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5 Mar 2009 : Column 1018

Ms Dari Taylor: I was quite shocked by the statement of the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) because the work and pensions people in Stockton, South most certainly will go out and speak to any pensioner who is finding the form complicated or difficult, and will ensure that that lady or gentleman fills it in and gets her or his full entitlement.

Ms Buck: That is right, and I am sure that that experience is replicated elsewhere. I pay tribute to Age Concern in Westminster, which has outreach workers who work with pensioners and help them to complete those forms.

Another thing that the Government have done in recent years that I am also pleased about is ensure that there is a better read-across between different types of benefit so that pensioners and other claimants do not have to go through a multiple process of claiming if they are entitled to more than one benefit. We should be pleased with the pension credit, and we should also aim to do more to raise awareness of claims for council tax benefit, which is the single most underclaimed benefit of those means-tested benefits. There is much that we could do to improve the delivery of council tax benefit for the good of pensioners and other low-income households, and I would like to see more work on that. In fact, I would like to see more emphasis on that benefit entitlement than on the freezing of council tax, because higher earners and those with higher value properties need to make a contribution to council tax in order to protect services for the most vulnerable.

Families—particularly women—who are disproportionately over-represented among low earners are at risk of falling into debt as their earnings fall, or as they fall out of employment. Enormously valuable work has been done by advice agencies and debt agencies across the country to help families, and as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Citizens Advice, I would like to pay huge tribute to the work of Citizens Advice in this respect. The great concern is that, if debt levels rise, some families will fall into a downward spiral of debt that is exacerbated by the actions of debt recovery agencies and bailiffs.

My local authority has one of the highest rates of use of bailiffs in the country, and I would like to share with the House the most disturbing experience of a constituent who came to see me yesterday. Unfortunately, I fear that it will be symptomatic of what goes on, and the Government and local authorities across the country need to take more action. The lady who came to see me is a single parent with two children. She is in part-time employment and earns about £500 a month, with tax credit on top of that. She had a long-term overpayment of council tax benefit in the early part of this decade, and ended up with a £3,000 overpayment. The bailiffs came to her to take recovery action, and she was asked to pay £100 a month on top of her current council tax payments, out of a total income of about £1,000 a month. That is utterly unsustainable.

Naturally enough, my constituent fell into difficulty. More worryingly, the later years of council tax benefit, all of which are treated as an individual debt, were passed on to a second bailiffs agency, which is pursuing her separately for further claims of the overpayment. She is in huge distress, but perhaps most worryingly of all, her 14-year-old son is so worried about the bailiffs’ action and threats that they had made about the recovery
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of property, that he is unwilling to leave the house outside of school because he fears being confronted on the doorstep by bailiffs seeking to get into the house. The mother told me, with tears pouring down her face, that he sits with the lights turned off in the winter because he is terrified that the bailiffs, knowing that there is somebody in the house, will come in and repossess his computer.

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): I have heard of similar experiences. It is heartbreaking and terrifying that the debt is transferred to the bailiffs so quickly, because they are relentless, and impose extra charges that deepen the debt. Does the hon. Lady agree that the local authority—in my case, Haringey—should be far more willing to sit down with the person in debt to reschedule it? People are willing to pay off such debt over time and should not be forced to deal with bailiffs immediately because the council does not have time for people in trouble.

Ms Buck: I totally agree with that. Bailiffs should very much be a last resort. Sometimes their use will be necessary; there will be those who deliberately and persistently refuse to pay their debts, and I understand that they have to be pursued. But the use of bailiffs should be a last resort because, as the hon. Lady pointed out, the charges of the bailiffs and for court fees are added to the original debt, simply compounding the family’s financial crisis. As we face what will tragically be an increase in the level of debt over the course of the global economic downturn, we must, at government and at local authority level, consider a more pragmatic and supportive way of dealing with families—disproportionately, but not only, women—who find themselves in debt. If there is anything that Ministers can do to advise local authorities on a better responsive use of bailiffs for debt recovery, I would appreciate it.

