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Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I welcome many of the aims and much of the content of the Bill, which the Secretary of State has explained. However, I am a little concerned about the tone of some of her remarks and I emphasise that Opposition Members—indeed, I thought it applied to all of us in the
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House—recognise the very important role that child care plays in Britain's future. The Secretary of State made a number of claims about Conservative party policy, so let me place it on the record that it is not our policy that the social clock should be turned back. It is our policy that families should have the choice of doing what works best for them. As someone who, as chairman of education in a Conservative borough in London under a Conservative Government, ensured that there was a child care place in a nursery for every three and four-year-old child whose parent wanted one, I take umbrage at the Secretary of State's comments about do-nothing Tory years.

Edward Miliband (Doncaster, North) (Lab): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: It seems a little early, but if the hon. Gentleman feels the need to intervene, I shall give way.

Edward Miliband: The right hon. Lady defends, rather surprisingly, the record of the last Conservative Government. Let me give her one fact. The child care disregard in family credit helped 46,000 families—a miserly amount. Today, the child care tax credit helps 347,000 families. Who does she think has a better record on child care?

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): The gap has got wider.

Mrs. May: My hon. Friend is right that, contrary to the claims made by the Secretary of State about child poverty, the gap has got wider under this Government, rather than improving.

We recognise that affordable quality child care is one of the most important concerns for many hard-pressed working families today. Indeed, for some families, access to any child care is a problem. Quality child care and effective parental support are critical to ensuring that children reach their true potential, and that families are able to make the choices about their work-life balance that best suit them, although I recognise that, for many families, it is simply a question of being able to meet the increasing demands of paying their mortgage, tax and other household bills. For the sake of the children, we must get this right, and that is why we want to do our best to ensure that the Bill goes as far as possible towards helping children. However important the issues of work-life balance might be, the outcomes for children are what really matter.

We have a number of concerns about the Bill, and I shall outline them later. The Secretary of State mentioned the Work and Families Bill, which will come to the House in a week's time. It will deal with work-life balance and parental leave, and this Bill deals with child care provision for those who are working. I am surprised that we are dealing with these issues in two separate Bills. Surely it would have made more sense for the Government to address them all together in one Bill, to ensure that we came up with joined-up legislation that works for children and families. I cannot help feeling that the presence of two Bills on these matters, led by
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two different Departments, reflects the fact that the Government have singularly failed to deliver the joined-up government that they promised.

The challenge for the Government—and for us, working to be back in government—is to so manage the operations and working of government that it works for people and not for Ministers and civil servants. Alternatively, perhaps the chance to issue two press releases and to make two headlines carried more weight among the Government's spin doctors than the needs of families.

Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): The right hon. Lady mentioned her backing for supported parenting for every child. Why, then, did her party vote against our proposals to give a mere two weeks' leave to new fathers when their sons or daughters are born?

Mrs. May: I suggest that the hon. Lady look at our manifesto proposals for parents in relation to flexibility of maternity pay and benefit. Those proposals aim to give families a choice in the provisions they make to look after their children, and in regard to whether the mother or the father wants to go back into the workplace. Choice for families is the underlying principle that we are following in all our proposals, and, indeed, in our response to the Bill.

We know that parents are under strain, and the predicament of the modern family is often particularly difficult. A quarter of all families are lone-parent families, and of the other three quarters, which are couple households, the majority are households with both adults working. In financial terms, a shocking 42 per cent. of families are in arrears with their consumer debt payments, and with the mean age of first-time mothers nearing 30, many parents are now having to cope with the double hit of simultaneously caring for children and parents. No wonder eight out of 10 parents say that they are under strain. Those are the families that we are all keen to help.

