3 July 2007 : Column 169WH

3 July 2007 : Column 169WH

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 3 July 2007

[Mr. Bill Olner in the Chair]

Parenting and Child Care

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

9.30 am

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): I am delighted to be granted a debate on this important issue. Parenting and child care are the most important lifetime activities for both parents and, of course, children. I say that as a man—new or otherwise. To quote “Every Child Matters”:

First, I want to acknowledge and celebrate the effort, vigour and substantial amounts of money that the Government have put into developing child care and parenting initiatives. Sure Start, tax credits, children’s centres and the parenting academy are all significant strides forward. However, there is a saying in Welsh—“Nid da lle gellir gwell”—which means, “Not good enough where there could be better”. A great deal still needs to be done.

I want to refer also to the visit that the all-party group on Sweden undertook to that country to consider parenting and child care. I want to pay tribute to colleagues from the all-party group who undertook that visit—all men, I noted at the time—some of whom are here today. The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) has already told me that he is tied up with a constituency engagement, or else he would certainly be here this morning. I want to pay tribute to our Swedish colleagues and the people at the embassy in Stockholm, who made the visit such an interesting and worthwhile experience. I intend to refer to the situation in Wales as well as that in Sweden. I know a good deal more about Wales than I do about Sweden, and no doubt colleagues who also visited Sweden will make up for any deficiencies on my part in referring to our visit.

I accept that child care policy in Wales is the responsibility of the Welsh Assembly Government, but I argue that the provision of formal child care in Wales is intimately bound up with the available resources, which are a Westminster matter, particularly in respect of child care tax credits. I shall refer to those later. On a positive note, I shall argue that others can learn from the Welsh experience in child care and parenting, particularly because of my interest in language issues. I am mindful of the Prime Minister’s new emphasis on the role of language in defining and symbolising identity. That is a pertinent aspect of our visit and of the situation in Wales.

Finally, I shall refer to the role of extended families and grandmothers in particular. I draw attention to research that I commissioned from a colleague called Natalie Jones, which was published as a pamphlet some three and a half years ago: “Gofal o Fath Gwahanol”,
3 July 2007 : Column 170WH
or “A Different Kind of Care”. It specifically considered the role of extended families, particularly grandmothers.

There is a huge demand for child care in Wales, as in the rest of the UK. In Wales, bilingual child care provision of all sorts is especially scarce. That is particularly so in the south and east, where we have seen the most marked growth in the Welsh language in the past three decades, especially among young people, who are today’s and tomorrow’s parents. One parent from Cardiff recently remarked to me—in desperation, not in jest—“Welsh medium child care? It would be easier to get your child into Eton.” Why on earth any one should want to go to Eton is another matter.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Is he aware that in my constituency the local authority has had to start up four Welsh medium starter classes because there is no room in the schools for those children to start? There is enormous support for Welsh language classes in Cardiff.

Hywel Williams: I acknowledge that. There is enormous support, but also an enormous demand. I am sure that we will see a growth in that in the near future.

It is not only bilingual child care that is scarce in Wales and all over the UK. Provision of child care throughout the UK is, at best, patchy, particularly the extended and flexible care that parents are now looking for. The Daycare Trust reported in January 2007:

and that

That is a particular issue.

We can contrast those facts with the provision in Sweden. As I understand it, all parents are guaranteed a child care place within three months of asking, which produces a certainty of provision and the resultant confidence among parents that they can re-enter the work force and go back to work with the guarantee of a place. That contrasts with the uncertainty in much of the UK for some potential returnees—perhaps even the majority—and the great problems that they face in returning to work.

In Sweden, there is a high level of income replacement over an extended period for new parents. In the UK, improvements have been made to the provision and more are on the way. I particularly welcome the provisions that are on their way for fathers, but the provision is still far from Scandinavian levels, which we observed during our visit. Child care in Sweden is affordable—we were told that it costs about £100 a month, with adjustments down for lower-income families and adjustments when the family has more than one child who receives child care. In many areas of the UK, child care is either scarce or expensive and scarce, particularly in inner-city areas.

