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28 Jun 2006 : Column 334

Childcare Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(6)(programme motions),

Question agreed to.

Childcare Bill

Lords amendments considered.

Clause 3


Lord amendment: No. 1

4.50 pm

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

This is a Government amendment made on Third Reading in the other place, which will require local authorities to have regard to information about the views of young children when carrying out their duties under clause 3 relating to early childhood services. The issue of listening to children has been raised and debated at each stage of the Bill in both Houses. We all agreed that it was an important subject. The Government have a longstanding commitment to providing more opportunities for children and young people to become involved in the planning and delivery of services that affect them. The core principles of the involvement and participation of children and young people were first set out in “Learning to Listen”, which we published in November 2001.

Our commitment to listening to children and encouraging their participation has been a consistent theme throughout the implementation of the “Every Child Matters” programme. As I said in Committee:

As has been made clear during debates in both Houses, we are committed to ensuring that the voices of even our youngest children, who are the subject of the Bill, are heard, and that their views are taken into account in the planning and delivery of the services dealt with under clause 3. We have listened to the arguments put forward and found many areas of agreement.

As Members know, it was always our intention that statutory guidance should carry forward and build on the precedent already set by the current children’s centre practice guidance, which sets out clearly ways to
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explore what young children really think. Making provision in the Bill ensures that this issue will not be ignored in the future. Fuller explanation and details, as well as examples of good practice, will be included in the statutory guidance that we issue under this clause, and that will have wider application across all childhood services, not just children’s centres.

We know how easy it is for adults to make faulty assumptions about the experiences that are important to young children. Throughout the debates, however, there has also been a wide recognition that very young children are much less likely to be able to understand and have views about the implications of strategic planning decisions: for example, how Jobcentre Plus or NHS services can most effectively be integrated into childhood services. Earlier amendments that were debated did not fully take account of the impracticality of compelling local authorities to involve young children in every aspect of the clause 3 duties. We need a proportionate approach that gives local authorities the flexibility that will enable them to perform such a duty in the way that is best suited to local circumstances and the specific issues in view at any particular moment.

The amendment will require local authorities to have regard to information about the views of young children when it is relevant to the performance of their duties under clause 3. Those duties encompass all aspects of the design, delivery and development of early-childhood services. As a result, the voices of young children will be heard in the way in which local authorities plan and deliver services for them. It is, however, important that the wording enables local authorities to take account of local conditions and the nature of the specific issue in question at any given time and, in particular, to take full advantage of the good work done by their partners in the voluntary sector, while avoiding the practical difficulties and inappropriate aspects of participation by very young children in decision-making at a strategic level.

I believe that the amendment strikes the right balance. It guarantees young children an appropriate voice, while avoiding the risk that local authorities will be compelled to try to engage young children in matters on which meaningful consultation with them is simply not possible. I am pleased that we arrived at a formulation allowing us to include the duty to listen to young children in the Bill in a way that is appropriate, and gives local authorities flexibility.

I hope Members will agree that the amendment reflects the importance that Parliament—and, certainly, the Government—ascribe to this issue. I believe that it confirms our requirements and expectations of local authorities, building on the good work that the voluntary sector is already undertaking.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Conservative Members welcome the Bill’s return. It began its progress quite a while ago, in November 2005. We have supported it throughout, because we are in favour of many of its aims, but obviously there has been a great deal of discussion during its various stages.

Because the Bill will give more people the chance of access to quality child care, we believe that it will help to improve children’s start in life. The Lords amendments reflect the fact that some of our earlier discussions that
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were not heeded at the time have now been heeded by the Government, and we are pleased about that.

I am sure that the Minister has followed the debate in the other place closely, and has noted the growing concern about how to bridge the gap between the money that nurseries receive from Government to fund free provision for three to four-year-olds and the real cost of provision that is borne by the private and voluntary sectors. If small voluntary and private nurseries lose the ability to cover the true costs of provision, they may be pushed out of business. We should consider those important issues, although they are not dealt with in the amendments before us today.

