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6.3 pm

Ms Jenny Jones (Wolverhampton, South-West): As someone who worked in child protection and on child abuse cases some years ago, I support much of the Bill. Many of the new provisions are long overdue.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health on presenting the Bill, and join my colleagues in praising my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) for his work on such matters--I am pleased that we can acknowledge his input.

I seek clarification on the transfer of regulation of child minding and day care from local authorities to a new arm of Ofsted. My hon. Friend the Minister will be reassured to hear that I am not making a pitch to serve on the Standing Committee; I merely want to know how that transfer of responsibility will work.

Although I realise that we need consistent national standards for the regulation of child minding and day care, we should note that some local authorities have maintained good standards for a considerable time and have offered an excellent service. One of them is Wolverhampton borough council. In correspondence with me last year, the Department of Health acknowledged the excellent work done by Wolverhampton. Councils that already offer an excellent service are concerned about the effects of such a transfer of responsibility. Therefore, I want to take the opportunity to try to clarify some issues.

In Wolverhampton, we found that the registration and monitoring unit of social services works very closely with the Wolverhampton Childcare Agency, which develops child care for the under-fives. It was set up more than a decade ago and is acknowledged nationally for the good work that it does. The agency and the unit deliberately work closely together to build up the local intelligence network that is needed if their work is to be effective. If the regulation arm of such work is to be moved from the local authority to Ofsted, will my hon. Friend the Minister tell us how that link will be preserved? On the face of it, the link will be broken and that has implications for the quality of the local service.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) about Ofsted. I have grave reservations about whether a new arm of Ofsted will be the suitable

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national body to take on the regulation of child minding and day care. Ofsted has a certain style and, frankly, that style will be inappropriate for the regulation of child minding and day care. It is as simple as that.

At the moment, Ofsted deals with formal education. As far as I am aware, it does not have any expertise in the regulation of child minding and day care, so where will it acquire such expertise from? The obvious solution seems to be that staff working in local authorities will be transferred to Ofsted, particularly if it works on a regional or sub-regional basis. Will my hon. Friend the Minister clarify whether that is the case? If it is, what arrangements will be made, especially bearing in mind that they will probably have to take account of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981.

Whenever one moves something from locally elected councils to a more centralised quango, it is legitimate to raise the issue of political accountability. If people do not like what their local council does, they can go to it and complain. However, if they do not like what this new branch of Ofsted does, to whom will they complain? Where will the local accountability go?

My constituents very much value the highly accessible local service that they have. If it is moved from Wolverhampton to a London-based quango, they might lose out. Some councils already offer a good service and achieve high standards, so it would be ironic if attempts to raise all standards nationally and to achieve consistency meant that those local authorities that probably provided the model for the Bill found that their local services were downgraded. That would be unfortunate. I hope that my hon. Friend will bear those points in mind and give me reassurances and clarification.

6.8 pm

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): It is a privilege to take part in the debate to support this excellent Bill.

In this country there has been much justified criticism of social workers, the organisations that employ them and social work in general. However, some of the very best people whom I am privileged to know are social workers. They are utterly dedicated, resilient, occasionally eccentric--I admit that--and they do good work, and sometimes great work, with unlikely people in sometimes extraordinary circumstances. No other profession would require someone to build a relationship with a reclusive elderly lady, with long periods spent standing on the doorstep and negotiating by means of slips of paper, to bury a long-dead cat or to return years' supplies of empty milk bottles surreptitiously to the dairy.

The General Social Care Council is vital because social work is a distinct profession. Social work employs people in many different ways and many different circumstances, but it has defined skills, a knowledge base and superb values. Social workers listen to people and are non-judgmental, and social work is imbued with unconditional positive regard. It enables vulnerable people to make their own choices and to make what they will of their lives.

There have been many scandals in social work, but it has also been a scandal that an excellent profession has been underpaid, undervalued, undermined and maligned for so long. The General Social Care Council is a big step.

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It will have a huge job and it will need continuing massive support from the Department of Health to develop professional practice. Social work is a mighty job, which involves itself in the biggest issues of all and decisions that utterly change lives. It is hugely stressful; it involves major statutory powers and a duty to protect vulnerable people. Every hon. Member should place more value on social workers.

There is a chance that this will be a great Government for children in care. The Government need to be great in that regard. There are decent people on both sides of the House, but, quite honestly, I loathed and despised the previous Conservative Government for their wilful neglect of the children in care with whom I worked for 15 years before I came to the House.