My experience is of rural areas, and that was why I commissioned the report, “A Different Kind of Care”. In rural areas, whatever child care provision that is available might be 10 or 20 miles in one direction, and
3 July 2007 : Column 171WH
the parents might work 10 or 20 miles in the other direction. There are huge practical difficulties in accessing the proper standard of flexible child care. The encouragement—I say encouragement; others might use a stronger term—to new parents to return to work is the same in the city as in rural areas, regardless of the level of child care that is available locally. No account is taken of the local circumstances.

One reason that provision is so patchy, particularly in rural areas, is the over-reliance on the market. In many places, parents have no alternative but to rely on the market to provide the sort of flexible child care needed to enable them to return to work. Public sector provision is insufficient, or insufficiently flexible, if it is available at all. In certain areas, perhaps in many areas, the market has failed.

The child tax credit system provides an element for child care, of course, but clearly it is not enough to pay the actual cost, particularly in inner-city areas. In some areas, it has failed to generate sufficient demand for the private sector to provide services. Private nurseries report that there is insufficient demand despite the level of support. In some rural areas there will possibly—probably—never be a sufficient level of demand to provide the sort of child care that we would all like in those areas.

In my recent experience of casework in my rural constituency, I have seen a small but growing reluctance to claim tax credits—there is a perception of a disincentive. I do not want to stray into discussing tax credits in general, or to overstate the case, but every surgery brings more cases of people who are in thousands of pounds of debt to the Revenue. They might be a small minority in the broader scheme of things, but an impression is abroad of the difficulty and danger of debt. There is a disincentive to claim the tax credit, particularly the child care element of it.

Child poverty is falling, although it has stalled in Wales at 28 per cent. According to the latest figures, for 2004-05, from Save the Children, 180,000 children live in poverty in Wales. The Government have an ambitious and essential target of eliminating child poverty by 2020, and enabling parents to return to work is a vital step in reaching it. Some 15 per cent. of Welsh children live in workless households—almost by definition, in poverty. That figure is also from Save the Children. In areas where the market has failed to provide, can we really afford to rely so heavily on the child care tax credit? That is not the route taken in Sweden. We need to foster alternative provision both in the public sector and, crucially, through parents’ co-ops.

I can imagine that it will not be easy for the Minister to respond to the debate. Child care covers all aspects of life, and I have gone in several directions already and intend to go in others. Perhaps she can tell us what percentage of qualifying parents do not claim the child care element of the tax credit and how much money for child care is therefore lying unclaimed. We might ask why that money should not be deployed in other ways to the same end. If the Government are making money available, why should it not be used in other ways to provide more child care?

In Sweden, the state provides child care. I should also say that it taxes heavily, but it either provides child care
3 July 2007 : Column 172WH
or enables others to do so. When we were in Stockholm we saw a pre-school and were told about the involvement of parents, particularly through parents’ co-ops, which are an interesting idea and might be taken further.

Setting up a co-op in Wales and the UK in general is no small matter. There is a successful child care co-op in my constituency called Dwylo Da, which means “capable hands”. It is in Dyffryn Nantlle, which is a former slate-quarrying area and one of the most deprived communities in Wales. People there managed to set up a child care co-op, but it was a truly Herculean task and took them more than three years. Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin, the Welsh-language pre-school playgroups association, told me the other day that three years would be the minimum time period for setting up such a parents’ co-op, with no certainty of success, even if the difficulties could be overcome. Most communities do not have the resources for sustained work over three years, although Dyffryn Nantlle is slightly different. That is particularly true because grant aid is so often awarded on a year-by-year basis, which is the bane of the voluntary sector in general.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): I am sorry that I was not able to accompany the hon. Gentleman, the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) and others on the visit to Sweden. Looking at the supply side of the equation, does he think that there are continuing rigidities in the planning system that prevent the emergence of sufficient supply in local areas, perhaps because of nimbyist objections? What view does he take of the scope for further encouragement of a supply of workplace nurseries so that they become the norm rather than the exception in medium and large enterprises?