Lords amendment No. 1 gives local authorities a duty to take reasonable steps to take account of the views of young children in the design, delivery and evaluation of services. In recent weeks we have considered three Bills relating to children in some way. The welfare of children is at the heart of all those Bills, and we feel that the amendment expresses the same sentiments. We will support it.

We congratulate the many children’s organisations on their work, particularly the National Children’s Bureau. It has fought hard to persuade the Government to accept an amendment of this kind. It feels strongly that the new duty will help local authorities to deliver high-quality services to young children and families. But—there is a but here—we need to make sure that care is taken, so that when we consult children we in no way burden them. That point was powerfully made by noble Friend Baroness Morris on Report in the other place.

5 pm

With that in mind, we need to consider how the data will be collected. Let us briefly address that. Ofsted collects the views of school-age children as a regular part of its inspection process. It uses a web-based technology, which is entirely appropriate for children of that age but would not be appropriate for under-fives—even though under-fives perhaps have more IT literacy than some. We need to look for other methods.

None of us would argue against the ability of some under-fives to put across their views, and if we can take them into account, it is important that we do so. Those of us with under-fives in our own households know that in some cases they can be all too vociferous in putting forward their views. However, under-fives clearly cannot have a true grasp of complex ideas such as well-being and inequality, so we would need to ensure that highly qualified personnel are used to tease such information out of that group of children, who are particularly difficult to engage.

We also need to keep a careful eye on the usefulness of the data, which will doubtless be expensive to collect. A great deal of research has been done on the ability to collect data from that age group, and it is compelling, but we still need to look at its usefulness in terms of both policy formulation and evaluation. We support the spirit of the amendment, as it attempts to ensure that the child is at the heart of everything we do and that what we are doing is beneficial to them, but we must make sure that it provides a tangible addition to both policy formulation and evaluation.

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Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): The Minister will not be surprised to hear that I greatly welcome the amendment. We discussed at length the issue involved. It was an important issue for Liberal Democrat Members, because we think that we are moving towards listening to children and young people—although the approach taken is gradual, despite the Government’s having introduced some good innovative ideas and techniques in other spheres.

The issue the amendment raises is whether the Bill should state that very young children should be listened to. I think that that is very important, because it is part of a whole cultural shift. We want our young people to participate. We want to engage with them. We want this to be a two-way process. In areas such as this—the provision of a service for very young children—why should there not be means to ascertain the views of those children?

Excellent work has been done by a number of charities. We have talked about the National Children’s Bureau scheme, “Listening as a way of life”, and the excellent outcomes that it produced. However, the difficulty that we had in Committee was whether young children should be put in a position where they might be expected to comment on overall strategy; that seemed to be the impediment that prevented us from getting a sensible amendment.

I am therefore extremely pleased that the issue continues to be discussed—although I think that my noble Friend Baroness Walmsley must have been more persuasive than me. Nevertheless, I welcome this measure, and particularly the fact that the Under-Secretary in the other place, Lord Adonis, took it very seriously and came up with wording that will take us forward. I look forward to seeing reports on, and monitoring of, some of the outcomes from this measure.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Clause 6

Duty to secure sufficient childcare for working parents

Lords Amendment: No. 2.

Beverley Hughes: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With this we may consider Lords amendments Nos. 3 to 9.

Beverley Hughes: This group of amendments deals specifically with the issue of services for disabled children and young people, which was discussed extensively in both Houses. Like the previous group, it was the subject of many informal discussions that took place among ministerial colleagues and other parties in order to find a way forward. We all want to provide disabled children and their families with the best possible support and advice, and to ensure that all disabled children and young people have the same opportunities as their peers to enjoy life and achieve.

The House may recall that the duty relating to disabled children was initially set to end at age 16—over and above the age applying to non-disabled children—to tie
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in with the statutory school leaving age, so that, for as long as disabled children are of compulsory school age, local authorities would have been required to secure sufficient child care to allow parents to make a choice about work. Sixteen is also the age at which many young people start to be treated as adults: it is the age, for example, at which, if appropriate, disability living allowance stops being paid to the parent or carer and starts being paid to the young person themselves. Other benefits, such as the independent living fund, also start being paid to young people from 16. So initially, there was a sound rationale for thinking that 16 was the appropriate age at which to end the legal duty on local authorities to secure child care.

