Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe):
I signed the report that we are debating wearing my hat as a member of the Select Committee. If I may wear that hat for a moment longer, I congratulate the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood), on his skilled chairmanship. Like him, I found the subject more and more intriguing as the Committee proceedings continued.
I speak today from the Front Bench, wearing another hat. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that this has been a good debate and I want to pick up some points. I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond), who has recently taken over some new ministerial responsibilities for child care. As the Chairman of the Select Committee said, the Minister, as a former member of the Select Committee, knows the territory well and I am sure that he will find child care as challenging and enthralling as we all did when we undertook our inquiry.
I am sure that the Minister agrees that, as the report emphasised, decisions about child care are deeply emotionally charged for any working parent of young children. The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) was keen to emphasise that point in her strong contribution to the compilation of the report. There are few more emotionally charged decisions for any parentespecially perhaps for lone mothers, who are, by definition, without a partnerthan the decision to trust their child to someone else, particularly a stranger or strangers. That emotional charge is intensified by the pressure of modern life on the work-life balance of women and families. In that
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context, I shall quote the evidence of a nurse, which the GMB quoted to the Committee. The nurse said:
"Child care is a hideous stressful nightmare. My daughter is exhausted as she is up at 5.30 some days. She is woken early (I have no transport), walked to a childminder which takes half an hour. She's been up for 3 hours before she's at school. Some days it is awful, it really is."
I cite that evidence to remind the House, if it needed reminding, of the stressful nature of the decisions that parents have to make about child care.
In a very fine speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) picked up the key point: the degree to which parents love and care for their children and to which they have to make some difficult decisions. Those pressures on parents are exacerbated by the inevitable debate about the effects on the development of children of child care outside the home. In a very good speech, my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) developed, as I expected him to do, some of the points that he made to the Select Committee. Those points were also made by other Members during the debate.
Members of the Committee will remember that there was some discussion about the degree to which our report should flag up the debate about the effects of formal child care on very young children. I have no intention of revisiting that discussion in depth today, not least because of the time constraints, but the report is extremely circumspect about those effects. It says of pre-school children that
"there is strong evidence that pre-school provision . . . between 3 and 5 years results in higher educational attainment, both at primary school and long-term."
However, the report comes to no conclusion about the effects of formal child care on the development of children younger than three and the House may care to take note of that.
I must confess that I believe that the debate about the effects of child care on very young children, although important, may be beside the main point: given the emotionally charged nature of child care and despite the extremely complex ways in which it is provided, the key principle for working and non-working parents should surely be choice. The Select Committee report broadly reflects that view. Perhaps inevitably, the Committee found that there were different views about the choices that working parents want to make. Although working parents may sometimes disagree about the choices that they want, the House will agree that child care choice is what they want. That choice may be to stay at home when their children are very younga point made by some of my hon. Friends. It may be informal care by relatives, friends or neighbours, more formal care, such as a child minder or high-quality formal care outside the home at a day nursery or children's centre. The key question raised by the report and the Government's response is whether the Government's child care strategy is firmly based on the principle of choice.
The official Opposition want to study with care the announcements made yesterday, because we have learned from experience that when spending announcements are made it is vital to study not just the
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big headlines but also the small print. For example, the Chancellor said that
"over the next five years there will be 1,000 children's centres."[Official Report, 10 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 1069.]
When the Minister replies to the debate, will he confirm whether that figure represents an increase compared with the number that has already been announced? Will he also tell us what estimate, if any, has been made of the number of employers who will no longer provide child care vouchers as a result of the capping announced yesterday both of the present national insurance contribution exemption for vouchers and of the new tax exemption? He might also care to comment on the assessment made by Deloitte Touche:
"The introduction of a NIC charge of amounts above the proposed limit . . . may not encourage employers to provide vouchers".
I shall comment later on some of the other announcements made yesterday, but first I pay tribute to the commitment of Ministers in general and the Chancellor in particular to child care. There can be no doubt of the Government's commitment
Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)
(Con): Steady on.
