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Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): The Secretary of State referred to the new duties that the Bill would impose on local authorities. Will she make more funding available so that they can fulfil those duties effectively?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the £17 billion that we have put into child care provision over the past eight years—enough money to ensure that local authorities are already taking that duty seriously. We are building on those duties, but we are not providing any new unfunded pressures in the Bill.

In 1997, there was a massive gap between the needs of parents and the availability of child care, with a place available for only one in eight children under the age of eight. With an increase of almost 600,000 registered child care places, there is a place available for one in four children. In 1997, there was no guarantee of a nursery place—now there is free part-time nursery provision for every three and four-year-old who wants it. In 1997, there was no help for working parents with the cost of child care. Now, 337,000 families have benefited from the child care element of the working tax credit, compared with a mere 47,000 who benefited from the child care disregard of family credit.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): In her response to my hon. Friend the Member for
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Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), the Secretary of State suggested that funding had been made available, but that the Government did not intend fully to fund local authorities' proposed new responsibilities. What estimate has she made of the cost of that responsibility for council tax payers in east Hertfordshire?

Ruth Kelly: I made it quite clear that there were no new unfunded costs in the Bill. Local authorities have a duty to make sure that sufficient child care is available to parents who need it. They must therefore map demand and talk to parents to ensure that sufficient child care is made available by the voluntary sector or the private sector or, in the last resort, by themselves. However, there is no new unfunded pressure in the Bill.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): A number of constituents, especially young mums, have told me that they feel under enormous pressure to go back to work and get their children into child care as soon as possible. Is there any provision to encourage mums to stay at home and look after their children in the early years?

Ruth Kelly: Yes, there is, and the House will shortly debate the Work and Families Bill, which will build on the existing maternity pay and leave provisions, which in 1997 were derisory. Maternity pay at present stands at six months and parents have the right to request flexible working as well, but the Work and Families Bill extends paid maternity leave from six months to nine months by 2007, because we know that parents want choice about whether to stay at home with their young children or to work. Of course, we are the first Government to bring in paid paternity leave for fathers.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I noted the right hon. Lady's comment about maternity pay being extended in the Work and Families Bill. She said that that was particularly to give families choice. Does she, therefore, support our proposal, which we made at the election, that families should also have the option of taking all that maternity pay over the first six months, to give mothers a real choice about staying at home to look after their children by giving them extra money?

Ruth Kelly: We will debate those issues in the House next week. I urge the right hon. Lady to be patient and make her comments in the appropriate forum. She knows that we have extended maternity leave. When we came to power, maternity pay was for only 14 weeks; it is currently for six months. We as a Government are pledging to extend that maternity leave and pay from six months to nine months, with a goal of 12 months. I hope that that is a measure that she will support.

Since 1997, we have started to build up services to help all parents help their children in their early years and beyond. By 2010, there will be 3,500 children's centres across the country, one for every community, building on the Sure Start approach and ensuring that more families than ever before can benefit.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): The Secretary of State referred to the large number of child care places
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now available. Would she say that those were well distributed in terms of class, ethnic groups, rurality and provision in urban areas?

Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. We need not only to tackle child care for those who can afford it, in places where they find it easy to access, but to tackle the clear child care gaps for more vulnerable groups—for parents of children from the ethnic minorities, for parents of children in rural communities, for those on particularly low incomes and for children who are disabled. The Bill specifically highlights a couple of areas—the plight of low income families, and ensures that there is sufficient affordable child care for that group, and also disabled children. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are other gaps that we also need to tackle, and the Bill will take that forward.

Liz Blackman (Erewash) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has just mentioned provision for disabled children. She will know that provision has been improving, but it is still extremely patchy. One of the core elements of providing decent child care for disabled children and their families is training. How will the Bill improve the capacity to look after and support disabled children in child care?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. How children are looked after and the quality and leadership available in child care centres is incredibly important, including for disabled children. We will shortly publish our work force strategy, including the use of the transformation fund, which is designed precisely to ensure that there is sufficient support for workers who work in those environments and that the leadership exists so that children can be well looked after, no matter what their special needs. I hope that my hon. Friend will welcome that.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): In the context of her earlier answer, can the Secretary of State guarantee, in the interests of giving choice to young mothers, that if a young mother chooses to stay at home and look after her children, the taxation, allowances and benefits will be exactly the same as if she goes out to work?

Ruth Kelly: I am very aware that, from time to time, the Opposition make the proposal that there should be tax relief on child care. That is their favoured approach to those issues, but I have never favoured it as the sole answer, partly because it favours taxpayers and the wealthy at the expense of the low paid. Our provisions in the Bill and elsewhere are designed to make child care accessible and affordable to all groups who need it. That is the approach that we have taken.

Several hon. Members rose—

Ruth Kelly: I want to make some progress and then I will take interventions from my colleagues and others.

The Bill will use all the facilities at our disposal. For example, by 2010 all schools will be providing access to a range of extended services, including child care, from eight in the morning until six in the evening. Over the
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past eight years, such reforms and innovations, alongside the £17 billion that we have invested in early years and child care services, have brought an area previously at the margins of public service into the heart of the welfare state.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): Earlier, my right hon. Friend mentioned affordability. When she looks at the special needs of children with disabilities, will she take into account the cost of child care to their families? All too often they have to pay what is called the disability premium, so child care is much more expensive for them. Will she look into that issue?

Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Bill tries to ensure that there is sufficient affordable provision for disabled children. Local authorities will need to take that into account when providing child care and ensuring that sufficient child care is available in their local areas.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con) rose—

Ruth Kelly: I shall give way once more before making some progress.

Mr. Evennett: I was interested to hear the right hon. Lady's response to the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble). Does she agree that child care costs in the UK are among the highest in Europe, so if no additional funding is going to local authorities, yet they still have to provide additional facilities, will not that push up further the costs for parents?

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