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Andrew Selous: I accept the economic point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but does he agree that it is important that we have some form of dialogue about the effect on children and the differences between various settings, so that, in terms of the environment in which they are cared for, we can ensure that they have the best start?

Mr. Battle: Yes, and I hope to say a word or two about Sure Start, which is precisely the context in which some of that work can be done.

At the moment, 14 people are participating in this term's child care course at the West Leeds Family Learning Centre, eight of whom have already got job places. Anyone who wants to work in nursery child care and is prepared to train will get a job; indeed, that is an indication of the level of demand. The Economic Secretary visited the centre last year, and he discovered that when we say to employers such as the Elite Group, "These women are training to work in your company. Will you look at your shift patterns to see whether they fit their child care needs and school hours?", the answer is yes. Therefore, we can achieve a better, more progressive and practical working arrangement. That is exactly the template that other employers could use.

Currently, some 750 people are enrolled on 50 courses at the centre. Some go on to get university degrees, but we need to provide proper child care back-up. There is a nursery with reserved places, but it is over-subscribed and needs to be expanded.

Another beacon project is the Sure Start programme. The programme in Bramley, which was one of the first in the country, employs 16 people, including qualified midwives, nursery nurses and speech therapists. They provide one-on-one family support, and the kind of context in the locality that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) referred to in his intervention. Such support helps to rebuild communities and neighbourhoods, and the networks that extended families can no longer provide.

I must stress that such work needs to be long term. The excellent work of the Bramley Sure Start—and, indeed, of the new project in Burley—needs to be put on a long-term footing to ensure that it is consistent, and that people can have confidence in it. A brand new nursery and children's centre, run by the early years service, provides 52 new nursery places. That is welcome, but we need much more, and I hope that we can get assistance through the Chancellor's initiatives to extend provision nationally, as well as locally.

I want to make one practical point about health. The Bramley Sure Start organised a birthday party for all local two-year-olds, but they used that occasion discreetly and sensitively as a means to check for early

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signs of delayed development in those children. Such an approach enables it to give practical support, and to intervene during the early years—the kind of idea that the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire referred to. Similarly, the Burley Sure Start has begun home visiting. Improving family support, and providing early health and learning checks and good quality child care will be absolutely vital in tackling poverty. That is what we have learned in the past few years, and it is the route to go down.

I hope that the Government learn from the experience on the ground, in order to make sure that the local experience can be knitted in with the top-down money and initiatives. There are new ideas and experiences in the localities that can be shared and exchanged, and which the Government can also learn from. Doing so will enable us thoroughly to eradicate poverty, in ways that we perhaps had not thought of when the Minister and I were campaigning in the 1970s and 1980s.

2.56 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Like the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), I am not a member of the Committee. I congratulate it on this report, and I congratulate its Chairman on the way in which he opened today's debate.

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Leeds, West has just said, but I was slightly uncomfortable with his emphasis on the economic impact of child care. For me, raising children is more about love, nurture and education than about crude economics. I felt that that aspect was rather lacking from his contribution; it was also perhaps lacking from the debate in general.

Mr. Battle: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Luff: If the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene, I shall happily allow him to correct the record.

Mr. Battle: I do not want to diminish the role of nurture. However, I should point out that, although current commentary often says that all new jobs created are public sector jobs, some of them are damn good quality jobs in precisely the right areas, such as child care. Consideration of the economic impact ought therefore to be taken more seriously, not least by some of the hon. Gentleman's Front-Bench colleagues.

Mr. Luff: I rather regret having given way, as the hon. Gentleman seems to have compounded my concern, rather than seizing the opportunity to say that mothers who work full-time caring for their children are performing a very valuable service, even if it does not feature in the nation's gross national product. But never mind—I do not want to get too confrontational in a debate that has been characterised by its good nature so far.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I am an amateur in this debate, as I am not a member of the Committee. However, I am a father with a working wife, and I was brought up in a one-parent family, because my father

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died when I was only eight. I therefore have some experience of the issues relating to child care, and of the challenges posed to children.

