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John Bercow: I agree with what my hon. Friend says about workplace nurseries. Would it not be sensible to consider tax incentives for the provision of such facilities? If the Government were worried that that might represent a dead weight cost, or that it might be an imprudent use of public funds if relatively well-off companies were to take advantage of such an opportunity, might not a way round that be to incentivise businesses to provide workplace nursery places for low-income employees who might not otherwise be able to benefit from them?

Mr. Evennett: My hon. Friend makes a sensible point, as he usually does on these matters. We should consider tax incentives, because they would encourage an increase in provision. If we are serious about increasing provision, we must consider all the available opportunities, and not just focus on a narrow few.

There has been much debate today on the duties of local authorities in England and Wales. Those authorities will have to secure, as far as is practical, the provision of child care to meet the needs of parents, and that is welcome and encouraging. However, giving local authorities more powers and responsibilities raises the question of cost. The Secretary of State did not really answer our questions on that earlier, and I hope that the Minister will look a little harder at the issue. No extra money is being provided. The Government have said that they have put adequate money aside, but other duties will be required of local authorities, including advice and assessment and even the provision of child care. They do not know how much that is going to cost, having made their assessment, or how much child care they are going to have to provide, but there will be an increase in cost.

Any such increase would worry my constituents. If the Government are not providing extra money to pay for the extra responsibilities, will council tax payers have to pick up the bill? My local authority, Bexley, has already had a 35 per cent. increase in its council tax over the past three years, and that has hit people hard, particularly people on low incomes with families, pensioners and people on fixed incomes. If the local authority had to increase the council tax to provide the additional services required by the Bill, it would probably hit hardest those who could least afford it, and
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that worries me. The Secretary of State did not give us enough reassurance that that would not happen. A further problem is bureaucracy.

As a former teacher and lecturer, I have some concerns about the educational aspects of the Bill. Parents are the primary educators. Of course, we need to help them, but we should not dictate to them. They generally know better than Governments or bureaucrats—or supposed experts—what is best for their child. However, the Bill feels somewhat prescriptive. The Government like rules and regulations, and it worries me that the Bill contains new rules that dictate how infants should communicate, use language and literacy, and so forth.

Childminders and nurseries will have to teach the early-years foundation stage curriculum from birth to three years old. Ofsted will come along to check that the children are developing according to Government policy, and the Department for Education and Skills will be in control. That worries me, because children in their early years should be encouraged to learn through enjoyment and to develop at their own pace. They need to zone in on their social skills by co-ordinating, talking and sharing. Every child will develop to a different level and a different ability, as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham said earlier. It worries me that the Bill is so prescriptive about the level of educational involvement. Older children should certainly have formal education, but a more detailed curriculum is inappropriate for children in their early years. Parents, not Ministers, know best how to bring up their children. Of course we want more child care places, but we want to give parents the ability to superintend their child's development.

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Perhaps it would be helpful to reiterate that the word in the Bill that is giving many of us a problem is "taught". I, too, am a former teacher, and I think that the phrase that we are looking for is "structured play". That would give the children the opportunities that they need. I suspect that that is covered by the Bill, but the phraseology of the provisions gives us cause for concern.

Mr. Evennett: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman that what is needed is structured play. We want our children to develop to maximise their potential; we do not want to teach or control them at that stage.

Mrs. Moon: I have listened to this argument throughout the afternoon, and I think that hon. Members are making a mountain out of a molehill. We are talking about parents educating their children, but this is also about, for example, children pouring water into jugs and seeing how much water goes into them. That is education, but it is also play. It is about children playing with sand, and getting paint all over their fingers. That is play, but it is also education. We must remember that we are talking about the same thing.

Mr. Evennett: I very much hope that we are, but I have a niggling feeling that the Bill is proposing something more structured. If it is not, of course we would welcome it. The hon. Lady is absolutely right: play is education, and the two go together. However, the phrasing of the Bill contains a hint of more formal instruction, and that
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worries me. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell me if I am wrong, but the wording does place a question mark over this issue.

John Bercow: This theme has percolated much of the debate. I confess that I am much more sanguine about the provision than some of my colleagues, many of whom have focused on the word "taught". I am keen to close down this part of the argument, and I would like to suggest that the real problem in clause 41 lies in its use of adult language to describe things that we hope very young kids will be able to do. We are not seeking to create mini-intellectuals, but the problem lies in the Bill's use of such phrases as

to describe circumstances applicable to nought to five-year-olds.

Mr. Evennett: Time will tell on that one. I am sure that this issue will be discussed further when the Bill goes into Committee.

I am a great supporter of grandparents. When my children were young, my parents and parents-in-law were a tremendous help and support to my wife and me, looking after the children and taking them out. Unfortunately my parents-in-law are now deceased, which is a great sadness. Peggy and Ron Smith did a tremendous job for us as grandparents, though, and I welcome what grandparents do. I shall continue to stress the value of grandparents as child minders, and the fact that we should not write them out of the equation—not that I am suggesting that the Bill does that.

The Bill has potential. Some aspects still need to be addressed, but I think we have overcome the earlier to-and-fro of the debate. It was suggested that Conservative Members were not concerned about child care, or wanted to turn the clock back. That is ridiculous. We want to move forward. We are positive and enthusiastic: we want to give people more choice, and to allow them to return to the workplace in the knowledge that their children are being looked after well in an environment that is conducive to both education and play.

We must always consider the needs and interests of the child. We must bear in mind what is best for children, while also thinking about what is affordable and appropriate for parents. Parents must have a genuine opportunity to decide what is best for their children. None of that will be achieved through bureaucracy. Shortage of funds and uniformity are issues to be borne in mind. I glory in diversity, because I think that that is the best way of securing the best possible provisions.