The Bill contains measures that attempt to ensure a sufficient supply of child care for families across the country. We support the idea of ensuring that sufficiency of supply, but all too often today, the problem is that families have little choice in the child care that they can use. The emphasis that the Bill places on the working families tax credit, and on the families that receive it, will yet again restrict choice, as has been mentioned earlier. The rising cost of child care places and the lack of real choice mean that many parents are left using the only child care available, rather than the child care that they would really like to use. That lack of choice prevents parents from raising their children as they see fit and from placing them in the environment that they believe will best meet their individual needs. That can result in children being less happy, and in their deriving less benefit from their child care.

Increasing the options available to parents is key to producing the kind of child care that works for families. Just as all children are different, the child care that they need to grow and flourish will be different. That is why, as I said earlier, we want policies that are designed to give parents more flexibility and more choice of child care, and more support for the most important job that they will ever do. That is why we do not believe that a "one size fits all" policy will meet the needs of all children.
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We believe that the Bill is too restrictive. Too often, as we have seen, the Government's efforts to make child care more available, however well intentioned, have had an impact on other providers in the sector without producing the net gains for child care that the Government envisaged. Many Members will know full well that Government provision frequently forces the closure of private and voluntary sector child care services offering smaller groups and more flexible care.

Helen Goodman: The right hon. Lady may not be aware that there are half a million more child care places than there were when the Tories were in power. Can she explain how a programme involving public expenditure cuts of £35 billion would increase choice?

Mrs. May: The hon. Lady should look carefully at what has happened as a result of the Government's child care provision. For every two places that have opened one has closed, and choice has often been removed from parents.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. May: In a moment.

It is wonderful, is it not? Labour Members seem to think that all that matters is a number. The quality of child care does not matter. It does not matter whether livelihoods are affected by closures in the private and voluntary sectors. It does not matter that children are not being given the choice that they need. All that matters is a number—a tick-box, mechanistic approach. That is it.

Andrew Gwynne: Parents in my constituency, and in many other constituencies, do have a real choice. There are Sure Start centres, voluntary pre-schools, privately run nurseries, nurseries attached to schools and child and family centres. Will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that that is the true position?

Mrs. May: I am pleased to hear of the hon. Gentleman's constituency experience, but I can tell him that many other constituencies have a rather different experience. I am thinking particularly of the impact on Sure Start, on which I shall comment in a minute.

It is difficult enough for parents to find places in nurseries or play groups—that often causes them a great deal of anguish—but when those nurseries and play groups close, it means real disruption for children and real problems for parents. If we are to crack the nut of affordable child care, we can do it only by working with all providers, including the private and voluntary sector, to ensure that the needs of families are met.

There is real concern in the industry that the Bill will mean closure for many nurseries. I am sure that the Secretary of State will have read in the Financial Times last week about research undertaken by the National Day Nurseries Association. It might interest the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) as well. More than half the association's members had seen their local authorities create child care places that competed directly with them. According to 71 per cent. of respondents, local authorities were not involving
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them in the delivery of children's centres, and 63 per cent. did not believe that local authorities would collaborate with providers locally to build on existing provision rather than merely replicating it. Purnima Tanuku, the NDNA's chief executive, has said that the Bill

We must make full and proper use of the capacity and skills of the private and voluntary sectors. Only by working with them, rather than competing against them, can we ensure that Government resources put into child care deliver value for money. Government provision must complement what is already there. After all, 24 per cent. of private providers are already operating in less affluent communities, and many more are keen to do so. We must harness their potential. Government must promote the mixed-economy approach, building on existing provision, which could benefit children and parents from disadvantaged communities the most.

We have always supported the work done in establishing Sure Start, and we recognise that for many parents it has made a difference. It also has flaws, however. It focuses on the 20 per cent. most deprived wards, but Government figures show that 46 per cent. of the most deprived children do not live in those wards. Too many parents who could benefit from Sure Start or a similar project are denied it, often because by refusing to work with the private sector the Government are not making the best use of resources.

Sure Start is also relatively new and untested. Since its introduction, it has gained support, but we have seen no empirical evidence of the difference that it is making in communities.

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