Education Bill

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Mrs. Laing: I strongly object to that. It was not a bogus point. We have had an extremely good debate this morning on the effect of tax credits and the provision of child care and early years education. The Opposition have elicited some important points from the Minister. The hon. Member for Don Valley also made some important points, with which I entirely agree. As I said before, she is chairman and I am vice-chairman of the all-party group on child care. I hope that she considers that I have asked some important questions too.

Most unusually, we are trying to achieve more or less the same thing. I support what the Government are trying to do in this part of the Bill. I am concerned about the reference in line 43 because I want to see this part of the Bill enacted. I want to ensure that people in another part of Parliament cannot prevent that by exploiting a loophole. My point is not bogus. I want to ensure that there are no loopholes, and this is the correct place to do so. We want to see this part of the Bill enacted. I shall sit down so that the clause can be agreed forthwith.

Mr. Lewis: I want to make it clear to the hon. Lady that I accept that she is genuinely committed to early years education and to nursery provision. She has made a useful and positive contribution to the debate on all those issues, but her last point was not consistent with her contribution during the rest of our proceedings.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 147 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

12.15 pm

The Chairman: Before I move on to clause 148, I have been asked about rules of dress. I do not want to have a series of points of order on this either now or at future sittings as we have important issues to debate. The ruling is that there is an expectation that hon. Members dress appropriately and that hon. Gentlemen wear a jacket and tie. Chairmen rarely raise objections to hon. Members or officials who remove their jackets, but they are expected to wear ties. I said before the sitting that hon. Gentlemen could remove their jackets, and that will apply to all sittings

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when I am in the Chair. I do not wish to prolong the proceedings, and I hope that my statement is clear.

Clause 148 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule 14

Regulation of child minding and day care

Question proposed, That this schedule be the Fourteenth schedule to the Bill.

Mrs. Laing: Schedule 14 is another important part of the Bill. It relates to the regulation of child minding and day care, and we support the Government's general direction in implementing it. It is important that there should be checks on the suitability of people who look after children, especially very young children. I do not question the Government's intention, but I want to ensure that the Bill means what we think it means. Will the Minister explain the wording of clause 1, which is somewhat obscure? I suspect that I thoroughly support its contents, but I want to ensure that what the Minister thinks it says and what I think it says are the same. The clause deals with determining a person's qualification for registration under the Children Act 1989, and that is a worthy intention. Will the Minister explain the Government's intention behind the new subsections? I hope that I will be able to say that that is what I thought they meant.

Mr. Lewis: I shall try to clarify the position. The Bill sets up the arrangements for the criminal records bureau to issue certificates to persons such as child minders and day care providers. Those certificates are available to the Office for Standards in Education as evidence of their suitability to look after children. The schedule provides that the full information supplied on the certificate about registered persons or applicants for registration can also be supplied for others associated with the provision who are looking after children, or are in regular contact with them. The additional information that may not otherwise be supplied on the certificate includes whether or not the person is on the list under section 1 of the Protection of Children Act 1999. The extension also includes the scheme's suitability checks for people looking after children aged over seven-years-old. The provision is needed to ensure that Ofsted receives the information that it requires to assess someone's suitability to look after children or to be in regular contact with them.

Mrs. Laing: That answers my question, and I am grateful to the Minister for having explained the issue properly. We greatly support the provisions. We must be certain that adults in charge of small children can be trusted.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 14 agreed to.

Clause 149

Powers of LEA in respect of

funded nursery education

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mrs. Laing: The provisions concern nursery education and the powers of the local education

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authority to fund it. We support the general direction of the clause, but I want to ensure that the Government intend what we assume that they intend. The provisions appear to give power to local authorities and those using nursery education through consultation, but then return the power to the Secretary of State. Subsection (2)(a) states:

    ''The local education authority—

    (a) must, in making the arrangements, have regard to any guidance given from time to time by the Secretary of State''.

Subsection (2)(b) adds that

    ''the provider meets any requirements imposed on him by the arrangements.''

Subsection (2) grants absolute power to the Secretary of State at any time, without reference to Parliament, the LEA or the users of nursery education. The Secretary of State can change the guidance at any time without reference to anyone. We can debate what we expect will happen, but when the Bill is enacted, the Secretary of State can change the guidance on a whim.

We should achieve a balance between bureaucracy and freedom. We agree that there has to be strict regulation of adults looking after children. We must ensure that regulations on health, safety and suitability of those providing education in loco parentis are achieved without an enormous amount of bureaucracy, which costs so much in funding and time. That can make the role of the provider of early years education almost impossible. The Minister will be glad to hear that I am not making that up.

In my constituency, many providers of early years education have told me that they are in danger of being forced out of business because of excessively burdensome regulations. I appreciate the problem: we must safeguard children through regulation, but on the other hand, we must not make regulation so burdensome that providers find that they simply cannot cope with its demands on finances or time. I have noted the problem, but it is up to the Minister to explain how to get round it. I reiterate that I want to get round the problem; we want this part of the Bill to work. However, I wish to ensure that the Government have taken on board the question of the balance between bureaucracy and freedom.

Mr. Lewis: I should point out to the hon. Lady that the Secretary of State was, rightly, given the power to issue appropriate guidance in the Nursery Education and Grant-Maintained Schools Act 1996. I shall give examples of the areas that are covered by such guidance.

Providers of nursery education must be registered with the local authority to deliver a nursery education place that is free to parents. They must take account of the foundation stage and deliver a curriculum that is consistent with children achieving the early learning goals by the end of their reception year; we have discussed that point. Nursery education must be provided to at least the standard considered acceptable by an Ofsted inspector, and providers must operate a special educational needs policy and identify a setting-based special education needs co-

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ordinator. That is common-sense guidance. The Secretary of State's power to issue it was not granted by this Government but by a previous Conservative Government. We are simply continuing the delegation of power.

We have discussed the balance between regulation and quality standards so many times that I find it difficult to say anything new on the issue. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that regulation should be appropriate to the circumstances. We should not over-regulate and overburden public services. The Government must be sensitive to the processes that they put in place and run true to their commitment to take deregulation seriously.

Deregulation in the Department for Education and Skills is one of my responsibilities, for the time that I am in my job. I take that responsibility seriously, because I believe that Governments are prone to over-regulating in some areas. That is not done deliberately; there are often unintended consequences of legislation that is put in place for the best of reasons.

I acknowledge that there is a real issue. However, the Government cannot listen to every provider of a service that says that it will go out of business if it is regulated. I do not know of a sector that has not made this point whenever the Government propose, usually for the right reasons, to introduce regulations for the first time or a revised regulatory framework. Providers inevitably get worried.

Providers that I meet in my constituency or on ministerial visits tell me that there is too much red tape and bureaucracy. I always openly ask them to provide specific examples of over-regulation and bureaucracy, as opposed to good regulation and a reasonable standards framework. That sometimes gets me into trouble; it leads to a massive postbag. On occasion, providers write to me with excellent examples of regulation that is not helpful or necessary. Where I can influence or make representations about that, I will always do so.

Providers whom I challenge often find it difficult to provide examples of unnecessary red tape rather than inadequate quality or protection. It is vital that people bring forward tangible and specific examples and that we debate their accuracy. Providers sometimes come forward with examples of what they regard as burdensome red tape which the Government, and perhaps the average person analysing the situation, would say are not over-burdensome and demonstrate not over-regulation but necessary protection.

12.30 pm

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