In recent years, the Government have brought about a transformation in the provision of child care. Such provision has acted to help to underpin the increase in women’s entry to the workplace, particularly and obviously lone-parental entry, because, in many cases, that could not have happened without quality, affordable child care. Those two things go hand in hand. Over the past decade, as the national child care strategy has been rolled out, we have seen a £25 billion investment in child care, and the provision of 1.3 million registered child care places, as compared with provision in 1997.

At the core of this process has been the offer of a free child care place for three and four-year-olds, which has a take-up rate of about 95 per cent. That is obviously indicative of the desire among parents for their children to go into child care. The Conservative Government before 1997 chose to leave child care to the marketplace, arguing that parents should be able to buy into it if only they had the resources. We, rightly, utterly rejected that view, saying that child care should be made available more widely as a realistic choice, particularly for low income families. I have been gratified in the past two or three years to see the greater responsiveness in Government strategy to some of the problems experienced in places such as my own constituency in London, where the provision of child care is exceptionally expensive, and
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where the funding that the Department for Children, Schools and Families has put into the London child care affordability programme has made a lot of difference. For example, we are considering the contribution that parents have to make in the child care tax credits system, and the gap is going to be closed. The contribution that people have been asked to make towards the high cost of child care has been a deterrent, and the changes have been enormously responsive and made a great deal of difference to child care in my constituency.

Miss Kirkbride: I believe that it would be fair to the last Conservative Government to point out that they introduced the national kids’ clubs network, which has been highly successful and built on by the current Government.

Ms Buck: I do not believe that anyone with any sense would say that no provision existed before 1997. We should have some maturity in a political debate, and that is clearly the case. I acknowledge that, and I do so gracefully—I did not mean to sound surly—but will the hon. Lady respond equally gracefully to the fact that this Government have created 1.3 million child care places with a £25 billion investment? If so, perhaps she will place that on record.

Miss Kirkbride: I am sure that the hon. Lady’s figures are correct, and that those places have been provided. However, I might take issue with calling it an investment, because the money has been spent.

Ms Buck: The commitment to the expansion of child care has been made and delivered on, and the child care landscape is utterly transformed. That is the most important point.

In addition to the provision of pre-school places for two and three-year-olds and child care places for the children of working parents, as part of an early intervention strategy there has been the unfolding of children’s centres and Sure Start, which did not exist before 1997. I am pleased to say that next week, I will help to open yet another children’s centre in the network in my constituency. They are doing extraordinarily important outreach work, particularly for the most disadvantaged families. They are providing parental support and education and an important early years experience for children. All those things have been put in place, and the extended schools service has been rolled out. It has built upon and dramatically expanded the kids’ club provision that was previously in place, so that there is provision out of school hours and in the holidays. Of course, maternity leave has also been extended.

Those things have been important because, as I have said, they have enabled a significant increase of the proportion of women, and particularly of lone parents, getting into the work force. They have represented a response to the problems of inequality in our society, which have been well captured in the Government’s social mobility White Paper. We know that when an inequality gap starts in the case of children under five, it cannot be closed through investment at later stages in their education. It is in those early years that the seeds of social inequality are sown and that we can do much to close the inequality gap.

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There is a danger that we sometimes talk about child care in a slightly instrumental way, mentioning only employment and economic inequality. Most importantly, however, quality child care is an enriching experience for children. The enrichment of children, not parents, employment or anything else, has to be at the heart of our considerations. Seeing children play in a quality child care setting is one of the most delightful things that any of us can experience, and many children have been benefiting from what we have been able to do, and particularly from the expansion of recent years. The Government should be more proud of that than of anything else that we have done.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s contribution very much. I certainly agree that we have made huge steps forward in the provision of child care, but in my constituency and in Wales as a whole, most child care is still informal care by relatives, grandparents or friends. Does she feel that any acknowledgment should be made of such care?

