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John Bercow: I agree that that is an example of precisely the sort of flexibility that we want to see and need to have guaranteed. Taking the argument one stage further, does the hon. Lady accept that another example of such flexibility would be ensuring that there is provision, either for the whole day or just a segment of it, for an unemployed parent who wants to maximise her skills by retraining and going on an adult education course, or for someone who, dare I say it, is just going off for a couple of hours for a work interview?

Mrs. Moon: The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that that is exactly what the Genesis project provides. It is expanding across Wales. Let us hope that, for once, we will send the project over the border—over the Dyke, as we say in Wales—to England.

I would like to look at the issue of children with disabilities. Much of what I planned to say has already been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood. Like me, she is aware that families with children with disabilities are one of society's most disadvantaged groups: 55 per cent. live in poverty or are in serious debt. Parents and children suffer loneliness and social isolation.

As hon. Members have said, there are 770,000 disabled children in the UK, and there are 46,500 in Wales. Every day, 75 children are born or diagnosed with disabilities. Having come from a background of working in social care, I am conscious of the fact that, when working with children with disabilities, social services departments and education departments perhaps focused a lot on the disability. What they forgot perhaps was the child's need for fun, for friendship and for normality.
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The majority of disabled children live at home, yet because of a lack of child care, their mothers are seven times less likely to have paid work, although disabled children cost three times as much to raise. Confined to their homes, disabled children are missing out on opportunities for learning, having fun and making friends.

Again, Bridgend is leading the way. I invite hon. Members to come to see our Y Bont project. I promise them that they will be amazed. It is a model of best practice in the provision of care and support for children from the age of six weeks to pre-school. Y Bont provides support and information to parents and carers and high quality training to staff and to local playgroups catering for children with disabilities, with which it shares its toy library facilities. My hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) spoke of the provision of toy library facilities.

Y Bont is a registered charity and survives thanks to rigorous fundraising and local commitment to its invaluable service. We know the quality that we have. We are desperate to keep it, but it provides for only 12 children. It needs to be expanded and I hope that the Bill will allow for that.

We have said that local authorities must be flexible in their provision of child care. Child care must be looked at holistically, so that there is provision for different working patterns and provision that ensures that, for example, if a disabled child needs to attend school both before and after normal school hours, the transport arrangements and child support arrangements are in place. Many children with disabilities are restricted in the activities that they can engage in after school because the paid, one-to-one support that they have during the school day is removed the minute the school ends. They cannot then engage in the social activities that are critical to their having the normality that their school peers enjoy.

Transport arrangements must be not only flexible but secure. When tendering for school transport, my local authority circulated to more than 100 taxi companies the names, addresses and pick-up times of disabled children in my constituency of Bridgend and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), placing numerous children at risk. When making child care arrangements, local authorities must be mindful of the need to ensure that all aspects of the care have in-built flexibility and meet the most rigorous child protection standards. My local authority certainly failed to do that. If we are to build in flexibility, there must be guidance for local authorities on tendering for school transport.

Access to information can be a barrier to good-quality child care, and we know that access to information is most difficult for those living in poverty. In areas where children are most likely to live in poverty, parents are least likely to have paid work and, consequently, have the least assistance to get out of poverty.

Bridgend county borough council's children information service is excellent. I invite hon. Members to look at its website. It has a specific area for child care and children's issues. There are leaflets and other very good attempts to engage with communities. I attended two excellent fun days held in the recreation centre.
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Families were bussed in from outlying areas to spend time meeting and talking to representatives of the whole gamut of child care provision that is available throughout the county borough. We need such practices to be rolled out throughout the country.

One of the most important aspects of which we must be aware today is the great expectations that are being raised by the Bill. As politicians, we must be aware of the danger of a gap developing between the promises that we make and the expectations that people will have outside the House. The commitments laid out in legislation must meet the day-to-day reality faced by parents and children. Parents' expectations following the Bill will be high. We cannot fail them or their children.

The clear message of the Bill to parents, children, employers and all levels of government must be that children are vulnerable unique individuals for whom only the best will be good enough. The Bill places a responsibility on local authorities to spearhead the growth in the availability of child care.