I hope that the Government will take account of our concerns, because they have been expressed in a positive spirit with the best interests of society in mind.

7.41 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I support the Bill, and I am pleased to follow the    hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett), who I think welcomed it broadly as well.

For decades, my hon. Friends and I have campaigned for decent child care. The Bill brings that ideal one step closer. Nothing is more important than investing in our
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children's future. The Bill is intended to support families, particularly parents who wish to work or undergo training, and to enable them to take such action safe in the knowledge that their children are being well looked after. It builds on the significant amount that the Government have already invested to support hard-working families with, for instance, extended maternity leave and extended paid maternity leave.

Since 2003, parents of children under six or disabled children have had the right to apply to work flexibly and to have that request considered seriously. Paid paternity leave has also been introduced. Moreover, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), for the first time adoptive parents have been given rights to adoption leave and pay. The Government have invested in Sure Start centres, which are intended to provide excellent child care in a multi-disciplinary setting and a range of services to support young children and their families in our most disadvantaged communities. That programme is being extended, and a pledge has been made that there will be a children's centre in every community by 2010. I applaud that.

An important framework of support for all parents, catering for a wide range of needs, is already in place, but the Bill aims to go further. Under the present Government more people are in work, and that can have beneficial effects on children. Children with working parents are less likely to live in poverty, more likely to do better at school and less likely to become disadvantaged adults. A variety of Government policies and initiatives have been devised with the aim of enabling parents to enter and remain in employment, from the new deal to in-work financial support and extended nursery provision—along with, of course, many opportunities for learning and skills development.

When we consider the employment patterns of families with dependent children, the need for more good-quality child care is obvious. According to data from the Office for National Statistics and on labour force trends, in 2004 most working-age families with dependent children included at least one parent in employment, and half of them included two parents in employment. When only one parent was employed, it was usually the father. Couples with pre-school-age children were much less likely to be dual earners than those with school-age children, and couples with three or more children were less likely to be dual earners than those with one or two children. That may indicate a need for more flexibility in child care provision.

Employment rates among parents have increased steadily in recent years. That upward trend reflects increases in both full-time and part-time employment. Over the 10-year period up to spring 2004, employment rates for couple mothers and lone parents with children under five increased by eight and 12 percentage points respectively.

The need for high-quality child care is clear. As I said earlier, a good start has been made with Sure Start, extended schools and the local focus on "Every Child Matters", but more needs to be done to implement the Government's 10-year child care strategy. Many families have difficulty in finding affordable child care that fits their circumstances and is flexible enough to meet their needs. Services that seek to support families with young children can be disjointed and lack
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effectiveness. The complexity and inconsistency of the current inspection regime sometimes makes it difficult for parents to secure the assurances that they expect about the quality of the provision on offer.

The Bill attempts to deal with those problems, and to implement the child care strategy further. It should be given credit for building on current public service agreement targets in giving local authorities a new duty to improve the well-being of young children in their areas, and in particular for introducing the requirement for gaps to be closed between the most deprived groups and the better off. That emphasis on tackling inequality is hugely welcome. I urge the Secretary of State to use the powers conferred by the Bill to set targets for the reduction of inequality if they prove necessary.

The new duty imposed on local authorities to secure sufficient child care for working parents is welcome. I explained earlier why that is so necessary. The extended duty to ensure that parents have access to information about services and facilities for children and young people is also a positive step. Moreover, a more robust and appropriate inspection regime is being introduced. Many Opposition Members have spoken of the need to provide quality child care, but we cannot be sure that we are delivering quality child care without a sound inspection regime. That is what the Bill aims to provide.

Local authorities will have a duty to assess all child care provision within a year, and subsequently once every three years. That will be necessary to ensure that provision is adequate, and to test the role of the public sector in the delivery of child care.

A number of measures in the Bill are welcome. There is substance on which local partnerships can build—and, as many of my hon. Friends have said today, there is much on which to build: 525,000 new child care places, nearly 1,300 more neighbourhood nurseries, and nearly 600 children's centres have been provided since the Government came to power.

Let me end by describing a visit I made some weeks ago to a nursery facility at Witton Gilbert school in my constituency. It is a partnership between the school, voluntary sector and local parents, delivering nursery provision at its best, with excellent and committed staff, extremely well resourced facilities and a sound mixture of structured and free play. I had a truly wonderful experience, and I had not realised that I would need skills in sand and water play and storytelling as an MP. It was really pleasant to sit down with the three-year-olds and have free milk and fruit—restored by this Government and disgracefully removed by the previous, Conservative Government, who obviously put the needs of very young children to the bottom of their agenda. That excellent facility also complements two new Sure Start centres in my constituency. If the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), who is not in her place, are really not certain about the benefits of Sure Start, I invite them to come to see what is being achieved in my constituency. Those centres are not only giving valuable opportunities to disadvantaged children but helping their parents with parenting skills, training and routes to employment. Importantly, they are also giving essential support to grandparents who provide care for their grandchildren.
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As a young student some time ago—I will not say how long—I carried out a comparative study of pre-school provision and the quality of pre-school provision in a range of European and western industrialised countries. Much to my dismay, Britain came bottom of the league table on almost every indicator of child care provision. We had pretty good child care facilities in this country during the second world war and shortly afterwards, but successive Governments failed to invest in child care, so we ended up at the bottom of the league. Thanks to this Government, who have invested in child care, we are now nearly at the top. This Bill should help us to build on the excellent record of the Government so far. We all want excellent child care, such as that in Witton Gilbert in my constituency, to be available to all young children. I therefore urge Members to support the Bill.

7.52 pm

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