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3.4 pm

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I welcome the opportunity to debate this subject. My only regret is that the Chamber is not fuller today, as I think that the Select Committee has chosen a very important subject.

As someone who has had to wrestle with the problems of securing child care when I wanted to return to work—part-time at first, then full-time—I am all too aware of the hurdles that can be encountered. However, I want to say right at the outset that this is not an easy problem to solve, as no single solution will fit all working women's lives. Although I do not feel quite as strongly about this matter as the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), I also wonder whether the Government are just a little too keen to encourage women to work.

Not so long ago, child care was incredibly difficult to come by, and it was difficult for women to work outside the home. However, I think that we are now in danger of allowing the pendulum to swing too far in the other direction. We must not make women feel guilty if they make a positive decision to stay at home and raise their children. Many women choose to make that very positive contribution to society, and we belittle it at our peril.

I hesitate to disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood), but he welcomed the target of having 70 per cent. of lone parents in work by 2010, which I have some reservations about. The target appears to take no consideration of whether those parents want to be in work. It sends the damaging signal that only paid work is important. Choice does not appear to enter the equation.

We have heard some statistics about women who want to go back to work, but a couple of recent surveys are worth noting. The first was compiled in May 2002 by the magazine Pregnancy and Birth. It found that 75 per cent. of mothers-to-be would not return to employment if finances allowed. In October 2002, the national birth and motherhood survey found that 85 per cent. of women would choose to be stay-at-home mothers.

I suspect that the difference between the figures arises from the fact that some relate to new mothers, who very much want to be with their babies. They may feel almost forced back into the workplace by financial considerations. As families get older, women feel more able to return to the workplace.

However, I have already fallen into the first elephant trap in this debate, as I keep referring to "parents" as "women". To get real for a moment, it may be politically correct to refer to "parents", but the reality is that it is predominantly the women who take over responsibility

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for arranging child care. There are many exceptions to that, and once the arrangements are in place, couples very often work as a team and co-ordinate child care arrangements. Therefore, it is right that we should regard child care as the responsibility of a couple. Although for many of us females it may go slightly against the grain to be lumped in with a spouse for taxation purposes, I suggest that there are great advantages in treating the family as a unit when it comes to children.

The most obvious reason for that is the simple fact that child care is hard to come by, especially work-based child care. We should not assume that the child will be placed in a nursery at the mother's workplace. The reality may be that there is no provision there, while there may be at the father's place of work. However, the most likely scenario is that neither workplace will have a nursery, as only 5 per cent. of employers offer such facilities. Child care is especially difficult to find for people who live in rural areas. It may be that a work-based option is the most convenient solution, but it simply is not available.

In many rural areas, the planning system actively blocks new provision. There are often very strong countryside policies on change of use. Also, neighbours in more urban areas will vehemently oppose the provision of nurseries. Those are matters to which the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister should pay greater attention.

The Minister for Women has stated previously that child care provision in the workplace is not the favoured option. However, we need a variety of provision, as for some people the workplace option is the best.

When I first started work, it was very difficult to find a nursery that was open outside the hours of 9 am to 5.30 pm, and it was impossible to find nannies willing to work a part-time week, so I had to use a child minder. She was absolutely great, and it is worrying that the number of child minders should be falling.

Making and rearranging such arrangements is always a nightmare. A whole new set of problems emerges when children start school, as different arrangements have to be made for term time and the holidays. It was then that I nearly gave up work completely, as the whole thing had become a logistical nightmare. I thought that I was alone in that, but I was struck by the Department for Work and Pensions report that found that

Things are a little better now, with nurseries being available for longer hours, but much child care provision does not reflect working lives. Many people have to rely on a combination of formal and informal child care.

I mentioned the fall in the number of child minders, which may be a feature of regulation, but we should not forget that many of the women who used to be child minders were probably professional women in their own right who did not seek to go back to work 10, 15 or 20 years ago, because it was not as acceptable. Those women have now returned to work and diminished the pool of women who are willing to become child minders.

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When people find child care provision, it has to be affordable. Too many women carry on working only to find that practically all their wages are eaten up in child care costs. The Daycare Trust has shown that for a child under two the typical cost of a nursery place is now £128 a week, or £118 for a child minder. More worryingly, the trust has also highlighted the fact that British parents pay three quarters of the cost of child care, compared with 30 per cent. for parents in most other European countries. We need a fairy godmother, and I thought that one had arrived yesterday in the unlikely shape of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I do not know whether the number of Labour women Members have had an effect or the motivation was pure self-interest, but the pre-Budget report contained a very welcome announcement.

