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Beverley Hughes: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way a second time. Given the concern that she expresses for looked-after children, can she confirm that her party will support the Government's intention to make schools give priority to looked-after children in their admission arrangements?

Mrs. May: I suggest to the Minister that she look at the record, because my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham moved an amendment to that very effect to the Children Act 2004 and Ministers refused to accept it.

The outcomes that I have set out would not be accepted by anybody in this House for their own children. We must not accept them for those in our care. We will table amendments to address the issue of looked-after children, and I urge the Minister to look sympathetically at those    amendments—more sympathetically than the Government have done at our attempts to help looked-after children in the past.

Early-years care is about more than simply enabling parents to work. It is about giving children the best start possible and supporting parents in their role as a child's primary educator. We look forward to trying to ensure that the Bill delivers what we all want for Britain's parents, but—most important—for those who are our future, our country's children.
 
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4.31 pm

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): It is with great pleasure that I rise to support this excellent Bill. It is good news for parents, it is good news for children and it is good news for the providers of care for children. It is also good news for employers, because they can be assured that their members of staff have high quality child care for their children while they are at work.

I speak today as the chair of the all-party childcare group, which has campaigned for exactly this initiative for many years. However, I fully acknowledge that the Government have not been sitting back for all those years and have invested in a huge increase in child care places of more than 500,000. The Government have also invested in part-time places for three and four-year-olds, new neighbourhood centres, and excellent Sure Start projects—I have one in my constituency.

I also welcome the changes to maternity pay and leave. We have had some discussion already of the increases in maternity pay, but one of the most welcome aspects of that legislation was the simplification of the rules. The previous rules were so complex that many women did not have the foggiest idea of their entitlement. Now they do. Fathers also now have rights to paid paternity leave and, importantly, so do adoptive parents. Families have adopted children who bring with them very real problems, but have had no entitlement to any leave to care for them during the initial settling-in. The Government have also met many of their targets to reduce child poverty. The Bill is an important step on the way to meeting more of those targets.

I also welcome the Bill as a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, which produced a report on child care for working parents. The Committee acknowledged that lack of child care stood in the way of many parents who wished to work. One of our recommendations mentioned the importance of flexibility in early-years places. It stated:

We all need to remember that we are talking not just about pre-school children but, importantly, about children who are at school—the point at which parents often face the most problems. Many working parents can gain access to nursery care, but many of the problems arise once their children start school. I certainly hope that, when local authorities assess the needs in their localities, they look especially at school-age children—something that is even more key when considering the needs of children with disability, to which I shall return later.

Another of the Work and Pensions Committee's recommendations was to re-examine the child care tax credit. We made various recommendations, including the possibility of creating a child care costs run-on system to provide more flexibility for parents who move in and out of the labour market. May I suggest to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families that she liaise with colleagues in the Inland Revenue to consider how the child care tax credit can help parents to an even greater extent?

Other key issues raised by the Select Committee related to the child care work force, and there are no easy answers. I am sure that every right hon. and hon.
 
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Member wants child care workers to have the highest possible qualifications. We all want them to provide appropriate care, given the important job that they do. However, as those in the child care work force become more qualified, the costs to the providers also often increase. There is a tension between producing a highly qualified work force and maintaining affordability.

Certainly, when the Select Committee considered those recommendations, we took evidence from other European countries which had developed an early-years pedagogy, thus recognising that a mixture of educational and social care inputs is necessary in early-years care. In some European countries, looking after pre-school children is a graduate profession. That is a recognition of its importance: getting things right in the early years provides the foundation for everything else that happens in a child's life. Although I acknowledge that child care must be affordable, which involves a tension, may I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to address those training and qualifications issues and to look again at that Select Committee report?

John Bercow: It is very important that we use our terms precisely. The Bill clearly imposes a duty on local authorities to ensure that there is sufficient child care in their areas. Can the hon. Lady help me and the House by stating which parts of the Bill ensure the flexibility of that provision?

Mrs. Humble: I was going to put that question to the Minister, and I hope that she will respond to both the hon. Gentleman and me at the end of the debate. In fact, I want to list four key aspects of the Bill: first, the emphasis on improving outcomes; secondly, the role and responsibilities of local authorities; thirdly, parental involvement; and, fourthly, the new quality and regulatory framework.

First, I want the Bill to improve outcomes, especially for two key groups: first, low-income families and, secondly, families with disabled children. The Bill rightly focuses on working parents because it is important that they have access to the best possible quality of child care.

We must not forget about workless parents. Some parents who stay at home with their children are not disadvantaged—it is their freely-made choice. However, other workless parents find themselves at home because they have mental health problems, for example. They may be a long way from engaging in the labour market and might not have the confidence to look for training and educational opportunities.

