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2.35 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). I acknowledge her great interest in and knowledge of these issues, and it has been a pleasure to serve with her on the Select Committee.

My party and I support the principle that work is the best way for people to come out and stay out of poverty, and the best route to ending child poverty, on which the Government are particularly focused. There is no disagreement on that. I approach this subject with the belief that we should provide working parents—indeed, all parents—with a real choice when it comes to looking after their children. We know from several polls undertaken by a popular magazine, Top Santé, that when young parents are asked what they would ideally like in their children's very early years, large numbers of them say that they would like to be able to afford to look after them themselves, at least up to the age of three. We should try to provide that choice.

High-quality child care has been mentioned several times in this debate, and no one would disagree with the need for that. We all want the very best child care for our

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children. I am particularly interested in recent research from a number of different groups of researchers in north America, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Finland—the Select Committee visited Denmark only last week—which clearly suggests that certain types of group child care, especially for children under two, but sometimes up to the age of three, if not established in the right setting, is not in the best interests of the children and can have detrimental effects. That is not my research; as I have said, it comes from a number of organisations. Indeed, the Government's own study into the subject, the effective provision of pre-school education—EPPE—research project, refers to those findings.

I drafted an amendment—it was not accepted—which can be found on page 48 of the Select Committee report, asking that, before the Government provide large amounts of public money for early years child care, they take note of the findings of the EPPE report in this regard. I was surprised that the amendment was not passed, as I felt that it was quite mild in nature and merely asked the Government to take note of that matter. However, for those who are interested, it can be found in the Select Committee report.

When we were in Denmark last week, we spoke to the chairman of our sister committee. I learned from her that an important study had just been undertaken, analysing the performances of Danish and Finnish schoolchildren. In Finland, as in Norway, a Government scheme has allowed parents—mainly women—receiving 40 per cent. of the average national wage to look after their own children until they are three years old, if they wish to do so. Women did not have to take advantage of the experiment—they could have gone straight into the labour market if they wished—but 75 per cent. of Finnish women have done so, and the scheme has proved similarly popular in Norway.

The study also found that Finnish schoolchildren scored better than their Danish counterparts in a number of respects. The researchers concluded that that was because Finnish children were involved with just one adult—a parent or a child minder—in their early years, whereas in Denmark the emphasis was on group nursery provision rather than one-to-one contact. When we asked about the ratio of staff to children in Danish nurseries, we learned that they were worsening—that just one adult might be dealing with eight or 10 children. There is evidence that that is not the best kind of care for very young children, aged 18 months or so.

Ms Buck: There are a number of variables in comparisons such as this. In a country where parents with very young children do not participate much in the labour market, they are likely to be providing one-to-one care for their children at home. Why does that not happen here?

Andrew Selous: I agree that more child-care options should be available, but I also think that all this research should be made available to parents. They should be able to choose whether to send their children to nurseries, to employ child minders or, if they can afford it, to look after the children themselves.

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The study also told us that after 18 months or so many working parents who had initially chosen a nursery setting for their children decided to employ child minders instead. As the hon. Lady knows, the problem in this country is that the supply of child minders has fallen considerably.

I recently received a letter from a constituent, which I thought so significant that I drew it to the attention of the Under Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Lady Ashton, who appeared before the Select Committee—as can be seen on page 132 of volume 2 of the report. My constituent wrote out of extreme frustration: she was about to lose her job because she was about to lose her child minder. She was an intelligent, educated woman, working at a further education centre near my constituency. The thrust of her letter was that "quality" child care did not necessarily mean "qualified" child care. After all, the state does not prevent us from having children because we do not have certain qualifications, but most children are looked after by their parents. Surely it is a parent's right to choose who looks after his or her child, and surely it is acceptable for any state subsidies that are available to be spent on those whom parents consider most suitable to perform that task.

My constituent wrote:

and so on. Much of her frustration arose from the fact that those who had been doing the child minding in her village did not want to devote the necessary time and effort to the courses that were required for them to gain the qualifications that would lead to registration.

I realise that the Government often adopt a cautious approach because of alarming things that sometimes happen, but they should be aware of the problem when the supply of child minders is being adversely affected.

2.46 pm

Mr. John Battle (Leeds, West) (Lab): As one who is not a member of the Select Committee, I thank its Chairman and members for their excellent report, which focuses on a vital issue. I also support the Government's spending of public funds on child care.

I want to make two points. First, child care provision makes a positive contribution to the establishment of a dynamic economy. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) said that it should be seen as a public good, and I agree, but it should also be seen as an economic good.

Secondly, while local initiatives are welcome, they will bed down better at local level if there is a better relationship between top-down and base-up developments. Investment in child care constitutes investment in the future, and that means that we must have a long-term, sustainable structure.

I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), who is a friend of mine, on the Front Bench. We go back a number of years, to when he was the champion of the Low Pay Unit and I worked for

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Church Action on Poverty. At that time, our shared aim was to tackle poverty generated by lack of work, low pay and grossly inadequate benefits for the poor and their families. I am proud to have been, since 1997, a member of a governing party that has introduced a minimum wage and improved supportive benefits, and has made real inroads in the reduction of child poverty. Given that 3.1 million children are still in poverty, much remains to be done, but I welcome the Government's commitment of resources to child care in particular.

Yesterday, the Chancellor announced an increase in resources dedicated to helping mothers and low earners. That will go a long way. The £50 a week tax incentive for employers to provide back-up child care will help many mothers who are in work, and many others too. It will mean more dynamism and more opportunities, rather than a contraction of the economy. The provision of help with approved child care at home is another useful innovation.

In 1997, only 47,000 parents received help with child care costs; the figure is now more than 300,000. The report spells out what we are up against if we are to provide child care for the 1.3 million people who currently want it. There is massive need in that regard. Helping parents to balance work and family life, rather than leaving them alone to struggle, is key to supporting their role in the work force, and to ensuring that they enjoy work and are productive. It is also key to ensuring that they can enhance their training and skills, and their capacity to contribute throughout their lives.

It is sometimes said that this is the age of globalisation. Such globalisation is characterised by increasing urbanisation, and by the increasing reality of personal mobility, which in turn stretches extended family back-up systems well beyond the clusters of local communities. In other words, in practice, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters do not now live alongside each other in local neighbourhoods; they are not there to provide personal family back-up. That is why care of the young, sick and elderly at home ought now to be regarded as part of a positive economic shift on the part of a progressive society that blends social justice and economic efficiency.

The provision of personal services—the often unacknowledged and unpaid work that is usually done by mothers, grandmothers and daughters—ought now to be recognised as part of the growth of our overall economy. It is an economic function, and we should emphasise it more. Such care contributes jobs in new and expanding services. Moreover, serving each other will be the source of new jobs, new training, new income and economic growth. In other words, providing child care contributes to economic growth, and we should see it in that context.

Let me cite the example of a young mother who grew up in and went to school in an area in my constituency that had more than 8,000 unemployed people in the 1980s; thankfully, that figure is now down to 1,500. She left school and, through the Government's new deal, got a place at the council-supported West Leeds Family Learning Centre, which specialises in training adults for work. She trained in basic qualifications, and then took a course in specialist child care training. She passed the test, got the qualifications, applied for a job with our new local Sure Start nursery project, and got it. She now works as a trained nursery nurse, providing child care

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back-up for other young mothers who are themselves on training courses or already in work. That is a tremendous success story, which should not be denigrated or sneered at. Some commentators suggest that such jobs are just public sector jobs that are not really worth while, yet they themselves are often paid directly from public funds. The opposite is true: such jobs contribute to the growth of the economy, and that shift to services provision should be recognised as an economic asset.

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