunities after school and during the school holidays. Schools are not necessarily always open when it is convenient for working parents. We must have a pattern of child care which meets not only providers' but families' needs. It is important that we deal with that issue. The House might have taken more positive steps in relation to that, but that is another issue, which is not before us today.

I hope that the Government will recognise that the issue cannot be resolved by a dogmatic relationship with one sector. All sectors must be involved. We are talking about the future of all children and of our communities. Dogma must not rule there.

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