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27 Nov 2002 : Column 434—continued

10.37 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle): First, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) on securing this debate on the important issue, as his speech demonstrated, of how we provide best for our young children before they have to attend school.

The hon. Gentleman started his remarks with a gentle suggestion that I might not be the appropriate Minister to deal with these issues. I want to start by assuring him that he is not being short-changed by having me answering his debate. I am not doing any of my colleagues from the Department for Education and Skills a favour of any kind. I am the Minister in the House of Commons who deals with sure start, early years and child care. That recent change was announced at the time of the spending review, along with many other announcements, so I do not criticise him for not spotting it.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the review across Government into this subject, which took a year, the results of which were published on 6 November. He may have seen those results, but, if not, I commend them to him. One of the findings of the review in terms of machinery of government was that it would be more sensible to join up—that hideous phrase—some of the work that is done across Departments in respect of the early years, early development and health of young children. As a consequence, my noble Friend Baroness Ashton was asked to lead an inter-departmental unit dealing with all of those issues. She is the lead Minister—she is a Minister in both the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Work and Pensions—but, as she is in another place, she cannot answer debates in this place. Consequently, somebody else must answer in this place, and I am that person.

The hon. Gentleman made two major points, and he illustrated, partly through their wonderful names, the diversity of the nurseries and pre-schools in his constituency.

The hon. Gentleman's first point was about what he described as over-regulation in the pre-school sector. He quoted some of his constituents who work in that sector and who have complained about spending more time with paper than with children. We obviously take that concern seriously. It is not the aim of Government to bury teachers or pre-school staff in paperwork. That is not the main job that they seek to do or the main job that we want them to do. They have a legitimate concern that

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paperwork will take them away from their primary function of caring for and looking after the development and needs of young children, but it is not in the Government's interest to increase the amount of paperwork and restrict the teaching and child care that take place.

We are sympathetic to such concerns. Although we cannot control every piece of paper that the staff might be expected to fill in, we have responsibility for some of it. However, the hon. Gentleman must bear in mind that the regulatory processes of registration and inspection operated by Ofsted require some form filling. The Government do their best to ensure that that is simplified and that the forms deal with what is necessary. We do not want their number to expand just for the sake of it.

The hon. Gentleman referred to child profiles that were 16 pages long and that had to be filled in for every child. There is certainly no requirement for profiles to be of a particular length, but pre-schools must keep records on their children's progress. I hope that he does not think that such a requirement is unnecessarily bureaucratic. The profiles can be simple and straightforward, and 16 pages seem to be excessive. However, there is no requirement for the profiles to be of that length, so I hope that the example that he cited did not arise out of a central Government diktat that meant that the profiles had to be of a particular length and overly burdensome.

The regulatory processes are there to ensure quality and safety, so there must be a proper balance between the amount of the paperwork required and its purposes. If we get the balance right, I hope that no one will complain about having to do some paperwork. It is not the Government's intention that excessive paperwork should drive people out of the business of looking after children or providing pre-school care.

Mr. Bacon: No one would dispute the need for balance. However, does the Minister accept that, when proprietors have filled in all the paperwork, have been told that they have met all the requirements but still cannot get the go-ahead for their plans, there is something about the bureaucratic processes of Ofsted that must be seriously examined?

Maria Eagle: I shall say something about Ofsted. It has a role in regulation and in ensuring that children are safe and well looked after and that the premises are safe and suitable. It provides the quality checks that parents require before they decide to leave their children in particular places or under the care of particular organisations. Parents must be sure that the places where they leave their children are safe and have proper standards. Taxpayers' money is used to fund elements of early-years provision so it is right for the House to expect the money to be properly used and accounted for so that we obtain value for money and proper quality and care. That is why the regulations exist.

As I have said, there must be a proper balance. Ofsted took over responsibility for child care registration and inspection from local authorities only last September. That has some advantages in the sense that pre-schools

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now have to work to only one set of standards. Before that, there were 150 sets of standards that varied from local authority to local authority and their interpretation of the requirements differed. We are bringing together the requirements into a national standard that should make it clearer and easier to meet them. The system is settling down but I say to the hon. Member for Witney and to those who take an interest in the subject that we want to ensure that it settles down properly. We certainly do not intend to impose more regulatory burdens, red tape and form filling than is absolutely necessary to meet the legitimate concerns of Government, parents and taxpayers.