Hywel Williams: I thank the hon. Gentleman. Dwylo Da, which I mentioned, is in a new build. That was part of the problem that it faced—there was not a suitable place for the nursery. That was a major difficulty there, but in other places people might be able to deploy redundant buildings. I am sure that there is scope for that. There might be nimbyism, but I cannot imagine why.

On the provision of workplace nurseries, there was an excellent employer in Bala, in the constituency neighbouring mine. It was a clothing company and, being of sufficient size, provided a workplace nursery. The economy in rural areas is often a series of small enterprises of one or two people that are not in a position to do the same, but the enterprise in Bala provided a nursery. It has recently closed, with the work going, I think, to China. With it, of course, went the workplace nursery. The size of enterprises can be a problem, particularly in rural areas, but there might be an opportunity for small companies to club together and provide jointly for their workers. That is the best standard—it is good practice, not general practice.

I referred a moment ago to Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin, the Welsh-language pre-school playgroups association, and I now turn to bilingual childcare provision. The importance of language has been highlighted, not least by the Prime Minister. There are other providers in Wales such as Wales Pre-school Playgroups Association, but I focus on MYM because of the language issue. I should confess that I used to be the chair of the local
3 July 2007 : Column 173WH
MYM group and have a long-standing interest in its work. It provides traditional playgroups, full-time child care and, interestingly, what it calls ti a fi groups, which means “you and me”. There are about 1,000 groups throughout Wales, providing a service variously from birth to school age, with an emphasis on interactive, creative learning and playing to a purpose. We saw that in Sweden, where children follow such a curriculum up to the age of seven. The educational results at the end are excellent, no different from those of the more traditional methods of teaching employed in the UK.

MYM uses methods consistent with the groundbreaking curriculum that is being brought in by the Welsh Assembly Government and will be in all schools in Wales by 2008. The ti a fi groups might appear a little different from mother and child groups or, perhaps more accurately in some circumstances, grandmother and grandchild groups, which are an increasingly common pattern. Given the Prime Minister’s emphasis on language learning, I wish to say that 70 per cent. of the children and parents attending the ti a fi groups have English as their home language but attend Welsh-medium provision. Through those groups, MYM works with non-Welsh-speaking parents and grandparents, and with children, to introduce the language. That is a ready-made model; it perhaps does not quite fit circumstances elsewhere, but it is none the less interesting.

The groups teach simple words and pronunciation to adults so that they can use them for bedtime reading to children from simple books. There is not enough emphasis on reading to children, which I used to enjoy enormously with my three daughters. The grandparents and parents are taught songs that they can sing with their children, although perhaps they do not understand them fully. The pay-off is that children learn in a participative, creative way and become bilingual at an early age. By default, the adults also learn elements of the language.

I should contextualise that example by referring to broader trends in Welsh society, such as the growth in the number of adults learning Welsh and the availability and use of the language in education, television, newspapers and so on. In particular there is a project called “twf”, which means “growth”. It targets Welsh-speaking new parents and encourages them to pass the language on to their children. Broad tendencies are developing, and in ti a fi groups we have a successful model of how to pass on a language, which should be of interest.

The later value of becoming bilingual, the better development of cognitive ability, is now clear and uncontested. Bilingual people have the edge—perhaps not this bilingual person, but there we are. I need not emphasise the importance of such techniques of second-language acquisition in apparently monoglot England. I say “apparently monoglot” because there is a huge, little-regarded richness of language. There is a great deal to learn on our own doorstep as well as from Scandinavia.

