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Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I do not wish to detain the House for too long because we can all agree about an awful lot in the Bill. I agree with the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) that there has been a big improvement in early years child care over the past decade or so.

Most of us would agree that bringing up children is one of the most rewarding things that people can do. However, it is not always easy to juggle the many competing demands of work and home life. The Bill stems from a desire to try to help parents who often find themselves in great difficulty when juggling such responsibilities. When it comes to child care, there are sadly no easy answers or solutions for the simple reason that each family's circumstances are different. That makes it difficult for any Government to get things completely right. I acknowledge that efforts are being made and that some progress has been made over the past eight years, but I am not convinced that the Bill strikes an effective balance between the competing tensions.

It is interesting that the 1998 general household survey found that the most popular category of child care for a mother working full or part time was that given by relatives. Having read all the various briefings on the Bill, I am left wondering how effectively it supports that option for parents. Study after study has shown that many women want to remain at home to look after their children, rather than using child minders, crèches or nurseries. Many women feel extremely guilty about returning to work only months after giving birth.

It is also interesting to consider the matter from the perspective of what is best for the child. The effective provision of pre-school education project, which
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followed 3,000 children between 1997 and 2004, found that large amounts of group care before the age of three were associated with higher levels of antisocial behaviour. Such behaviour also increased if a child had received a lot of care from a child minder. However, the study found that if relatives—usually grandmothers—provided a substantial amount of care, children displayed less antisocial behaviour and were more co-operative.

It does not take a rocket scientist to work out what is going on. Young children are much better off in the care of their mother, father or members of their close family in the early years from birth to the age of three. In fact, the Government have agreed that if mothers work full-time during the early stages of their children's lives, it can have a negative impact. Families, and especially mothers, should not feel pressurised—either financially, or emotionally—to put their children's care outside their families during those important early years. I would argue that even between the ages of three and five, it is extremely beneficial if, in addition to receiving high-quality pre-school education, children have their mother or a close family member with them for part of the day.

The Government, to their credit, recognised in the 1998 document "Meeting the Childcare Challenge" that many parents preferred grandparents or relatives to look after children. However, rather than thinking about how to support that desire of many families, the Government dismissed it as being

the Secretary of State reinforced that belief in her opening remarks today. It was felt that only Government intervention could "fill the gaps".

That is really what troubles me about the thrust of child care policy. It seems to be more prescriptive than necessary, and choice is talked about, rather than delivered. There appears to be a feeling that the Government know best, or at least better than families themselves. If the Government truly wished to offer choice, would they not be coming forward today with policies that offered the widest possible choice? One gets the slight feeling that the Government still believe that mothers who want to stay at home are a "bit of a problem".

I am talking not about a bit more time for maternity leave, but about how the Government can help to support a mother through a period of years in which she brings up two or three children. The evidence shows us what is best for the child and wider society, so offering that would give families a real choice, not just a choice from a menu of state-sponsored initiatives. If the Government are really serious about one of their central principles—

they must engage in such wider thinking and reform.

In areas in which Government intervention was needed, there has been some success. For example, Sure Start has made a contribution in some of the country's most deprived areas. Several areas have benefited significantly, so I give credit where credit is due. However, it is also true that the scheme has acted as
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competition with voluntary and private nurseries and play groups in those areas and has thus caused some to close.

Helen Goodman: Conservative Members have said repeatedly that they are in favour of choice, but against competition. I do not understand how they can be in favour of choice if they say that there should be no competition among providers.

Mr. Wilson: If the hon. Lady will allow me to continue for few moments, I will address that very point.

It makes no sense to have a situation in which the state is in competition with existing providers. The state can fill gaps, by all means—it probably should do that—but it should not provide something that amounts to unfair competition. If the state sets the rules and funds projects out of general taxation, private and voluntary groups cannot compete on a level playing field.

For example, local authorities will have a duty under the Bill to ensure that there is sufficient, and free, early-years provision in their areas. The desire is clearly that local authorities will co-operate with existing providers to ensure that that happens. Indeed, I was pleased to see a commitment from the Department for Education and Skills to encourage local authorities to work closely with private and voluntary providers and to complete full audits of local child care needs.

Some organisations want the Government to go further. The Minister will be aware that the National Day Nurseries Association, which is the largest body representing private, voluntary and maintained day nurseries, has said that both local authorities and child care providers would benefit from a clear and uniform national framework for partnership working. The association wants measurable targets to be set for local authorities on the involvement of the private and voluntary sectors. It says:

The association's research suggests that local authorities are not adopting a partnership approach, which is why it wants such firm guidance on the requirement for partnership working. It is clearly concerned about the way in which local authorities will take the strategic lead.

There are clearly dangers in effectively outsourcing child care provision to local authorities. For example, the CBI has warned that local councils must not be allowed to construct a "state monopoly" of child care provision. I think that the CBI is also worried about local authorities' in-built advantages. For example, authorities are able to reclaim VAT when they set up day care centres, but private providers cannot do that. We must take such worries extremely seriously, and I think that that addresses the point about why there is not a level playing field for public and private sector providers of child care.

Helen Goodman: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that since 1997, under the Sure Start programme, the Government have put far more money into voluntary sector providers, which give exactly the kind of care for which he calls, than did the last Tory Government?

Mr. Wilson: I am aware of the investment, as I recognised earlier.
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Perhaps the Minister could use this opportunity to reassure the NDNA and the CBI. It is important that their concerns are addressed fully.

I also have other concerns, such as those on the early years foundation stage. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, there is a danger in introducing formal education at such an early age. Why do we need to be so prescriptive? It is inappropriate to start formal learning at such a young age. Children start school much earlier in the UK than they do in other European others, yet their results tend to be much better than ours. Ministers might want to consider that again.

As with so much legislation that is pushed through on the shoulders of local government, I am worried that the measures will not be fully funded by central Government out of existing tax revenues. The increased bureaucracy must not be allowed to increase local council tax in my constituency. The reaction of the Local Government Association is enlightening. It believes that

The LGA wants extra investment from central Government. It states:

As we have some of the highest child care costs in Europe and have had huge council tax increases since 1997, neither of those is an attractive option.

Those problems should not and cannot be skirted around. They must be addressed if the child care plans are to prove effective and not to be just more empty promises. Overall, I give the Bill a cautious welcome. As I said, there is commendable intent behind it, but many questions need to be answered before it can become effective. I look forward to the Minister's response in the hope that she deals with some of my concerns.

6.22 pm

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