Kitty Ussher (Burnley) (Lab): I welcome the Bill, which, I believe, encapsulates the heart of our party's valuesto aim to break the link between people's income and their opportunities. The Bill will benefit children through a more structured curriculum, better protection for the very young and extended hours proposals, but will also break the link between income and opportunity for those adults who wish to enter the work force but who have so far been prevented from doing so. It is heartbreaking to be told by someone that they want to work but cannot afford the child care, or, in extremis, as I once heard in my constituency, that they want to go to a job interview in order to work but cannot afford the child care to do so. As a result of the Bill, both those occurrences will be less likely. I am proud to follow my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), whose advocacy of the Bill was intelligent and wide-ranging.
During the opening speeches, some Opposition MembersI apologise for not having been present for the entirety of this afternoon's debate, due to my Select Committee commitmentstried to imply that the Government are introducing this Bill to force parents to work. That is not my understanding. The Government will support all parents as they make their own choices about how best to balance work and family commitments. They understand, as I do, that different people will want to work in different ways at different stages of their life. The Government's job is to make those choices easier.
Let us not beat about the bush. In the past, and unfortunately even now, choice in terms of child care has been a middle-class preserve. If one has a higher income, it is easier to pay to have one's children looked after if one wishes to go back to work than if one has a lower income. Much of what the Government are trying to do is to extend that type of choice to all families. I believe that this Bill will do that.
I welcome the new duty on local authorities to assess the type of child care available in their areas, and to provide more child care through whatever means they consider most appropriate. I note that the Bill is not the vehicle for discussing finance, and that the spending review is the best place for that, but I want to put it on record that the Government are already making a huge investment in various types of child care through free nursery places, funded Sure Start schemes expanding into children's centres throughout the country, the child
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tax credit and child care tax credit. I would be interested to hear whether the Conservative party can confirm its commitment to both those tax credits in the wind-up to the debate. Once the supply of places is increased under the new duty on local authorities, the Government will, in effect, indirectly subsidise the demand for those places through our tax credit system, which aims to help precisely those people who have been unable to afford to go to work when they have wanted to do so previously.
I notice that the duty on local authorities will be to increase child care supply as far as is reasonably practicable. Can the Minister give some more examples of what "reasonably practicable" will be interpreted to mean? Can a local authority say, for example, that it has other priorities or does not have the finance available? I hope that that is not the case.
The Bill builds on Sure Start, which has been one of the most important programmes introduced by the Government. Constituents have said to me that they are surprised that politicians introduced such a programme, because it will be a long time before its effects are felt. To the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), who implied that its effects have not yet been proven, I would say that that is the case almost by definition, because it will be a long time before there is an economic impact. My understanding, however, is that there is a great deal of evidence to show that young mothers who benefit from Sure Start are more likely to quit smoking, access training courses and go into education and then employment if that is what they want, and that both their mental and physical health have been improved. In my constituency, the same applies to some dads, too. I very much welcome the Government's commitment to build on that and to expand the number of children's centres.
I want to share with the House one anecdote from my constituency. When I was campaigning and canvassing in the general election only six months ago, a person who is now my constituent said to me that they would not vote Labour because they could not access their Sure Start programme as they lived just outside the geographic boundary. I had to explain that Sure Start would not exist were it not for a Labour Government, and that our plans were to expand it sufficiently so that every community had a children's centre. Let us make sure that we do not lose the fantastic reputation that Sure Start has, and that we keep the brand. Some people working in Sure Start centres seem to think that it will be replaced, whereas I understand that the opposite is true and that we will build on it.
I welcome this Bill, which is overdue. It will be long-lasting and will have effects not only on our children, but, I hope, on our children's children. I hope that it can be supported on both sides of the House.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I am delighted to be addressing such a packed House at this time of the evening. I feel that the general consensus that was breaking out at one stage has shortened this debate, which has been a good one with well-informed and weighty contributions from both sides of the House.
