Standing Committee G
Tuesday 22 January 2002
[Mr. Peter Pike in the Chair]
Duties of LEA in respect of childcare
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I beg to move amendment No. 551, in page 86, line 8, after 'shall', insert
'having consulted providers of and users of childcare facilities in their area,'.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 552, in page 86, line 18, at end insert
'and the Secretary of State shall provide funding to cover the additional costs of doing so.'.
Mrs. Laing: It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pike. I do not normally have the honour of speaking first in Committee. Part 9 of the Bill deals with child care and nursery education. Amendment No. 551 would require a local authority to consult both the providers of child care and the consumers, in other words, parents and guardians, when it reviews the sufficiency of child care provision in its area. It is a fairly minor amendment. Generally the Opposition agree with the Government's intention in the clause. It is good to require the local authority to review the sufficiency of child care provision. I particularly welcome—I hope that the Minister will be pleased with a small amount of praise for what his Department are doing—the provision in subsection (1)(3), which states that the local authority
''shall also establish and maintain a service providing information to the public relating to the provision of childcare and related services in their area.''
That is an excellent provision and we thoroughly support it.
I would like to explore a little further what the Government mean by concentrating on child care rather than nursery education. I have mentioned this before and this might be a more appropriate place for the Minister to give us an explanation. I am still concerned about the merging of child care and education. I accept that for very small children, child care also means education. There is no real dividing line between them for a two, three or four-year-old because the learning process starts at birth and continues, I suppose, throughout life, but let us not wax lyrical on that.
I appreciate that the learning process need not be deliberate for a very small child, but I want to explore what the Government recognise as the difference between child care and education, which has an effect when it comes to allocating budgets. One might say that it does not matter to a mother whether her child is being looked after or educated because it all comes down to the same thing for a very
Column Number: 542
small child. It may not matter to the individual parent, but we are here in our capacity as legislators, not individual parents, so we must consider cost implications and the structures within which services are provided. For that reason, I want to hear more about what the Minister envisages.
It is a pity that no Liberal Democrat representatives are here this morning. That is sad, because we have normally had good representation from the Liberal Democrats. The time that they have taken to speak in Committee is disproportionate to their number, and indeed influence, but they have raised some important issues. This is an issue on which the Liberal Democrats usually want to ask questions, so I am sorry that they are not here to participate. Nevertheless, it would be very helpful to hear the Minister's response.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Ivan Lewis): You have already warned me, Mr. Pike, that if I refer to the respective positions of our football teams, you will rule it out of order, so I will not do so this morning. I am delighted to welcome you to the Chair.
I thank the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) for endorsing the general direction of Government policy on this matter and acknowledging the importance of investing in early years education and child care. There is consensus on the Committee, and it is common sense that investing in that education and the early years of a child's life makes a difference to their development all the way through to adulthood.
On the hon. Lady's general points about the relationship between child care and early years education, it is important to say that until this Bill, early years education was covered on a statutory basis, but child care was not. We now have the early years partnerships, which are responsible for having a co-ordinated and cohesive strategy, and the hon. Lady will welcome that. It seems anomalous not to clarify child care roles and responsibilities in statute, and it is important to note that this is the first time that we have done so.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the amendment's objective. It is absolutely integral to the success of the strategy that we consult and involve providers and users of child care facilities in any decision that is made at local level. The guidance that already exists makes it clear to local partnerships that the consultation process is essential to their responsibilities in making decisions about local provision. There is no difference in the objective or outcome. Early years partnerships are expected to consult fully the relevant stakeholders—the parents and providers—before they make decisions. The hon. Lady welcomed the new requirement in the legislation to provide information proactively to relevant parties locally. That will mean they are aware of early years education and child care provision and will be able to comment on its local development and shape, as well as being aware of priorities and of the resources available.
I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment because the objective that she wants to achieve is
Column Number: 543
clearly achieved in the guidance. I give a commitment to the Committee that guidance will always stress the importance of involving and consulting providers and users of child care and early years education services. It is anomalous and not in the best interests of consumers to have an artificial separation between the two. It is sensible and right from the consumer's point of view—as the hon. Lady said, that is what is important—to bring those aspects together so that we have a cohesive strategy and a co-ordinated approach, and parents know from the time of a child's birth the range of interventions and services in their area. It is also important that service providers have the opportunity to contribute to the development of that provision. On that basis, I ask the hon. Lady to withdraw the amendment.
Mrs. Laing: I am grateful for the Minister's explanation, but things are still a bit woolly. I am not sure whether that is parliamentary language, but thinking up a more sophisticated phrase would take more time, so I shall leave it at that. In light of the Minister's commitment on the record about the guidance that will be given on consultation—
Mr. Lewis: Is given and will be given.
Mrs. Laing: I accept that, and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I beg to move amendment No. 552, in page 86, line 18, at end insert
'and the Secretary of State shall provide funding to cover the additional costs of doing so.'.
I am delighted to see you in the Chair again, Mr. Pike.
An issue that faces most, if not all, local authorities is the propensity of Government to decide that a new initiative is required and that a local authority is the best organisation to implement it, but to provide no money for doing so. I am not talking only about this Government. Over many years, Governments have offloaded responsibilities for inspection, reports, monitoring and additional services without ever providing adequate resources to enable local authorities to discharge them. Anyone involved with local authorities will tell the same story. Year by year, it is more difficult to make ends meet and balance the books, yet every year the demands on, and expectations of, local authorities rise.
I tabled the amendment to acknowledge that fact. It would put in place a mechanism to ensure that at least the initiative under discussion did not place an additional cost burden on local authorities. Let us consider in detail what we are asking authorities to do. Proposed new section 118A(1) states:
''A local education authority shall review annually the sufficiency of childcare provision for their area.''
What does that entail in a reasonably substantial local authority area? Let us consider a county council such as Yorkshire or Surrey, which are large LEAs with substantial populations over a significant geographical area.
Column Number: 544
Carrying out a detailed review of every nursery in a primary, junior or first school, of every local voluntary-run playgroup and nursery, and of all the other diverse organisations that play a part in the sector will be virtually a full-time job. At the very least, I expect the officer who carries out the inquiry to need to speak to each group annually. They may also have to visit some of them. They will need not only to carry out a numbers review, but to consider capacity, the ability of individual pre-school groups or nurseries to expand, potential closures or changes, population flows in and out of the county, and whether there is adequate provision in areas of new-house building.
Those tasks will constitute a significant proportion of an officer's job, at least over a number of months. We are certainly talking about a significant proportion of an FTE—full-time equivalent—in the LEA. That responsibility must be paid for. It is new, and may gather together some work that is already being done. The Government cannot be certain that the provision requires an LEA to employ an additional member of staff to enable them to carry out that responsibility. Will the money to pay for that additional member of staff come from schools' budgets, special needs provision from central Government, or increased council tax? It must come from somewhere. The amendment would ensure that LEAs know that when they are asked to take on that responsibility, central Government will provide them with additional funding to enable them to do so. All too often, the Government do not do that when they place a new responsibility on the LEAs' shoulders. If the Government accept the amendment, as I hope that they will, the LEAs will at least take on those responsibilities in the knowledge that that will not take precious resources from other areas.
I hope that, if the Minister can take the amendment on board, he will set a new trend when central Government adopt new proposals that have a direct impact on the cost base of LEAs.