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Mr. Hoon: I am confident. I know that the hon. Gentleman is far too sophisticated an observer of military matters to suggest that, if there were a new Falklands crisis, we would conduct the campaign in precisely the same way. The point of the developments and changes is to allow us to conduct the campaign in quite a different way and, I would argue, a more effective way. I would be more concerned about the implied criticism that he makes if we had had real reverses in military campaigns in recent times. That is not true. It is important that we go on developing such flexibility, both to conduct the kinds of campaigns that have been conducted so successfully in the past, and to give us the ability to conduct the kinds of campaigns, as the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex said, of which we do not know and which we cannot imagine today.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): The best museum in my constituency—in fact, it is the only museum there—is that of the Gordon Highlanders, a regiment that no longer exists, not because they were called the Gay Gordons, but because they were the victims of a previous reorganisation. There is obviously concern in north and north-east Scotland that the Highlanders and Black Watch may suffer a similar fate. Will the Secretary of State assure us that he will listen to all representations from that area, because it is very important that the locality features in any recruitment and to ensure that the kilted regiments will not be consigned to the museum of history?

Mr. Hoon: I know that the Gordon Highlanders ceased to exist as a fighting force on 17 September 1994. That is still a cause of great concern to those who are strong supporters of the regiment, but it is an indication of the sort of changes that have occurred over the long history of Britain's armed forces. I cannot rule out such changes in the future, but I can tell my hon. Friend that no decisions whatever have been taken about such matters. I shall certainly consult her and any other hon. Member who is interested.

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Points of Order

2.1 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We very much appreciate the efforts of the Chair to try to protect the interests of Back Benchers, and we understand the rationale for what Mr. Speaker mentioned earlier, but a large number of hon. Members are still seeking to question the Secretary of State. The exchanges between him and the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman took more than 30 minutes of the time available. In such circumstances, surely it is possible for the Chair to extend the time a little so as to include Members from all parts of the House in the discussions.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In considering the remarks of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), will you bear it in mind that many of us represent substantial military constituencies and have many thousands of constituents who are directly employed by the armed forces or by defence contractors? Those of us who sat through all the exchanges and wish to question the Secretary of State will not be reassured by his invitation to discuss those matters with him directly. These are matters that should be raised in the Chamber of the House of Commons on behalf of our constituents.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Could consideration be given to ensuring that when a statement of such importance is made on a Thursday in future, a further hour is allowed so that we can sit until 7 o'clock? Had that been done, all of my colleagues—I am conscious that you kindly called me to speak—could have got in.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I call Mr. Barnes on a point of order.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. During business questions, I raised the matter of the attack by the United States—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. If I may respond to the three related points of order that have been made, I shall come back to the hon. Gentleman.

I am aware that there is a great deal of interest in the House on defence matters. That was evident today among the hon. Members who were present to hear the statement. Mr. Speaker has a great responsibility, as he

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has indicated, to preserve time for the work of the Select Committees. I have noted what has been said, and Mr. Speaker himself will be aware of it. Of course, there will be other opportunities for hon. Members to discuss the content of the White Paper later in the parliamentary calendar. As to the point made about the timing for debates on Thursdays, that is a matter for the Leader of the House.

Mr. Barnes: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. During business questions, I raised the issue of the attack by United States forces on the offices of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. In response, the Leader of the House, making use of information that has come from the Americans, indicated that that body might have been hiding fedayeen and arms. That is an incredible response, given the nature of the free trade union movement in Iraq, which stood up against those activities and operated in a clandestine way in order to establish a free Iraq. What opportunities can be given to the Leader of the House so that he can correct his statement if he receives further information from the Americans saying that the situation is different or to check out that the claim does not relate to the military-industrial complex that was mentioned earlier?

Madam Deputy Speaker: The Leader of the House is not present, but he will have heard or will read the hon. Gentleman's comments and may well choose to respond directly. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman himself may decide to pursue the matter through other parliamentary means.


Traffic Management

Mr. Secretary Darling, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Blunkett, Secretary Margaret Beckett, Ms Secretary Hewitt, Secretary Tessa Jowell, Mr. Peter Hain, Mr. David Jamieson and Mr. Tony McNulty, presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the designation of traffic officers and their duties; to make provision in relation to the management of road networks; to make new provision for regulating the carrying out of works and other activities in the street; to amend Part 3 of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 and Parts 9 and 14 of the Highways Act 1980; to make new provision in relation to the civil enforcement of traffic contraventions; to amend section 55 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 15 December, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed. [Bill 13].