Ms Buck: That is a difficult one. I totally agree that we will all want to honour the contribution that family and friends make to parents with children. My own mother has been the principal carer for my son in his early years. That is certainly important, but I am less sure about whether we should roll out a financial reward for such contributions. There would be a phenomenal expense attached to that, and there would be a number of risks to formalising a payment system for informal care. Personally, I believe that rather than build such a formal structure, one of the best options is to allow families, and particularly women and lone parents who draw upon informal care, to achieve a certain earnings level through equal pay and the ability to go into the workplace. That will allow them to make a personal contribution. The debate will continue for many years to come.

Mrs. Maria Miller: I know that the hon. Lady is speaking with conviction about the importance of quality child care, about which I fundamentally agree with her. I have also heard her speak powerfully about the importance of affordable child care. In a recent Westminster Hall debate, she cited the fact that only one in 10 eligible families in her constituency had access to the child care element of the working tax credit. Did she share my concern when the Minister who responded to the debate, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, said that there were no clear data on the take-up of that credit, and that extra work was needed on that? Surely that should have a been a higher priority for the Treasury.

Ms Buck: I was about to come to that matter, and the mere fact that I raised it in a Westminster Hall debate shows that I am not wholly satisfied with the operation of the child care tax credit. However, it must be said that in comparison with the years before 1997, considerably more money has been made available to many more people. If we acknowledge that, we can evaluate Government programmes and say honestly that some work better than others. In my view, the child care tax credit does not work terribly well. I shall return to that point in a moment.

I wish to get to the heart of the Government’s response to the economic downturn in respect of child care. We need to be aware that there will be some fall-out in child care services, and we are already beginning to pick up
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on that anecdotally. The single biggest concern is that women—I focus on women for the purpose of the debate—risk having their earnings reduced, perhaps as their hours are reduced. Worst of all, they risk losing their jobs, and those who rely on paid-for child care will find their child care arrangements undermined. Child care businesses, which often work on a tight margin, will frequently be unable to keep places open for parents who can no longer make their contributions. There must be an early evaluation of the impact of the downturn in employment on child care provision.

I believe that we would all recognise—certainly all of us who are parents would recognise it above all—that the very last thing that someone wants, if they are in employment and have a child with a childminder or in a nursery, is for that provision to be disrupted. Children do not thrive on instability, and we need to ensure that parents who already have the trauma of a reduced income or a lost job do not have to go through the further trauma of pulling their child out of a child care setting. Tragically, that is almost certainly what will happen. That is not the Government’s fault, it is simply an obvious consequence of the business transaction that people undertake for paid-for child care. As the number of people affected is likely to rise, at least for a while longer, we need urgently to consider whether anything more can be done in the short term to improve run-on provision. That would bridge a gap in child care and could prevent a child from having to be pulled out of a child care setting in mid-term or at short notice.

The situation will be worst of all for the many people who lose a job but then find alternative employment quite soon afterwards. They will have to go through all the difficulty of finding alternative child care settings, and perhaps finding the deposit that many have to pay. They will therefore have to go through a number of experiences with their children before they can find stability again.

Mrs. Miller: The hon. Lady says that she is providing anecdotal evidence of the impact of the recession on child care. I would urge her to look at the information that is being provided by the National Day Nurseries Association, the Day Care Trust and many other organisations, as that shows that what she is saying is already happening. Indeed, the NDNA said recently that four in 10 nurseries were experiencing bad debt, and that half of all nurseries were already reporting a noticeable change in child care arrangements, so perhaps the evidence is not just anecdotal.

Ms Buck: My own experience has been of anecdotal evidence, but I am aware that statistics are beginning to emerge that will confirm this. The hon. Lady has cited statistics from the businesses—the child care providers—and that also raises an issue. We do not want to see child care providers going out of business, because it would be hard for the Government to help them to recover as the recession ends.

