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John Bercow: So is Fleetwood.

Mr. Goodman: Indeed; and my hon. Friend—obviously—is still here. I no longer have the honour to serve on that Committee, I am afraid.

As the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood said, children do not just learn formally; they also learn informally through play and discovery, and through finding out for themselves about the variety of the world around them. A sensible Government will want to put at the cornerstone of their child care strategy the principle of choice. The Government's 10-year strategy is indeed headlined, "Choice for Parents", and I, for one, say amen to that. So one way of thinking about the Bill is to ask how it measures up against the choice principle. We know that this principle has sometimes been honoured more in the breach than the observance. The former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry admitted the following in 2003:

She made it clear that she was referring not just to mums, but to grandparents, informal carers and so on. We know that Ministers themselves feel that they have not always lived up to the choice principle that they proclaim.

Even before we consider the Bill's content, Ministers will want to ensure that the choice principle within it matches the choice principle in the tax and benefits system: to ensure that it is simple, clear and easy to access. I will not go into that system in detail, because to do so would be out of order, but I want to make two brief related points. First, it is an oddity to have two payments—child benefit and the child tax credit—that basically achieve the same end. Ministers have yet to resolve that difficulty.

Secondly, I want to pick up on the point that the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood made in referring to the excellent Select Committee report on child care for working parents, produced in the last Parliament. She did not quote in full what it said about the child care tax credit. Before she gets up to correct me, I had better point out that it did acknowledge that

However, it also said the following, which I may have sneaked in while she was not looking:

a particular expert's view—my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) quoted an expert from the Institute of Education—

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So the Government have a bit of tidying up to do in that respect.

One aspect of the Bill about which I have heard some complaints from playgroups and nurseries in my constituency is the fact that the regulatory burden is high. I suspect that other hon. Members have received similar complaints about the planning rules, the way in which VAT works, the business rate regime and even the number of funding streams, which are not always easy to negotiate for private and voluntary providers. Late in the last Parliament, the Daycare Trust identified no fewer than 28 different funding streams through which nurseries, playgroups and other providers of child care are funded. Not surprisingly, many of them found funding difficult to access and the trust wanted some simplification.

The Bill contains new regulatory procedures, although one of the reasons we welcome it is the simplification of regulation that it should provide. However, on many occasions, Ministers introduce Bills with regulatory measures that promise simplification, but it does not always happen. Another way in which the choice principle could work would be to recognise the role of local authorities, which is present in the Bill. Ministers are right to make local authorities the lead bodies in implementing the measures in the Bill.

John Bercow: My hon. Friend mentions regulation. The Government say that the Bill will simplify regulation, but we need to be reassured on that point. To that end, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a useful earnest of the Government's good intentions if the Minister, when she winds up, committed them to publish the secondary legislation in draft form before Report, so that we would be in a position to judge how the Government's promise matches the reality?

Mr. Goodman: I was concerned that my hon. Friend was about to ask me a form of question that he has been known to deploy about whether I was familiar with this clause or that clause in the Bill, which I might have overlooked. I am glad that he asked a question to which I can simply say, "Yes." I certainly hope that the Minister will provide that assurance.

The Secretary of State's brief remarks about the role of local authorities will not quite do. She said that the Bill would place no new duties or obligations on local authorities, but she also said that a mass of money had already been provided in various forms to ensure that they could meet their duties. Those two statements do not add up. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke)—and, by a more roundabout route, the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood—pressed the Government to ensure that any duties placed on local authorities are adequately funded. That will be a pressing issue with those of us whose local authorities already have very stretched budgets and look to the years ahead with some trepidation in terms of the support they receive from the Government. It would be most unfair if local authorities, in trying to meet any obligations placed on them by the Bill, became liable for capping.

It is important that the value of childhood is recognised in the Bill. Childhood is not simply a means to the utilitarian end of achieving academic or
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vocational qualifications. Childhood is part of the ordinary process of growing up and maturing as a human being. That is where much of the controversy about the Bill has lain. Attention has been drawn to an analysis of the Bill headed "Childcare Bill: Orwell in the nursery?". Miriam Stoppard claimed that the Government are headed in the wrong direction, because the Bill would introduce children to the prospect of failure at an appallingly early age and was another incursion into family life by the nanny state. The Secretary of State and other Labour Members have rubbished those fears this afternoon, but—like my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who cited the relevant clauses earlier—I think that clause 41(2) is ambiguous. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole was right to concentrate on the ambiguous nature of the word "taught" in clause 41(2)(b). Clause 41(2)(a) refers to "early learning goals" and clause 41(2)(c) to "assessment arrangements". The Government will need to clarify in Committee how far they seek to push the educational process down the age range.

It could be suggested that the Bill is pulling in two different directions. Local authorities will be obliged to provide a greater quantity of child care. The question that follows is whether the quality will match the quantity. High quality child care is not always the same as affordable child care, and the question is how the two elements are balanced. Hon. Members have been right to argue that sometimes we need to take the hit on quality to ensure that child care is affordable, but worries have been expressed about what that will mean for children with disabilities, children from minority ethnic groups and children who are at a relative disadvantage to the rest of the community. That is also a worrying aspect of the Bill and I hope that the Minister will be able to address those points when she responds to the debate tonight and that they will be further considered in Committee.

5.57 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), although I do not know whether he is my namesake or I am his. I am happy to welcome the Bill. Since 1997, the Government have made tremendous progress on early-years education and child care provision. We are all impatient for faster change, but we should remember what happened when Gladstone introduced the Education Act 1870. It took another 32 years before most children were in state-funded elementary schools. This new extension of the welfare state is just as significant as that one was, and marks a real social transformation.