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[1st Allotted Day, 1st Part]

Department for Work and Pensions

Child Care for Working Parents

[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report from the Work and Pensions Committee, Session 2002–03, on Childcare for Working Parents, HC 564-I, and the Government's response thereto, HC 1184; and the Department for Work and Pensions Departmental Report 2003, Cm 5921.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

[This Vote on Account is to be considered in so far as it relates to childcare for working parents (Resolution of 2 December).]

2.5 pm

Sir Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire): It is a very great pleasure to have the opportunity open this short debate. I perfectly well understand that there are pressures on time, as has just been demonstrated, and that an important debate on people, pensions and post offices will follow this debate, so I shall seek to make a few brief introductory remarks, after which I shall allow colleagues to make some comments on this important subject.

Estimates days are big parliamentary occasions. The vote on account that we are discussing allows the Minister a mere £22.5 billion on account. I hope that he spends it wisely and that he might think of spending some more of it on child care to allow parents to get into education. I am pleased that my hon. Friend—if I may so call the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond)—is manning the Treasury Bench. He is a friend in many senses, but in particular he was a distinguished member of the Select Committee in his time and has an important professional track record on this subject. We are pleased to see him in his place.

I should like to say a brief word of thanks to all those who contributed to the Select Committee report, and not only the Committee members themselves, who were assiduous as always. I like to think that the valuable work that we did had at least something to do with the little Christmas bonus that the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave us yesterday, for which I give much thanks. I shall return to that point later. Perhaps he should have more children more often, because it concentrates his mind. It is almost Christmas, and all these things help.

The Committee had a very interesting time in the course of its inquiry. We received 44 high-quality written submissions and had four very good oral sessions. In particular, I pay tribute to Baroness Ashton of Upholland, who was kind enough to come before us and help us to understand the departmental view of things. We always get very good help from the Department and the ministerial team.

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I should like to describe the report, in terms of the totality of the work of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, as a clear and earnest declaration of interest in what we believe to be a very important subject. In the fifth report of this year, that subject is limited to the part of child care that relates directly to employment, as that aspect is closely tied to our departmental duties and responsibilities as a Committee monitoring the work of the Department for Work and Pensions.

If we had had time to do so, we would have explored some of the more philosophical and far-reaching elements of child care as a policy, which I think is an intrinsically important part of Government policy, and not only in the sphere of employment and work. Indeed, the evidence that Professor Peter Moss gave us in seeking to establish child care almost as a public good and a human right, and therefore something that should be made available on a universal basis, was compelling. It was not directly in tune with the more restricted remit of the Committee, but I would like to explore it in further detail at a later stage. In particular, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), if I may refer to him as a member of the Committee, argued a very cogent case, which I found illuminating, about the need to focus on how child care affects families and on whether we should ensure that parents who want to stay at home and foster and nurture people are not left out of the Government's drive—I do not use that word pejoratively—to get people back into the labour market. It was an interesting and useful inquiry and report that demonstrated the fact that since the last election, when the Committee acquired the world of employment—we used to be the Social Security Committee; we are now the Work and Pensions Committee—it has been clear that the subject of work has had a whole new dimension. Wherever one looks in considering the pursuit of employment policy and how better to refine the facilities and provisions offered by central Government, the issue of child care is not far round the corner as an integral and essential part of Government policy in terms of meeting people's problems in their everyday lives.

I do not read newspapers much at the weekend, but last weekend I stumbled across an article in the weekend supplement of The Guardian that told the heart-rending story of a lady called Charlotte Armstrong, who lives in Basildon. She is doing everything right by trying to study for a university degree, but everywhere she turns she fails against a barrier of child care or housing benefit. The tragedy is that that is not unusual. No matter how much support Governments try to give, it is difficult to get all the bits of the jigsaw right. People try to help themselves, as we all want them to, but they still manage to fail. The lady I mentioned is not a constituent of mine, but I would like to try to find her and send her a note, because I was captured by her dilemma. It is not unusual—we see similar examples in our constituencies nearly every week. For me, her story sums up the difficulties of people who are trying their hardest to help their families: we need to do everything that we can to make life easier for her and for people like her.