I shall conclude with a reference to the Genesis project, which I mentioned earlier, and its aims. The project will work alongside parents to help them to explore long-forgotten hopes and aspirations and to provide guidance and support to help them to achieve their hopes and build a brighter future together. That is what I see the Bill offering throughout the United Kingdom. I commend it to the House.

7.23 pm

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): I am pleased to participate in this important debate. It has been of a high calibre and there have been tremendous areas of agreement between hon. Members on both sides of the House, which is important. I am also pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), who made a serious contribution. I listened with great interest to what she said about her constituency and about expectations. I endorse what she said. We must always be realistic. We must not raise expectations too high and then not meet them. If we did, we as politicians would be criticised in the media and by parents and others who depend on child care. The hon. Lady made a very good speech.

Child care is a great concern in my constituency. Regrettably, many men and women have had to come to my surgery or write to me to say that, although they want to return to work, they cannot find the necessary child care. Either they cannot afford the costs of the existing provision, or they cannot get their child into the child care that they think the child needs. That very serious issue should concern us all. It is therefore opportune for all of us to consider ways in which to improve and increase child care provision but, as many hon. Members have said, we must do so with quality as a top priority. We are talking about quality for our children and for the future.

It is also very important that child care be affordable. In today's society, the cost of child care can be prohibitive for people who want to go back to work. If we do not make changes, society will suffer and the children will suffer, which is why this is such a serious issue for us all to debate and concern ourselves with.
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I welcome the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), which was excellent, moderate and constructive as usual. She was also very positive. Something that has come out of the debate is that we are all positive about going forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) made some very helpful and interesting contributions and interventions, which shows his commitment. We listened to him with interest. That said, Opposition Members have concerns about the Bill, which I would like to develop later in my short contribution.

I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who made a thought-provoking and measured speech. I did not agree with all of her contribution, as she would expect, but I agree with her comments on disabled children and their parents, an issue that the hon. Member for Bridgend also highlighted. It is a great concern that parents of disabled children do not find it easy to get the necessary child care, either because of cost or because of their special needs.

In my constituency, there are mothers of disabled children who would like to return to the workplace but simply cannot find provision of satisfactory quality, where they would be happy to leave their children and which has the necessary facilities. We should all be considering this important issue to ensure that such child care provision is dealt with satisfactorily.

I welcome the Bill in principle, because I am a strong supporter of the aims of providing quality and affordable child care for working families. Therefore the general thrust of the Bill is to be welcomed. An increase in provision and greater access to child care must be priorities in today's society. Life today is more hectic. More men and women want to return to work whenever they can. When they have children, they obviously want the best for them, but they also want to get on with their careers, because that in itself can help their children. We heard from some hon. Members that in today's society, in which people have children later in life, they may have young children and be responsible for elderly parents at the same time. Life is demanding now for people. At the age when many people now have children, they often have elderly parents to care for as well.

Choice and opportunities are two issues that have come up in several contributions from Opposition Members and Government Members. We passionately believe that there should be choice and that people should not be forced into just one form of provision. Parents should have a choice and feel comfortable. Some of the Secretary of State's comments seemed to suggest that there was a greater emphasis among Government Members on one type of opportunity and less choice. I do not think that she meant that, or least I hope that she did not, because choice and variety of provision make the situation better for parents. Parents can make a choice about what they think is more appropriate for their children.

As I said in an intervention on the Secretary of State, child care costs are very high. We hear that costs in this country are probably among the highest in western Europe. They are prohibitive for certain people, particularly those who are returning to low-paid jobs. In London—my constituency is in south-east London—the costs are particularly high and are out of reach of
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many people on low incomes. Many parents are therefore forced to stay at home and look after their children—which might not be the best thing for them or for their children—because they cannot afford to pay for the child care that would enable them to go back into the workplace.

I am also concerned at the fall in the number of playgroups, pre-school places and childminder places in Greater London. Such schemes all offer parents greater choice. Many private and voluntary sector child care places have also closed, and that is regrettable. The Conservatives want more choice to be available to parents, and we would like to see more work being done with business and the voluntary sector to provide more affordable child care places, more childminders, more workplace nurseries and more clubs for older children.

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