We have done well since 1997. We have an extra 500,000 places and most three and four-year-olds have taken up the guaranteed nursery places available. Even so, we need to double the number of child care places available. In particular, I welcome clause 1, which will give a new general duty to local authorities to

I do not know whether that is the first time that the connection between education and poverty has been made explicit, but it is a truth that we all intuitively
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accept. Children who live in poverty do less well at school, and poverty of experience is an aspect of poverty. By the age of three, the children of professional families already have vocabularies that are greater than those of adults in the poorest families. We have made strides in that respect as well in the past eight years. The percentage of children who start school with cognitive delay has fallen from 40 to 26 per cent.

Rather than repeat more statistics, I want to tell a story that a play worker described to me. She was involved in a play scheme during a half-term holiday. In the middle of the afternoon, it was time for a snack. She gave an eight-year-old an apple to eat. After the child had eaten the apple, she asked the child, "What did you think of that?" and the child said, "Well, it was very nice, but I didn't like the hard bit in the middle." The child had never eaten an apple before. It is remarkable that we can expect a child to go to school to learn that A is for apple without knowing what an apple is, and every child is entitled to that sort of straightforward experience.

The Sure Start scheme has had a very positive impact in my constituency. We have a Sure Start programme at St. Helen Auckland with new facilities, and another on the Woodhouse Close estate, which is the most deprived part of my constituency. There are a lot of villages in Teesdale, and the rural section has mobile provision, with a fantastic bus that goes round to ensure that families who are isolated in villages also have access to services.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) mentioned the evidence from the EPPE study. I know that it sounds like a sister of Prudence, but it stands for "effective provision of pre-school education". The study found that child care is most beneficial to those who are disadvantaged, but only if it is of high quality. That finding was further reinforced by a study by Professor Melhuish for the National Audit Office. He found that, in the first three years, high-quality child care benefited disadvantaged children and that most provision gave those who were over three educational and social benefits. So improving access to child care under the Bill, alongside the improvements in maternity pay and leave from 14 to 40 weeks, will give every child the best start.

Clauses 39 and 44 will deliver the high-quality child care that is needed for children who live with disadvantage. Those clauses set out the early years foundation stage that the early years providers must meet. They also set out the process of regulation and inspection, which is important to ensure that the standards are met. Opposition Members have considered clause 41, but I draw their attention to clause 41(3), which describes the learning and development issues as follows:

It is not hard to argue that that broad range of experiences is what children up to the age of five and beyond need.

Before my election to the House, I ran the National Association of Toy and Leisure Libraries, which has a 1,000 projects across the country, and I chaired the Children's Play Council. We need to take seriously the
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truth that small children learn through play. I am disappointed that those hon. Members who were vocal earlier this afternoon about the importance of play, rather than formal learning, are not here now, but I invite them to join the all-party parliamentary group on play which my colleagues and I want to set up.

Ensuring that children have opportunity to play in their early years and after school and that lots of policies take account of children's need to play is essential. That has been recognised already by the Government as one of the key factors in the 10-year child care strategy, which says that activities should be

There may be doubts about the learning and development issues set out, but I ask Opposition Members how they can criticise Sure Start for not producing results, as they put it, or outcomes, if they are not prepared to agree any measure against which we can test how children perform. We would like the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) to respond to that point later this evening.

One of the positive and significant things that has happened in the past eight years is that child care policy has been devolved to the other Administrations. So children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are learning in different frameworks and under different curricula. That gives us an opportunity to check how effective the English curriculum is compared with the others. For example, it will be interesting to find out whether things are better in Wales, which has a play policy.

I remind hon. Members of what the policy framework is in Northern Ireland, because it is particularly attractive and we may want to consider it when assessing the English experience. In Northern Ireland, the early-years foundation stage is intended to

That is a slightly different perspective on similar themes, but some hon. Members may think it a little more child friendly.

Although I am pleased about this extension of the welfare state—I hope that it will change society for the better—the key thing is that children are not human becomings; they are human beings. They are living now, and it is their experience now that matters. That is why the quality of provision matters as well.

I have just three concerns about the Bill, and I hope that they will be addressed in Committee. First, why, for children over eight years, is there only provision for voluntary registration? Only risk-based inspections will be carried out, and unless someone makes a complaint, no three-yearly inspection of provision for those who are over the age of eight will take place. Although some eight and nine-year-olds are quite assertive and good at describing their needs, I am reluctant to go down the path of thinking that they should be responsible for the quality of their child care. We need to look at that a little more.

I am unclear—perhaps the Minister can clarify this—how the Bill interrelates with the proposals on extended schools. In the move to extended schools, we need to
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remember that all children need time for play and that the 8 am to 6 pm provision in schools must not become purely related to homework clubs. There must be a wide range of activities, games and play time, as well as time to chill out and relax, because everyone needs that every day.

My third concern, which has been raised by other hon. Members, relates to the qualifications that we will require. I know that the Minister intends to introduce regulations, but it would be helpful if we could see an early draft of them in Committee. The problem has been one of long standing in this country. When my mother came to England from Denmark in 1951, she was given her naturalisation certificate because she had one of the unusual skills that the economy needed—she was a nursery nurse. Here we are, 54 years down the track, and we are still short of people with such skills.

I am not trying to suggest that solving the problem will be an easy task for the Minister. I know that the number of people who need to be recruited is in the same ball park as the numbers in the red army. It will be tremendously difficult to address the problem, but one way in which we could get a regulatory structure with a lighter touch would be by having more well qualified people working in the sector. I welcome the Bill wholeheartedly and hope that those issues can be addressed in Committee.

6.10 pm

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