Before I turn to the report's specific recommendations, I want to remind the House of the background against which this debate takes place. In

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1997, when we really began to tackle the problem, the United Kingdom started from a very low base—we were a long way behind our sister European nations—and there is still a long way to go. The debate is timely because it allows us to review progress to date and to see where we stand in the Government's scheme of things. The provenance of the policy dates back to the May 1998 national child care strategy—the Green Paper. That was a worthwhile and sensible document in its day, but it was not until the pre-Budget review of October 2001, which included the significant announcement of the child care review, that practical things started to happen on the ground. In July 2002, that was followed by the comprehensive spending review that directed the first significant resources—£1.5 billion—into the policy area. Yesterday, of course, we had this year's pre-Budget review.

We began to see the policy build up, followed by resources—a welcome recognition of the high priority attached to the policy at a high level of Government. I am sure that the Minister was clever enough to contrive the PBR announcement being made the day before this debate to make matters easy for him. We all know that his decision really made the difference, but it was good to hear from the lips of the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the issue is a priority for him, too. He did not say much in the way of new announcements, apart from on the increased element of the child tax credit, but his comments were welcome as a kind of payment on account.

We have in prospect the Treasury interdepartmental review of the subject—an essential piece of work that will, I hope, inform the comprehensive spending review programme for the three years following July 2004. I hope that the Committee's report and this debate will strengthen the hand of Ministers at the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions—indeed, the Government as a whole, as it is an interdepartmental problem—in making the difficult choices required in finding the resources to maintain momentum.

Having been a Member in a rural area for 20 years, I encounter pressures that are difficult when they bear down on individual families, but I do not have the volume and weight of casework of some of my colleagues—especially London Members such as the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). I admire and acknowledge her work—she is an expert on the subject and was largely responsible for the Committee's inquiry. She persuaded me that child care is far from being a second-order issue, but is in fact a core issue. Until 1997, I thought that dealing with poverty was about getting more benefits to families, but it is not as simple as that. She, more than anyone else, led me to conclude that the Government cannot abide by their own targets—I accept that they are ambitious, as is right and proper—unless they deal seriously and meaningfully with child care. That is axiomatic and central to the Government's anti-poverty programme. The targets on child poverty—to cut it by a quarter by 2004, to cut it further by 2010 and, most ambitiously of all, to abolish it by 2020—cannot be achieved without more extensive child care provision. Indeed, to abolish child poverty, provision would need to be almost universal.

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The Government also have ambitious targets on reducing children in workless households as a percentage of the population and getting 70 per cent. of lone parents back into the labour market. Those are all important aims that cannot be properly achieved without child care being central to everything that the Government do across Departments.

The debate is not just about targets, however. Ambitious and welcome as they are, and I hope that the Government meet them, the more intractable and indefinable problems of persistent long-term poverty—chronic, grinding, deep-seated poverty—can be addressed only if families have access to quality, affordable child care. I know the Chancellor of the Exchequer well enough to be aware that he is focused on dealing with intergenerational poverty, which will not be eradicated by a target or an objective alone, but which requires a consistent, long-term policy.

Chronic health problems can be addressed by children's centres that provide a package of support for families. Obesity is becoming a much bigger problem in all our constituencies. Consistent, accessible, timely child care, with back-up support, is essential. That also applies to illiteracy.

I attend international social security conferences where experts say that we should be encouraging more people—not only the Chancellor of the Exchequer—to have children. I had better be careful—a safer way of putting it might be to say that the country needs a population policy. People of child-bearing age should be encouraged to become involved in parenthood, because the demographic trends are against us as a nation. If we do not have enough high-skilled, well-educated members of the population in 2050 and beyond, the country will have all sorts of other problems.

We need to move to a position whereby children are healthy and confident and go to school ready to learn. The frightening fact is that children learn to be poor by the time they are raised, so early years education and the child care provision that supports it is quintessentially important to a successful Government policy in future. The remedy is at hand, and we quote it in our report. It is a piece of evidence from the Department for Education and Skills, which found that 63 per cent., or two in three, of non-working mothers and 78 per cent., or three in four, of non-working lone mothers said that they would prefer to go to work or to study if they had access to good-quality, convenient, reliable and affordable child care.

So there is a willingness to liberate a cohort of the work force not only to work but to study. Work is important but so is studying. In the article in The Guardian, which I shall send to the Minister, the young woman wanted a university degree, not just any job. That caught my imagination. One could perhaps accuse the Government of wanting to get people into work, but being indifferent about their doing anything beyond that. Some American states are much more ambitious and talk of "A B C—any job, better job, career." There are young women who wish to get university degrees, which will enhance their labour market value, but whose attempts founder on the obstacle of absence of access to proper child care.

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