We started with the Secretary of State, who I am sure has been scuppered by the time adjustment this evening, talking about the £17 billion extra that has gone into
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child care. She was being a little disingenuous. It would be interesting to know how that figure extrapolates, because a large part of that money is wound up in the additional funding going into Sure Start, which we have supported. We said on numerous occasions before the election that we would ring-fence that money.
Contrary to what the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) said, we are the only party since 1997 that has held debates on children's matters in this Chamber. The Government have never held a debate on children's issues in their own time. In those debates and at questions we said that we supported Sure Start and would protect its funding, although we had ambitions to change some of its emphasis.
It is rather disingenuous for the Secretary of State to claim that there are no new unfunded costs attached to the Bill. The Bill contains a large number of directives to local authorities to ensure the sufficient provision of child care, to carry out assessments, to facilitate training in order to bring about the big increase in staff that is needed and to provide information. All of that will have costs attached to it.
As the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) rightly said, one of the big issues will be providing the child care work force required to make this Bill a reality. The transformation fund allocation of £125 million will just scratch the surface of what is required to provide training and encourage people into that line of work, as well as giving them the sustainable and decent wages that are all too often lacking now. If we do not get the staff, many of the aspirations within the Bill will not be achieved.
The hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), the chairman of the all-party childcare group, made a well-informed speech, as usual. She mentioned the child care element of child tax credits and their relatively low take-up at the moment. She also emphasised the social care input that is so vital for children in early years. She raised many of the questions that many hon. Members wanted to raise in terms of some of the definitions in the Bill and what is involved in the "sufficiency" description in parts of the Bill. She also talked, rightly, as did many other hon. Members, about the problems of children with disabilities and how a relatively small number of their parents and carers are working parents and carers, with all the difficulties attached to that.
The hon. Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey), who is in her place, made a good point; we need to see some of the regulations as soon as possible because a lot of the detail is not included in the Bill. It is vital that we have sight of at least draft regulations so that, in the discussions in Committeeas well as in another placewe can talk about the realities and the detail.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), who is also in his place, rightly mentioned the many stresses on parents struggling to bring up children in difficult circumstances and with financial pressures, and said that parental child care does not feature in the Bill, very important though it is. He also mentioned the word "discovery", which is useful in terms of how children develop in the early years and is different from the terminology of "taught", which features in the notorious clause 41, to which we will return on many occasions.
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My hon. Friend also mentioned the costs that will be imposed on local authorities and the potential increases in council tax that may result from that. He also talked about the need to simplify the funding streams attached to certain aspects of child care.
The hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) said that the Bill was a real transformation and mentioned that we needed to double the number of child care places. She said that she would be setting up the all-party group of play, which is such an important element of the Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) mentioned the importance of the family and added that this was a prescriptive Bill in many respects. To give him his due, he gave credit to Sure Start and said that his constituency had benefited from Sure Start projects. Mine has not, because we have no Sure Start project in my constituency even though I have areas of real deprivation. My hon. Friend also said that we needed a level playing field between existing and future providers and cited the issue of differential VAT treatment between private, independent providers and those working through Sure Start.
The hon. Member for Doncaster, North, who is back in his place, spoke in dramatic terms about crossing the rubicon and about the state extending its role. I think he is right and it was very good of him to admit it up front. Some of us have concerns about the state extending its role as a parent when the state's record as a parent is a lousy one, has been for too many years and still is for those looked-after children for whom it has direct responsibility.
The hon. Member for Doncaster, North also mentioned spending. If we analyse the costs attached to the Bill, we see that it is right that we need to spend more, but that spending must be cost-effective and well targeted. The average capital cost of a new nursery place is about £15,000. At the moment, the occupancy rate among the private and voluntary independent providers is about 76 per cent. On the face of it, there are a lot of available places, most of which are described as good quality places that could be used without the considerable capital start-up costs that will be involved in the way envisaged by the hon. Gentleman. We need to have a proper debate about whether the money is being used properly. Much of the criticism of Sure Start projects in the past was that they could not be scrutinised in isolation but must be scrutinised holistically in terms of their effect on other existing providers in those areas where they have been set up. We want to return to that.