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House of Commons

Thursday 11 November 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Working Tax Credit

1. Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to promote take-up of the child care element of the working tax credit. [197384]

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): The child care element has been a success, and more than 340,000 UK families are now benefiting from child care help within the working tax credit. That is 89 per cent. higher than the peak of 180,000 under the working families tax credit and the disabled person's tax credit, and more than seven times more than the number of families benefiting from the child care disregard in family credit. We continue to promote tax credits in a variety of ways, including TV advertising, press campaigns and direct mailing. We also work in partnership with child care providers, including representatives of the Daycare Trust and the National Childminding Association, to ensure that parents using formal child care are aware of the support that they can receive with costs.

Mr. Lazarowicz: The child care element is certainly good news for many of my constituents, not just because of the benefit that it provides to families, but because it enables the provision of excellent child care in centres such as the North Edinburgh child care centre, which is in my constituency. But as my right hon. Friend has pointed out, there are still people who need this benefit who are not getting it. Can she look at ways of encouraging employers in particular to work closely with the Inland Revenue to ensure maximum take-up of this important credit?

Dawn Primarolo: I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend, who is working very hard on this issue in his constituency. He should not undervalue the work that Members of Parliament can do with their local employers and trade unions to publicise the availability not only of the child care tax credit, but, from next April, of the £50 a week payment to families, which will be tax and national insurance free. Some 40 per cent. of employees have dependent children. One in four women
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return to full-time work within the first year, and the average cost to employers in recruitment and re-training is £4,300. The Inland Revenue is working with the Daycare Trust and with employers to supply detailed information, and to ensure that such information is available to help not only employees and their families, but the firms themselves, which will then be able to retain their staff and develop their business.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): The Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which is of course dominated by members of the Paymaster General's own party, said that the child care tax credit is

the "some" being those who work in the labour market. Is it not time that we had a simpler system of funding child care, so that choices can be shaped by parents themselves and not by the Chancellor?

Dawn Primarolo: That question simply demonstrates that the hon. Gentleman does not understand—perhaps because his party has never had a national child care strategy—exactly what is on offer to parents. The child care tax credit is available to working parents on low and middle incomes for 70 per cent. of costs. That can be as much as £94 a week for those with a maximum of one child, and £140 a week for those with more than two children. In addition, this Government have increased child benefit—the previous Government froze it—and invested in nursery education, children's centres and Sure Start. Furthermore, next April we are making available to every family who wish to claim it £50, tax and national insurance free, to help toward their child care costs. That defends quality, provides good outcomes for children and gives parents choice.

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has rightly set out Labour's very impressive record in putting child care at the centre of our economic life and ensuring its importance. Has she noticed that another party is talking about how important it is? Were she to match it—

Mr. Speaker: Order. So far, so good, but perhaps the Paymaster General will answer the question now.

Dawn Primarolo: I have noticed that a certain party did nothing when in power to invest in child care; for example, unlike this Government, it did not invest in nurseries. Now, it promises to spend £4 billion that it cannot find, having already committed itself to cutting child care as part of its proposed £20 billion-worth of public expenditure cuts.


2. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): If he will allow money spent by a person on private dental insurance to be tax deductible where that person's dentist has opted out of NHS dentistry. [197385]
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The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Paul Boateng): The Government have no intention of introducing tax relief for expenditure on private dental insurance, as doing so would be wasteful, poorly targeted and inequitable.

Mr. Prentice: That is a very disappointing reply. I know that the Government are trying to turn things round and that six new NHS dental suites will open in my Pendle constituency next year—[Interruption.] They did not expect to hear that from me. The point is that in parts of my constituency there is an NHS dental desert and people are being forced to follow their dentist into the private sector. The nearest dentist with an open NHS list is 30 or 40 miles away, so it is totally impractical for elderly people and others to travel that distance. It seems fair and equitable that, in circumstances where people are forced to take out private dental insurance, they should have the money reimbursed.

Mr. Boateng: It is neither fair nor equitable. Indeed, it would be a waste of the taxpayers' money currently going into NHS dentistry support teams, which are benefiting my hon. Friend's and other primary care trusts to the extent of some £9 million. That is on top of the additional resources that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced only recently. I would hope that my hon. Friend would welcome that.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): The Minister should be aware that the NHS dentistry crisis will eventually land in the Treasury. The constituents of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) are relatively well off. In the town of Ashford, the bulk of my constituency, there are 12 NHS dental practices, not one of which is accepting new NHS patients. Last week, one of them wrote to all its patients saying that they had to take up private insurance because it was no longer practising NHS dentistry. For the bulk of my constituents, NHS dentistry no longer exists. If the Chief Secretary carries on with the complacent tone that he adopts in his answers, I am afraid that constituents will recognise that the Government do not care about the future of NHS dentistry.

Mr. Boateng: I am not complacent at all. I recognise that there is a problem, albeit a localised one. I also expect right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to recognise where the origin of the problem lies. It lies in the disastrous contract of 1990 and in the cuts in training places and expenditure that characterised the Conservative party's stewardship of the NHS. It is the same old policy of cuts and charges—that is the Tory way. Our way is additional investment in training places and in provisions that are leading to increased and improved dental facilities up and down the country.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon) (Lab): May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to an article in this week's Wimbledon News, which focuses on the work of the local primary care trust in raising standards in four NHS dental services locally? Will he continue to invest in increasing capacity and raising standards, and will he
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reject the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and Conservative Members, who talk down the health service, to subsidise private medicine?

Mr. Boateng: I have no difficulty at all in rejecting that call and I am glad that my hon. Friend recognises the extra £368 million investment placed by the Government in NHS dentistry, which is leading to increases in the work force with 1,000 additional dentists by October 2005 and an extra 170 undergraduate training places. We are also giving more powers to primary care trusts to decide how to spend their money. We should compare and contrast that with the closure of two dental schools and the cut of £200 million in real spending on NHS dentistry under the Conservative Administration in the mid-1990s. It is the same old story: cuts and charges as against investment and training. That is the difference between them and us.

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