As the Minister takes the Bill forward, will she ensure that such disadvantaged workless families are taken into account? The Bill sets out local authorities' responsibilities as the providers of support for children through the child care services in general. I hope that the Minister will consider the overall role of local authorities and ensure that such workless parents are helped by, and benefit from, the increase in child care that will result from the Bill.

That exact group has been helped by the Sure Start project. I have talked to parents who lacked confidence before they got involved with Sure Start and were frightened to access the support provided by statutory agencies. All too often, those parents' experience of
 
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education was not happy, so seeking education and training in colleges was a difficult step for them. However, through Sure Start, their self-confidence increased. Talking to other parents and educational and health care professionals encouraged them to realise that they could cross the threshold of a further education college and develop their potential. That was the one single success of Sure Start for many of them. Sure Start has addressed the needs of parents as much as the needs of children, so I hope that the Minister will recognise that in her analysis of the scheme. I acknowledge that it will be more difficult to measure outcomes for such workless parents than for working parents. However, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will address that matter.

In the UK, there are 770,000 children with a disability or a limiting long-standing illness. The number of children with complex needs is growing all the time. Some 55 per cent. of disabled children's families live in poverty. The families of severely disabled children face three times the costs of other families, yet only 16 per cent. of disabled children's mothers work, compared with 66 per cent. of other mothers.

Last year, Contact a Family conducted a survey that found that a third of such parents were paying more than £5 an hour for child care and that 6 per cent. were paying more than £20 an hour. That was happening at a time when the average cost of a nursery place was £2.80 an hour, so the families of children with disabilities are facing real costs. If the Bill is genuinely to improve outcomes for disabled children, it must address the cost pressures on their families.

Interestingly, at the last meeting of the all-party childcare group, we heard heart-rending accounts from such parents about their difficulties in accessing child care. They experienced several problems, such as a lack of information. Many mainstream nurseries would not accept their children, whether that was because of access problems or for reasons of staff training. All too often, the parents found that staff lacked the confidence to deal with children with disabilities. I hope that my right hon. Friend pays special attention to training that gives confidence to staff who work in a variety of child care settings so that they are enabled to accept willingly a child into their care. Many parents tell me that even in nurseries that can be accessed by disabled children because they have adapted equipment, the attitude of the staff is disabling. It reflects the old adage that the child is not disabled; it is society that is disabled in its response to the child. We must not have that and need to consider the problem as we develop child care provision.

The many workless families with disabled children welcome child care not just because some of the parents want to go out to work—polls and analysis of parents' wishes show that many of them want to work—but because they want their children to socialise. It also allows them respite. We must take those considerations into account. When my right hon. Friend the Minister consults on the birth-to-five framework, I urge her to consider an explicit recognition of the needs of children with disability.

Transport has been raised with me. When families with children with disability send their child to a day care setting or a school, they have transport problems
 
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because it comes at a certain time and picks a child up at a certain time. If we want to use the extended school model to include families with disabled children, we have to consider transport arrangements. It will not be easy in some areas. For example, it will be harder to arrange taxis and other forms of transport to ferry disabled children back and forth in shire counties with large rural areas. Nevertheless, we should send out the message to disabled children that they too can access the earliest provision and the wrap-around care—the extended school hours—that is being developed.

We must also consider the needs of the whole family. Families with disabled children—some have more than one—often have other children as well. Local authorities should take other siblings into account when they think about the needs in their area. When they liaise with other statutory agencies, as the Bill requires them to do, will that include health authorities and primary care trusts? A key problem for families with children with disability is that their children are sick more often than other children. If parents choose to go to work, they are more likely to be phoned up by the nursery and told, "Your child is ill. Please come and take her home."

Again, there are no easy answers to that, but if we are to encourage parents of disabled children to access the work force, we need to consider how pre-school provision responds to sick children. In addition, many children with disability are incontinent well into their teens. Again, how will child care respond to that? I hope that my right hon. Friend ensures that there is liaison not just with the Department of Health, but with the Department for Work and Pensions, because such issues need to be taken up with it as well. Parents of profoundly disabled children want a clear message that they are included in the provisions of this excellent Bill. I call on her to say that.

Secondly, I want to refer to the role of the local authority and to some of the phrases in the Bill. What do phrases such as,

and "sufficient childcare" mean? Referring back to my point about children with disabilities, there are practical issues that local authorities will have to face. There will be issues for parents, especially those with profoundly handicapped children. Such parents will need clarification, as will local authorities about their role. I emphasise that, although the Bill refers specifically to the employment status of parents, I hope that we can look beyond that.

Many local authorities are as keen as parents to ensure high-quality child care, and that brings me to the issue of resources. I hear what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says about the big increase in local authority resources over the next couple of years, especially to improve the number of child care places, but she will be aware of pressures on the budgets of many local authority child care services. Given the pressures on Blackpool council and the important work that it does in protecting children from harm, there are many calls on its budget.


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