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Mr. Henderson: That was a knowledgeable contribution from my hon. Friend. I agree that there is a need for public education. The public have a right to know what is happening in their nation, on their behalf and, if they happen to live in Dounreay, on their doorstep. A wider debate on these matters is needed, and I support that.

I can tell my hon. Friend that there was a recognition in 1996 at the G8 summit in Moscow that international action was needed. Britain was represented at the time by the previous Government. This Government have made it clear to our partners in G8 and elsewhere that we are determined to follow a policy that is rigorous in pursuing non-proliferation. That means that there must be international action, collaboration and obligation.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): After Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and a series of nuclear accidents, some of which were made public and some of which were concealed in this country and abroad, it is not surprising that the public are sceptical about the claims of the nuclear industry concerning their own safety.

I welcome the statement by my hon. Friend this afternoon, but will he endorse the various comments that we have heard about the need for wide public debate about the future of nuclear waste disposal, and the need for an international agreement to solve a growing international problem? Can he give us an assurance that the shipment from Georgia is a one-off, without prejudice to any future shipments? Does it provide a precedent for the future?

Mr. Henderson: I have made it clear in response to other questions that there is an international obligation, which my hon. Friend mentioned and to which the Government are committed. There is a need for international action. I agree that there should be as wide a debate as possible on these matters, and the wider that debate, the more it will help people to recognise the important obligations that we all have, and the important work that is carried out by those in Dounreay on behalf of us all.

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Points of Order

3.59 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I seek your guidance on the Prime Minister's failure to make a statement on his recent visit to the middle east? When the Foreign Secretary similarly failed to make a statement a short while ago, you will recall that he sought to justify that on the basis that there had been no change of policy. When my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) raised a point of order on that occasion and observed that there was no basis for that assertion, you robustly agreed with him, Madam Speaker.

Is it not the case that, on all precedent, after a visit of such importance, the Prime Minister should come to the House to account to it for the outcome of that visit? Is it not the case also that his failure to do so, particularly after the copious press briefing that has taken place, illustrates yet again the Prime Minister's utter contempt for Parliament?

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. I have a hunch--usually I do not work on hunches--that there will be several points of order on this matter. I shall take them one after another and then deal with them all at the same time.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I support my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) by making a further suggestion. It is clearly a problem that the House is not having Ministers before it to account for their overseas visits. One must assume that that is deliberate Government policy. One way in which you could deal with the problem, Madam Speaker, is to convene a Speaker's Conference, so that we might determine the criteria that should govern the making of statements to the House.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border): Further to the point of order, Madam Speaker. It is on the same subject. It was clear that the Prime Minister wanted to get some soundbites across on the middle east peace process today. You will have noticed that three questions were asked by Labour Members. Two of them were laboriously read out and the third was slightly more spontaneous. Those questions enabled the Prime Minister to make some comments on the middle east peace process. Do you not agree that the House deserves a full and proper statement rather than soundbites and detailed press briefings?

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Further to the point of order, Madam Speaker. May I support the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) in his wish that there had been a statement, as if there had been such a statement, it would have enabled the House to bestow on my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister the praise that is appropriate for his superb statesmanship?

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Further to the point of order, Madam Speaker. In the light of everything that you

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have already heard, could you give an idea whether, if I and other colleagues tabled a private notice question on this matter for tomorrow, that PNQ would be accepted, so as to help the Prime Minister's office?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Further to the point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it not a fact that over the years that you have been in the Chair as Speaker, and before that as Deputy Speaker, there have been many occasions when hon. Members such as myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), when sitting on Opposition Benches, have demanded that the Prime Minister of the day, the Tory Prime Minister, make a statement about this, that and the other? We were flattened by the Tory Government and told to mind our own business.

The truth is that there is a bout of hypocrisy on this matter on the Tory Benches. If there had been a statement, I do not think that there is any doubt what the outcome would have been. If I had been Prime Minister, I would have had a statement. I would have allowed hon. Members to congratulate me on walking on water. All that my right hon. Friend has done is to save some parliamentary time, to get the Northern Ireland peace agreement through the House, for which he had some responsibility as well. He could have had a statement about Northern Ireland. The truth is that the Tory representatives are full of hypocrisy. It is time that they went into the Library and checked the record.

Madam Speaker: The House is well aware that it is for Ministers and not for the Speaker to determine whether a statement should be made. Of course, major developments in Government policy should always be reported to the House first, and there will be many occasions when it will be appropriate for Ministers to make statements following a visit overseas. In the latter case, it is for the Minister to decide whether, in all the circumstances, a statement is appropriate.

I do not believe that a precedent has been created by not making a statement today. On this occasion, the Prime Minister decided not to make a statement, and he was entitled to take that decision. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) asked me to call a Speaker's Conference. The Speaker does not call such a conference: it is the Prime Minister who does that. I hope that the House is now properly informed on that procedure. I was also asked about a private notice question. I do not give hostages to fortune. Hon. Members should try me out.