I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that it does politicians no good to be too adversarial, even if we necessarily have to be adversarial sometimes. He will also share my fear that despite yesterday's announcements, the evident good will of Ministers and the ever-rolling stream of initiatives and announcements, the answer to the question, "Do the Government have a coherent child care strategy based on choice?" is, sadly, "No". I shall explain why.
As the Select Committee's report makes clear, the Government's child care policy for working parents is inextricably linked to their anti-poverty strategy. There was some discussion in Committee about whether the anti-poverty strategy was the foundation of their policy. The Government have set themselves two main targets and the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), in a very good speech, picked up one: reducing the number of children in workless households by 2006. The second target is that 70 per cent. of lone parents should be in paid work by 2010.
Like the Chairman of the Select Committee, I was extremely impressed by the oral evidence that we heard from Professor Moss, on which I shall read out part of the Committee's conclusions. The report states:
"Childcare should not just be about freeing parents so that they are able to work. In his view"
that is, Professor Moss
"childcare is a public good which is the right of all children, regardless of whether their parents work or not."
That point was alluded to by other speakers in the debate. The report continued:
"The questions raised by Professor Moss suggested that the Government may be placing too much emphasis on a labour market-driven strategy as the basis for childcare policy. His evidence opened up an alternative vision of childcare, based upon the choices made by parents and families themselves."
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It seems that not only Government Back Benchers, but Front Benchers and indeed Cabinet Ministers agree. Let me cite the comments of one of them:
"If I look back over the last six years I do think that we have given the impression that we think all mothers should be out to work, preferably full-time as soon as their children are a few months old . . . It's not our job to preach to people one way or the other, it's about providing choices."
Those are the words of no less a person than the Minister for Women, published in The Daily Telegraph
under the lurid headline,
"We've failed mothers who stay at home admits Hewitt".
The Opposition agree. However, as the hon. Member for Romsey acutely observed, it is hard for the Government to say that they want to provide choice for all parents while setting targets that would put 70 per cent. of a group of those parents in the labour market. There is certainly a tension, if not a contradiction, between those aims. That is why the report is critical of the main instrument of that labour market-driven strategy: the child care tax credit. It makes a series of suggestions for improving the credit, but it also says that the credit, though valuable to many parents,
"poses complex and interlocking problems about take-up, eligibility, qualifying hours, the proportion of costs which should be covered, regional disparities and the funding of informal as well as formal care . . . The CCTC is certainly not consistent . . . with a childcare vision based on the choices made by parents and families themselves, since it is only available to some of them."
"We therefore believe that in the longer term, the CCTC may have a less central role"
It is significant that most, although I grant not all, of yesterday's child care announcements will assist parents who work in the labour market only. A parent who does not work in the labour market will not be able, obviously, to take advantage of the new tax exemption for workplace nurseries announced yesterday. That point was picked up by the Chairman of the Committee and the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North. Nor can it be claimed that this announcement was a response to the Select Committee recommending an enhanced role for employerswhich is, in the words of the report, "small but useful". Moreover, a parent who does not work in the labour market would not, I think, be able to take advantage of any extension of the CCTC to cover informal carersa possible consequence of the consultation announced yesterday to
"streamline this process and widen home caring".
It cannot be claimed that this announcement was a response to the Select Committee recommending such an extension, because the report fairly bluntly said:
"We do not believe that funding informal care through the CCTC is the best way forward".
The Government may want to take note of that. A lone parent who is not about to work in the labour market will not be able to take advantage of the help with child care costs for lone parents announced yesterday in the week before starting work.
The House may now begin to appreciate why the Government do not seem to have a clear and coherent strategy for child care based on parental choice. That lack of clarity, combined with the bewildering proliferation of funding streams and the administrative burdens that some
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providers reportmy hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire mentioned this in the context of playgroups, in his reference to the difference between quality and qualified staffmay help to explain why demand for child care continues to outstrip supply. The number of day nurseries is certainly up. But the number of child minders is, as the report puts it, "decreasing in number". In 1997, there were almost 100,000. By this year, that figure had fallen to almost 72,000 and the number of places in playgroupsmy hon. Friend will have noticed this in his perusal of the reporthas fallen from more than 350,000 in 1997 to roughly 300,000.