In addition to the need for love and nurture to which I have just referred, I want to inject three elements into this debate: the need for choice for parents, the need for opportunity for children, and the need for play. Technically speaking, the issue of play is not closely related to the work of the Work and Pensions Committee, but I am concerned that much pre-school provision is being driven in an increasingly academic direction. As a result, it is providing a different kind of environment for children from the one that they enjoy at home. Children do need to play before they go to school. My concern is that child care provision for the children of working parents should enable such play to develop. It is through play that children learn. [Interruption.] I sense that the House is with me on this point, and I am glad to see nods around the Chamber; indeed, this is not the first time that we have agreed today. Such support is welcome, because Ofsted in particular is pursuing a rather worrying agenda through the creation of an increasingly academic pre-school experience.

I am delighted that my own constituents are to get more choice. In paragraph 46 of the report, the Committee expressed its concern that

I am sure that it is right to express that concern. Tomorrow, I shall open a Pre-School Learning Alliance neighbourhood nursery in a very deprived ward in my constituency. I am privileged and delighted to do so. It will give children a chance to learn through play, on which the alliance puts great value. Also, it will provide a facility where parents can get to know each other and drop in for advice and social opportunities. That is hugely important, as it provides the network to which the hon. Member for Leeds, West referred.

The ward about which I am speaking suffers from severe economic and social need. The new neighbourhood nursery will provide a safe, warm place where parents can meet, and where children—from six weeks to school age—can be cared for. It is an ambitious new programme.

The Pre-School Learning Alliance is seeking to involve parents very much in the care of their children. It is running a campaign called "Changing Lives, Changing Life". The alliance has stated:

Two expressions in that quotation are worth picking out—

and "voluntary". It is really important that we fully embrace the voluntary sector in the provision of child care. We want diversity of choice, and that means having a wide range of different facilities on offer. The voluntary sector has a big contribution to make. I hope that we do not over-professionalise the sector, and allow

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local education authorities, in particular, to take over too much responsibility. Voluntary organisations such as the Pre-School Learning Alliance have a huge role to play.

My other point refers to the phrase

Not every child needs child care. Neither women nor men should be defined by their working existence. Sometimes, I get a sense that the Government think that full-time mothers are bad and not to be encouraged. I am sure that that is not what they mean, but that is the sense that one gets from the Chancellor's pronouncements on the matter. Strangely, however, the impression is that the Government consider that working mothers who look after other people's children are good.

That worries me. Parents should be free to decide, on the basis of well-informed choice, how to raise their children, but that is not the impression that I get. I get a sense of compelling urgency on the Government's part to force every woman out to work. I do not share that agenda. The amendments that were tabled to the report—all of them sadly rejected—reflect some of those concerns. I recommend that people read the amendments, as well as the report itself.

The 2001 Rowntree report found evidence that children of full-time working mothers do less well academically. That is a difficult and worrying finding, but it has to be taken into account. We must not sweep what is a rather awkward thought under the carpet.

The hon. Member for Leeds, West seemed to celebrate the world of work, and I agree that work can be very fulfilling. However, the House should celebrate those mothers—and fathers—who choose to make a full-time commitment to their children.

For many children, though, child care is not only inevitable but the best option. It is crucial that children have access to the appropriate level of care. Children need to learn to learn. They also need to learn to respect others, such as their teachers and peers, and to communicate. Those skills can be learned in appropriate child care, before children go to school. I welcome the great success of many nurseries and pre-school experiences in my constituency.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) highlighted the problem of the decline in the number of child minders. That is a matter of great concern. Child minders provide very valuable and useful experience, but their numbers have fallen by about 20,000 over the past three years. Like my hon. Friend, I suspect that it is the red tape and bureaucracy with which they are confronted that has led to that decline. However, I do not think that we should be complacent about that. We need to find ways to boost the numbers of child minders; we must not force everyone into nurseries or formal institutions. A home is often the best place to care for a child.

I worry very much that we are moving towards a cult of the professional in child care. Amateurs and natural parents are being squeezed out of the process. It is right that alarm bells should be sounded. There is room for diversity in this sector, as opposed to uniformity of state provision of nursery facilities.

In addition, I sometimes think that we get wrong the balance of risks in relation to child care. It is true that there have been instances in which children have been

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abused or have suffered, but how many more children are suffering from the decline in child minder numbers? The work of the Criminal Records Bureau has posed many challenges to voluntary organisations in my constituency. Resolving the small problems that they encounter has imposed huge costs and burdens on them.

I return to my basic theme, which is that there are three crucial propositions that we need to think about: choice for the parent, opportunity for the children, and play.

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