BILL PRESENTED

Registered Establishments (Scotland)

Dr. Lynda Clark, supported by Mrs. Rosemary McKenna, Mr. Desmond Browne, Mr. David Stewart, Mr. Frank Roy, Miss Anne Begg, Ms Sandra Osborne, Mr. James Wallace, Mrs. Ray Michie, Mr. Douglas Alexander, Mr. Russell Brown and Mr. John Home Robertson, presented a Bill to add to the classes of establishment which require to be registered under section 61 of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 24 April, and to be printed [Bill 176].

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Children's Nurseries (Safety)

4.5 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I beg to move,


I am grateful to the House for giving me the opportunity to highlight the issue of child care in pre-school nurseries. An increasing number of pre-school children are attending day nurseries as the Government provide more places. It is estimated that there are currently 5,700 such establishments.

I was elected to improve education and increase access to nursery care and education. The advantages of nursery provision in terms of improved education and in allowing parents to return to work have been well documented, and I welcome the Green Paper proposals. However, parents must feel confident about the care that their children will receive, especially when it is often the first time that parent and child are separated.

There is growing concern that, with the rapid expansion of early-days care, safety is being compromised in the rush to provide places. A recent BBC "Panorama" documentary entitled "Nursery Care on the Cheap" demonstrated some of the worst cases of failure of care. Inadequate supervision and poor facilities are putting children's lives in danger. My constituent Catriona Rae experienced the greatest of tragedies when on 8 July 1997 her 20-month-old son Alex drowned in a 20 ft by 10 ft ornamental fish pond at the Hilltop Bunnies nursery in Belmont, Lancashire. On the day that her son died, only one qualified member of staff was present instead of the legally required three, and one of the staff who was registered with social services had never worked at the nursery.

While the other children were playing, Alex wandered into an area of the nursery that was neither licensed nor fenced off and he was found dead in 8 in of water in the tarpaulin that covered the pond. He had gone unnoticed for at least 10 minutes. I have learned of other examples of nurseries throughout the country in which the standard of care and supervision has been shockingly deficient.

Part X of the Children Act 1989 sets out the framework for the registration and inspection of day nurseries and entrusts local authorities with carrying out those procedures. Guidance is offered to authorities in Department of Health circulars. That Department was responsible for administering the Children Act, but that responsibility was recently transferred to the Department for Education and Employment, as day nurseries are now being considered within the remit of early-years education.

In Department of Health circular LAC (93), the previous Government, in an attempt to increase the number of places in day nurseries, suggested that the guidelines governing registration should be relaxed. The circular acknowledges:


The circular permits nurseries to open after an initial inspection and sets a time limit for them to make any necessary changes before further action is taken, even if those nurseries are unsafe when they first accept children.

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The circular was dated January 1993, and Alex Rae died in July 1997. It is evident from that that the current legislation is insufficient. Local authorities may choose to interpret the guidelines as they see fit, and the issuing of a circular can alter the entire interpretation of the Act.

The Bill would change the situation. I should like to see a system of national registration and qualification that is administered uniformly throughout all local authorities. Surely there should be national standards, with inspectors trained by the Health and Safety Executive.

Social services departments should have to follow legally binding procedures, with an initial inspection containing specific safety checks. All that must be adhered to before a nursery is allowed to open. Records should be published of all initial inspections, and registration should be granted only if the local authority is completely satisfied that every guideline has been followed.

The penalties for breach of the regulations should be increased. The Hilltop Bunnies nursery was fined just £4,000 for a breach of regulations. If the penalties were increased, it would encourage nurseries to adhere to safety regulations.

The Bill seeks to amend the system of inspection for nurseries. Surprisingly, day nurseries are not subject to the same number of inspections each year as facilities for other vulnerable people such as the mentally handicapped or the elderly. Social services departments are required to inspect nurseries only annually, and notice must be given beforehand. That gives nurseries time to prepare for the inspection which, inevitably, results in an inaccurate picture of the everyday running of the nursery. Nurseries have been known to draft in extra staff for those occasions, to meet the minimum staff-child ratios, and specific care is often taken to remove hazardous objects that might otherwise remain.

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The Bill proposes to increase the minimum number of inspections to two in order to bring it into line with other caring establishments. After all, why should the safety of a child be less valued than that of a vulnerable adult? Social services departments should be required to visit the nurseries without prior warning, which would increase the incentive for nurseries to follow guidelines and to maintain the highest standards throughout the year.

The Bill proposes to make a few minor changes to the existing legislation, yet it would immediately ensure that children were safer in day care. I am grateful to the 112 hon. Members who have offered their support to early-day motion 848, which recognises the need for a fundamental review of the legislation in the light of the needless death of Alex Rae.

Since I tabled the Bill, the Government have announced the publication of a consultation document entitled, "Early Education and Day Care", which looks at the whole issue of child care in pre-school settings. I welcome that initiative and will be looking carefully at the proposals. I hope that my Bill will pave the way to improving safety in children's nurseries and will ensure that at least something positive comes from the tragic and needless death of my constituent, Alex Rae.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Mr. Bill Olner, Mr. Frank Cook, Mrs. Llin Golding, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mrs. Helen Brinton, Ms Christine Russell, Ms Candy Atherton, Mrs. Linda Gilroy, Mr. Laurence Robertson, Mr. David Amess and Mr. David Chaytor.


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