However, and as I have said, since the Bill was consulted on, we have listened very closely to the concerns of charities and parliamentarians representing the views of disabled children and their families, and we have had extensive discussions. We understand that many parents of 16 and 17-year-old disabled young people face real difficulties in finding suitable care that allows them to continue to work. They have told us that this is not about parents wanting additional social or health care, or even free child care; it is about ensuring that the child care market is supported by local authorities to meet the needs of those parents, and enabling them to make a real choice about work or training. As a result of those discussions, I think it appropriate to extend the duty to 18 for disabled children. We will reflect that extension to the age range in the funding arrangements for local authorities for next year, in order to support their preparations for that new duty.

I want to explain briefly why the Government amendment does not simply substitute the age 18 for 16 in the Bill. It seems that life—or at least legislation—is never that simple. Members will doubtless be aware that clause 106 defines the age at which a young person is no longer a child. Lawyers have advised that the best way to express the policy intention for disabled young people is to amend clause 6(5) so that the child care duty, except in relation to disabled children, does not apply to children after 1 September following their 14th birthday. That may seem rather tortuous, but in practice it will mean that disabled children will continue to be included in the duty after their 14th birthday and up to the age of 18, when they are no longer children, in accordance with the definition in clause 106.

I want to touch briefly on amendments Nos. 16, 17 and 18. It was always the Government’s intention to ensure, through regulations, that information on services, facilities and publications of benefit to parents of disabled children would be made available. Placing that requirement in the Bill will give greater permanence and clarity to the information needs of parents of disabled children. [Interruption.]

Amendment No. 16—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that the right hon. Lady perhaps means amendments Nos. 6, 7 and 8; Nos. 16, 17 and 18 come somewhat later.

Beverley Hughes: I beg your pardon and I thank you very much, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I do indeed mean those amendments.

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As I was saying, it was always the Government’s intention to ensure, through regulations, that relevant information of benefit to parents of disabled children would be made available. Amendment No. 6 will ensure that the needs of such parents are specifically included in the regulations supporting the duty to provide information. Such information will relate to child care that is suitable for disabled children and other services, as well as facilities and publications that might be of particular benefit to disabled children, young people and their parents.

Amendment No. 7 is consequential. Amendment No. 8 defines the term “disabled” for the purposes of clause 12. With the agreement of the Welsh Assembly, we will table further amendments mirroring those amendments in relation to the situation in Wales.

Mrs. Maria Miller: Amendments Nos. 2 and 6 raise the age for child care for disabled children to 18, albeit by a somewhat tortuous route. They reflect an amendment that was tabled in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and discussed at length. The fact that it was amendment No. 239 gives the House an idea of how much scrutiny the Bill has received.

That amendment received support from Mencap, which shared our concern that although a 14-year-old non-disabled child would be sufficiently independent not to require child care, there is no good reason to suppose that a disabled child’s need for child care will end at the age of 16. Securing it only to that age leaves a problematic gap that hon. Members will have encountered in relation to children with special needs or those who are cared for, in that all too often they seem to fall off the end of the Government’s list when they reach the age of 16. In this case, we were particularly concerned that 17 and 18-year-olds might not have access to adult services and would also fall off the end of the list.

In Committee, we discussed the fact that child care costs in the UK remain the highest in Europe. For parents of disabled children, they are often twice those of the parents of non-disabled children. As we know, half of all families with a disabled child live in poverty, or are on the margins of it, so costs are a matter of great concern.

In Committee, the Minister reassured my hon. Friends that the Bill already met the needs of parents with disabled children and that provision for 16 and 17-year-olds was already there, although children of that age may not want to be included. I am glad that she and her colleagues have had a change of heart about that. They have listened to the arguments and understood that parents are deeply concerned about their children when they reach this age. I am glad that they have recognised the shortcomings of the Bill in this respect.

The Bill is all about giving parents choice in child care, and the amendment helps to ensure that that choice is extended to all parents of children in this group, whose needs may be greater and last longer than those of others. I hope that it will help families who have to deal with the practical realities of caring for disabled children each and every day.

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