I wish to mention parenting and promoting the involvement of extended families. It is important for us not to be too starry-eyed and stigmatise parents, particularly lone parents, who do a great job under difficult circumstances. I have no intention of looking back on some imagined, wholly unproblematic past when families cared for themselves, thank you very much, without the help of the nanny state. I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) will refer
3 July 2007 : Column 174WH
to issues around parenting later, rightly putting the emphasis on the value of early intervention and parental involvement. As the report, “Every Parent Matters”, states—perhaps it is stating the obvious—

A famous rugby coach—famous in Wales, at least—called Carwyn James used to say “get your retaliation in first”, so before the hon. Gentleman gets to his feet, I shall briefly refer to parenting and a project in my area.

Throughout north Wales we now have the incredible years programme, which is fostered and promoted by colleagues at the university of Bangor. It works with children and parents and provides training and guidance to cope with problems in behaviour early on, with clear success. The person behind it is Judy Hutchins, who is a former colleague of mine from my time at Bangor. She has worked with a range of local agencies including my local authority, Cyngor Gwynedd, and with particular community initiatives such as a children’s centre in my constituency called Plas Pawb. The parenting programme has been implemented in deprived housing estates, and, as a result, parents have been attracted to all sorts of other courses offered, such as cooking, financial management and so on.

I should confess to a small part in the programme: I handed out parenting course completion certificates to proud parents who recently completed the course, and, as we are talking about Wales, the local course was run by my sister, Bethan Hughes.

Using carefully controlled scientific methods, the project has demonstrated that early intervention can be hugely successful in improving children’s behaviour and, indeed, the relationship between parents and children. Such initiatives are not cheap. Cyngor Gwynedd won a grant to the tune of £800,000 to take the work forward after 2008. We are talking about real money. It is a large amount, of course, but such programmes are hugely valuable. The dividend down the line is that young people’s behaviour will be much improved and, as they may one day be parents, we are storing up a great deal of good for the future. A colleague involved in the project told me that in Norway the parenting part of the initiative is compulsory for all new parents and, interestingly, is available free of charge.

My final point concerns informal care, mainly by grandparents. Again, I refer to the report, which highlighted some interesting conclusions. Care by near relatives was valued highly by parents as being flexible and trusted. It is their first choice, and it is low cost or even no cost—hugely valuable. Grandmothers in the study did not want to be registered, inspected or paid. They did not want to be child minders; they were providing out of love. There is a quote in the report along the lines of, “we are the grannies, this is what we do”. God help anyone who stands in their way.

However, the grandparents did point to some of the costs of caring, and we must take account of those, particularly in respect of grandparents who might be on disability benefits or pensions and who may themselves be low-income people. It is problematic to think of paying people for doing what they would do anyway out of love, but provision of care by relatives in other contexts—disability, for instance—is acknowledged
3 July 2007 : Column 175WH
financially by the benefits system. This morning, I say only that the issue needs to be considered. The grandparents whom we talked to were not looking for vast amounts of money but some recognition of the costs of caring for children, particularly over the summer holidays when they might be taking children to the swimming pool and so on.

The issue needs to be considered because the number of available grandparents is likely to fall in the near future because of demography, substantially, but also because some grandparents will stay in work longer and simply will not be available. Through more flexible working and other provisions, the contribution of relatives will need to be recognised or possibly replaced if parents are to be enabled to work.

In that respect, proper child care is vital not only for families but for the economic development of deprived areas such as my constituency, where the rate of economic engagement is damagingly low. A very low proportion of my constituents are engaged in productive work. We need to look at the issue again. Child care and parenting are not only important for families and children; they are central to economic policy.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the next speaker, I would appreciate it if Members would keep their comments brief, brisk and to the point, because I want to give each of the Opposition spokesmen 10 minutes to sum up, and the Minister 15 minutes at the end. This is an extremely important subject, and the Minister should be given that time to make her points.

Next Section Index Home Page