Mr. Burns: Rubbish.

Mr. Dawson: Take it from me, those were your policies--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I do not have any policies--at least not while I am in the Chamber.

Mr. Dawson: They were certainly not your policies, Mr. Deputy Speaker; they were those of the Conservatives. They would never have done what this Government are doing, such as introducing "Quality Protects", establishing a new national organisation for young people in care, imposing new statutory duties towards care leavers and introducing this Bill.

Mr. Hammond: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Dawson: No. We have heard a lot of nonsense about the children's commissioner from Conservative Members this afternoon. They immediately undermined their arguments by creating a spurious split between parents' rights and children's rights. Conservative Front-Bench Members are trying, once again, to leap on a popular and populist issue that they do not understand. Their attitude towards it is absurd.

After the introduction of the Children Act 1989, the previous Government had eight years in which to bring in a new adoption Act. This Government are taking sensible action on adoption and putting children's needs and best interests at the forefront of their policy. The Conservatives are treating adoption as a political ideology, and that is totally unacceptable.

The National Care Standards Commission will shine an independent light on all those places where children live away from home. There will be a children's rights director. Let us savour the words "children's rights". They are a fine Government who explicitly commit themselves to children's rights. I eagerly anticipate the work of the commission, which will be informed by the people who know about services--the children who live in children's homes. The commission will take a child-centred approach to raising standards in homes, in fostering and in adoption.

I would prefer the Bill to range a little more widely, because as well as introducing a children's rights director, which is essential, we should be following the excellent example of the Welsh Assembly in establishing a commissioner for all children. That is an argument for

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another day, but I am confident that the logic of the Government's commitment to children, to joined-up policies and to human rights will lead to children also winning that day.

I support everything that has been said about private fostering. We should establish a right to independent advocacy for all children in care. I am aware that that is a developing field and that the Government have a host of good intentions, but I should like to see in the Bill a real commitment to a statutory right to advocacy for children in care.

I shall not go on as we have only a short time available. The Bill is important and the Government deserve great credit for having brought it this far. I strongly support it.

6.15 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) for his brevity. I join my colleagues in honouring our right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) for his contribution, not only during today's debate but throughout his political life, especially when he was the Secretary of State for Health.

I shall address two matters, one of which has been raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) and for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe)--the protection and inspection of day care facilities for vulnerable adults. One year ago today, I wrote to the then Minister for Public Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Ms Jowell), after being approached by a constituent, Mrs. Sawdon. She expressed concern about her son, who attends a local day care establishment called a social education centre which, for five days a week, provides care and educational activities for vulnerable adults. Her point was that such establishments are not open to any form of external inspection. The Minister replied that the situation was under review but that, as yet, the Government did not consider it necessary to legislate.

In November last year, I put a question to the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), which was followed up by a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield, because we believe that we have to pay attention to the important issue of day care facilities. In my area, and in many others, parents are asked to pay a fee for such services. Many do not object to that charge, but they like to know precisely what they are paying for and what safety procedures and precautions are being observed, so that they can be sure that the service reaches the highest standard.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will clarify the position. According to the Official Report of the debate in the other place, the powers in this Bill will be used

I hope that that extends to facilities that provide educational activities, such as the centre in my constituency. Also promised was

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I chair the all-party child care group. I should like some clarification in respect of the regulation of day care services. I understand from the explanatory notes that nannies do not come under the definition of such provision in the Bill, except if they look after the children of more than two families in the home of one family. Therefore, if the care is provided by a nanny in the home of one set of parents and the children of another set of parents come to that home, it appears that the Bill will apply. I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will look carefully at those provisions.

Child care is changing enormously and, as several Opposition Members have said today, it has huge potential for growth. To an increasing extent, nannies are not employed only by the extremely well-off, and shared arrangements are often made. Parents are concerned about the right setting for their child, so they choose the familiar setting of the home, into which care provision is brought.

I should also like clarification of how the provisions apply to disabled children. In connection with domiciliary arrangements, the Bill states that the provisions will apply if someone comes into the home to care for a person who has an illness or disability. Will they apply if a family employs a nanny to come into the home to care for a child who has special needs and who cannot be left to fend for itself in the same way as they will to adults who receive domiciliary care in their home?

Those were the two matters that I wanted to raise. I look forward to making a speech on Monday at a conference organised by the NSPCC on protecting babies from harm, and to elaborating on the many things that the Government are doing to make sure that children come first--giving support to parents and families and making sure that we have the highest standards expected in this important sphere.

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