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Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): I welcome the Bill. The Government's continuing investment in child care and the working tax credit is and has been crucial in overcoming barriers to work and tackling inequalities. I welcome particularly the investment in Sure Start. In the poorer part of my constituency, the Sure Start project has been an outstanding success in supporting parents, raising standards of care and achieving significant improvements in language skills among the most disadvantaged children.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) about the role of Sure Start in building confidence among parents. The community's commitment to the project was evident when the Minister for Children and Families opened the Sure Start building in Bridgehall recently. Huge additional value has been secured from social regeneration projects in the area, and I hope that any evaluation of the success of Sure Start projects will take that into account—they are not simply deliverers of child care.

I look forward to the new children's centres building on the success of Sure Start in my constituency. Through a range of services, including a subsidised playgroup, it has provided support to working and non-working parents. As 4Children and other organisations have pointed out, the most disadvantaged children are in workless households and it is those children who would most benefit from high quality child care from birth, and their parents would benefit also from support. That is the basis of Sure Start provision.

Such parents are victims of a cycle of low aspiration and poor education, handed down from generation to generation, which the Government have addressed through a number of measures. I believe that it is essential to continue to deal with inequalities from birth and that children from disadvantaged and workless families should continue to get the support offered through Sure Start, including access to good quality child care.

Clause 6 is clear on the duty being placed on local authorities to ensure sufficient child care for parents who require it in order to take up, remain in or undertake work-related education or training. That is very important.

Clause 7 provides a duty to secure early years provision of a prescribed description, free of charge, for such periods as may be prescribed for each young child who has attained such age as may be prescribed but is under compulsory school age. The precise nature of this measure will be known only when it is set out in the secondary legislation that is to follow, but I hope it will be explored in Committee. At present, local authorities have a responsibility under section 17 of the 1989 Act to promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need and to promote the upbringing of such
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children by their families. I hope that the Government intend to ensure that, under clause 7, this duty will extend to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

With the setting up of the new children's directorates and the Government's commitment to dealing with inequalities and improved outcomes for all children, it would certainly make sense for local authorities to look at areas of deprivation and to provide services to families that help overcome disadvantage, including good quality child care to workless households. By subsidising playgroups, the children's fund has certainly helped to show the value of such provision.

New child care places in my constituency have been provided by the private, voluntary and public sectors. Recent legislative changes have meant that schools can be direct providers of after-school child care; indeed, it has been in their interests to do so. The spare capacity in primary schools has meant that parents are now taking into account a range of factors in making their choice of schools. Where numbers are continuing to decline, that is likely to be the case for a number of years. It also ensures that after-school clubs are more sustainable if they are registered with Ofsted and families can access the child care component of the working tax credit.

Where schools have nursery places, private providers—there are some excellent ones in my constituency—have been providing the wrap-round child care. Some after-school activities are run on a voluntary basis. It is very much a mixture of provision, and the funds have come from various places such as the neighbourhood nursery initiative, the children's fund and Sure Start grants.

The issue of sustainability is a real one. In one area of my constituency, a school started an after-school club, as a result of which parents who had been using a private provider ceased to do so. The private provision for two or three schools became unsustainable and the private provider withdrew the service. Some weeks later, the after-school club also folded. The net result is that there is no after-school care in the area at all. It is therefore welcome that local authorities will play a strategic role in ensuring sufficient child care, but I think that the word "sustainable" should be added to their duties—as far as is possible in a vast and changing market that depends greatly on work in the area and the demand of parents.

I am pleased that local authorities will discharge their duties in co-operation with parents and all the providers in the area, but I make a plea that that should include parents from areas where it is often not easy to make that sort of contribution. If necessary, some training should be made available to parents to enable them to take part in the consultation.

Many jobs in my constituency are provided by the retail sector, which, as the House knows, often works to shift patterns. Most child care in my constituency, however, is provided on an eight-to-six basis. The antisocial hours involved in shift work can raise the cost of child care, particularly for single parent families. There are also likely to be more informal care arrangements, the cost of which cannot be recovered through the working tax credit because the providers are not registered.

I was pleased to see that parents can now pay for care in their own home and, if parents are properly consulted on the availability of child care in their area,
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Government initiatives such as this, which benefit shift workers and parents of disabled children, are more likely to be promoted by the local authority. At the moment, the needs of shift workers are often invisible and it is not enough to provide sufficient child care: it must be of the sort needed by parents.

When I discussed the Bill with the carers and parents group of the Sure Start Adswood and Bridgehall project, they wanted to bring to the Minister's attention the issue of affordability. They said that that was a problem for people who worked less than full time, but more than 16 hours a week because of the operation of the benefits system. I am sure that they will welcome the Secretary of State's remarks, in which she made clear her commitment to ensuring the affordability of child care for low income families. I might add that this particular group of carers and parents took part in the consultation exercise, which again demonstrates the success of Sure Start. Some years ago, they would not have been able and would not have had the confidence to do so. That has changed because of the existence of Sure Start in the area, which should not be underestimated.

I welcome the Bill, which demonstrates the Government's continuing commitment to investing in families and children and tackling inequalities in our society. I am sure that it will make a huge difference to my constituency.

5.43 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): I want to begin by briefly considering the context in which the Bill is set. We all know as constituency MPs who deal regularly with parents that almost nothing is as important to them as the care of their children. In my experience, child care is as important to my constituents—whether they are parents or not—as the headline issues fought over at general elections such as hospitals, schools and crime. That is the wider context of the Bill.

Once we acknowledge the phenomenal child care pressures on parents—whether they be single parents, couples living with a permanent partner or whatever—in the modern age in which many people work 24/7, two obvious points follow. If the House wonders why I should mention them, it is because obvious points are sometimes overlooked. The first is that the first providers of child care are, of course, parents—and that applies whether there is one parent in the household or two. I say that because according to clause 18(4), which deals with the "Meaning of childcare", child care


That might at first seem strange, but I want at this point—perhaps curiously—to come to the Minister's defence. She would say by way of response that the Bill does not want to load obligations—so to speak—meant for others on to parents, step-parents and so on. None the less, it is striking that we are dealing with a Bill that formally excludes parents from child care.
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The second perhaps obvious point was made by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), my former colleague on the Select Committee. She is still there—

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