Of all the tax credit overpayment problems that people experience, child tax credit overpayments are the biggest problem and involve the largest amount of money. If people lose their job and subsequently find that they have already received the child care element of their tax credit and have to repay it, we will see more people having difficulties. That needs to be reviewed very quickly.

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We need to deal with these important short-term issues relating to child care, but they do not in any way detract from the Government’s achievements in early-years investment. Also, over the longer term, we need to recognise that it continues to be difficult to secure affordable child care in the most expensive parts of the country. That sometimes applies to isolated rural areas, and it certainly applies in the inner cities. The child care affordability programme has gone a long way towards rectifying that, but it is a renewable programme, and we need to make sure that it continues.

Of all the achievements in child care, the one that needs to be built on most solidly is the delivery of care for older children. The number of places in out-of-school and holiday provision has increased, but it has not increased at anything like the same rate as the early-years provision, yet it is frequently the older children in late primary school and the early years of secondary school who need to be occupied after school hours and in school holidays. Where the schools, the councils and, indeed, the Government are encouraging those services to be built using a charging policy, under which those who can afford to contribute do so, we run a real risk that the services will be developed least in the areas that need them most. If that was true while the economy was incredibly strong a year ago, it is particularly true now as we go through a downturn. We do not want to see a return to a generation of latch-key children, and provision for that older group is critical. We have gone some way towards delivering it, but not as far as we should have done.

We have delivered for women in terms of child care through this Government, and we should be enormously proud of that. We have transformed the landscape in the past 10 years, but there are specific, practical problems that need to be resolved if we are to ensure that child care continues to deliver for women during the downturn.

1.33 pm

Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey and Wood Green) (LD): Yesterday, as the Minister for Women and Equality said, the Government hosted a group of women to discuss women and the recession. It was a tremendously informative and worthwhile debate, with an amazing group of women, and I should love to see them all here today. It was made clear in that debate that, in a recession, women might choose to stop doing their high-paying job because they can no longer afford the child care as their hours are reduced. They then go back into their homes. The hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) has just made that point as well.

At the other end of the scale, women who do not have high-paying jobs and who have no resilience to the recession, because they have no fall-back position and no savings with which to pay for anything, can fall into dreadful debt. Many people who have come to my surgery tell me that the bailiffs have been called in very rapidly, and that the council has refused even to meet them to consider rescheduling their council tax or rent arrears. Perhaps the Government and local authorities could take action to relieve the pressure on those who have no ability to deal with sudden debt. They have no
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way to recover, let alone deal with the compounding debt that results from the bailiffs becoming involved.

Women also need information on where to acquire skills and learning during the recession, and, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said, the increase in women’s vulnerability to domestic violence is a key issue. It is also clear that we do not yet have hard evidence in the form of data on the differential impacts that the recession will have on women. In order to prevent any further comments from the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—who is actually no longer in his place—it might be helpful to pull in the statistical data from all the various sources, so that we have the evidence to prove the worse, and differential, impact of a recession on women. Otherwise, we shall get into a pointless competition over who has it worse during an economic slowdown. We need to guard against creating resentment in other quarters, not least among the thousands of men who are going to be victims of the downturn. There is a lot of pain going around, and no one group has a monopoly on suffering as a result of the fallout from a recession.

There are aspects to this recession that make it a unique situation in which women find themselves for the first time, so it is right for the House to consider, in marking international women’s day, whether the Government are doing enough to help the women and families who are going to suffer the consequences of the recession. There are now more women in paid employment than ever before, apart from during the world wars. There is no place in this debate to argue for preferential treatment for women, but our purpose today must be to ensure that women get their fair share and do not get left behind or suffer disproportionately from the recession or from further discrimination.

To understand fully the problems that women now face, we cannot ignore the position that women found themselves in before the contraction of the economy. It is important to acknowledge—recession or no recession—that women face greater hurdles in employment than men. Equal pay is a key issue for me. The preamble of the Equal Pay Act 1970 says that the purpose of the Act is to

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