However, the picture is not entirely clear and I seek some clarification. The Chancellor said:

That sounds like good news, and I congratulate the Chancellor, but there is a tiny cloud hanging over those proposals in the form of the word "approved".

I am in favour of a certain amount of regulation in the child care industry, but the House needs a definition of the word "approved". It is important to know whether some child care arrangements will instantly fall into that category or whether some bureaucratic assault course will have to be tackled prior to the doling out of the £50 per week. Will existing child minders be covered? Nannies are currently not registered, so will they be covered? How will more informal family arrangements be covered, if at all? It is also not clear whether the £50 is an amount from existing wages that will effectively become tax-free or whether employers will have to effectively make a top-up offer to all employees that will mean that employees with children are £50 a week better off. Neither is it clear whether there is an age cut-off. Child minding costs do not stop when children go to school, but child care for the under-fives is more expensive. Support may be needed for over-fives and during school holidays, and perhaps we will receive further enlightenment when the Minister winds up.

I welcome the Government's ambition to create more child care places, but the demand for provision continues to outstrip supply. The study for the Department for Education and Skills, carried out by Woodland, showed that a quarter of all families—some 1.3 million—had reported not being able to find a child care place when they needed it. That was a particular problem for lone parents

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One of the adverse effects of that problem is that an increasing number of families are turning to the au pair sector for help with child care. That sector was completely ignored by the report, much to my surprise. Strictly speaking, the au pair scheme is aimed at young people, male or female, who are single and aged between 17 and 27. They can stay for a maximum of two years and should expect to help in the home for five hours a day with at least two full days off a week. That is in return for a reasonable allowance—the suggested amount is £45—and their own room. However, the term "au pair plus" is now often used and that sets out a different range of working conditions for the au pair, which merge with those of a mother's help. The allowance for an au pair plus is expected to be in the range of £65, but the individual is likely to have full-time care of the children throughout the day in addition to other duties.

Currently, beyond visa requirements, no regulations govern the checks and training requirements for a potential au pair who will have child care responsibilities. The au pair does not even have to sign a contract because the arrangement is an informal one. The au pair is supposed to be treated as a family member and not an employee, which is increasingly not the case. Of course, there are no police checks either.

The au pair industry in the UK is virtually unregulated, despite the fact that families increasingly rely on that child care option. There has been an increase in the number of rogue agencies that exist simply to cash in on the system. In most cases, the agencies are not members of any professional body, have little or no knowledge of the rules that govern the industry and demonstrate no interest in the au pair when they arrive in this country. Often, there is no further contact.

I contend that a disaster is waiting to happen, and the challenge that faces us is to ensure that the host family, the au pair and the agency are protected by mechanisms that prevent unmet expectations and demands and minimise the likelihood, for both the au pair and the family, of any potentially damaging situations. The Home Office is strict about which countries participate in the scheme but, alarmingly, Britain refused to sign a European agreement on au pairs placements that was drawn up in 1979. So the current situation remains and unknown young people can arrive in a family home, without police checks, relevant child care training or knowledge of legislation governing care of children and be given sole responsibility of care for young children while parents work.

Perhaps we should consider the example of the United States, which developed an au pair programme under the control of the US Information Agency. Unlike the system here, their system allows young men and women, with child care experience and who are proficient in English, to stay and work with an American family for a year. The system is not cheap but it is regulated. In the US, an au pair can work for up to 45 hours a week, with no more than 10 hours in any one day, and they must take accredited educational classes and also attend monthly meetings with a co-ordinator so that any problems can be ironed out. The au pairs are not allowed to take care of children under the age of two unless they have 200 hours of documented infant experience, and must not take care of a child under the age of three months unless a parent or other responsible

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adult is present. Before being allowed to enter the family home, au pairs must also receive at least eight hours of child safety instruction and 24 hours of child development instruction. Sadly, it took a high-profile tragedy before the Americans decided on that system and we must ensure that it will not take a similar event to prompt action in the UK.

The report contains some excellent recommendations. I endorse the recommendations on flexibility of early years education places, expanding out-of-school care and tackling the huge regional variations in provision, which are a real problem. I especially welcome recommendation 7, that sub-ward data be analysed to target pockets of deprivation within wards. I represent an affluent and leafy area, but it contains pockets that, if they were part of a larger similar area, would qualify for all sorts of benefits. Those areas are deprived of those benefits because they are not part of a Sure Start area or any sort of action zone, and it is time that we started to tackle those problems.

Much has been said about the benefit to families and the workplace, but we must not lose sight of the most important question—whether children are benefiting from the system. We must increase the number of places, but not through a low-cost option, provided by women in low-paid jobs. It cannot be done on the cheap. It must be properly funded and properly respected.

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