The hon. Gentleman said that it was a requirement that all four-year-olds should go to primary schools at a single point of entry. He also made it clear that some of the changes considered in Oxfordshire have been proposed by the LEA. That is therefore a matter for the LEA, not the Government. If we told each LEA what to do, he would no doubt raise that in a debate on how Whitehall is trying to micro-manage bits of his constituency.

I am aware of the fact that the hon. Gentleman's LEA proposes to change admission arrangements for primary schools. He gave some of its reasons for that and he is rightly attending constituency meetings about it. The LEA proposes to move from a three-point entry of admission to a reception class to a single point of entry. It wants to do that for various reasons, some of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The Government do not have a preferred best way of doing that. We laid the schools admission code of practice before the House on, I think, 15 November. The hon. Gentleman will find it useful for discussions with his LEA because it sets out the Government's suggestions.

It is for the admissions authority in the first instance to produce policies and it must consult. The consultation process in Oxfordshire has been going on for, I think, a couple of years. No one could argue that the authority is jumping to conclusions. There has been an extensive consultation, which is how it should be, and I understand that it will reach some conclusions in the new year.

The Government are fully committed to parental choice in early-years education. We are not telling authorities like the LEA in the hon. Gentleman's area that it should have a single point of admission. That is a matter for the local area to decide on after consultation. If a single point of admission is accepted, I do not deny that some parents will feel under pressure to transfer their children from pre-schools to schools, as the hon. Gentleman said.

The schools admission code of practice encourages admission authorities to allow parents to secure a place at a school of their choice and to defer entry. That should deal with some of the problems raised. Some authorities already do that. I am sure that Oxfordshire will consider all the issues before it comes to its conclusions. The policy suggested in the code of practice should alleviate some of the pressures on parents to get their children into a particular nursery at a particular time rather than leaving them in the pre-school.

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Our aim is to ensure that provision enables local parents to choose what is best for their child. What is good for one child might not be good for the child next door, and we are trying to ensure that local authorities provide diversity.

Mr. Cameron: I am listening carefully. Does the hon. Lady accept the link between over-regulation, which is driving some of the small voluntary pre-schools to the wall, and the move to send more four-year-olds to primary schools, which are better able to cope with the regulatory burden? Perhaps she would like to visit one of those voluntary pre-schools with me to see the paperwork. My plea is that the Government do not crush those wonderful little gems because we will very much regret losing them.

Maria Eagle: The Government are certainly not interested in crushing gems. We are trying to promote and nurture diversity and choice for parents. I do not accept that the regulatory burden is driving schools to close. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Government have an obligation to ensure safety and quality. These are, after all, places where parents leave their very young children; they need assurance about these issues and it is the Government's responsibility to make sure that they get it. Of course we are always willing to try to reduce the volume of paper. As I said, I think that there are misconceptions about what is

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required because the Ofsted regime is relatively new and is bedding in, and we all need to learn lessons about that.

The hon. Gentleman referred to struggling pre-schools. I shall not deny that some pre-schools have struggled to exist, and some have closed, for a variety of reasons. We have, as the hon. Gentleman said, seen a steady shift in the balance of child care provision, away from playgroups and pre-schools towards the full day-care that parents want when they work full-time. We are encouraging pre-schools and playgroups to expand their services wherever possible and to provide child care over extended hours.

We have allocated £6 million of capital funding to help with such conversion—£3 million this year and £3 million next year. The additional funding from the spending review doubled provision for child care and early-years education. Overall then, funding in this field is increasing. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that although that does not always trickle down into every little school in every little village, we are doing our best to ensure that there is diversity and choice.

We have no interest in trying to squeeze all pre-school and early-years provision into one nationally recognised and Government-preferred option, and we are not doing so. We are trying to encourage diversity and choice because that is what parents want and, in the end, that is what is best for our children.

Question put and agreed to.

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