Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Jenkin of Roding: I should like to commend the Government for sticking to their guns on the question of the au pair. This is not always a straightforward relationship. I should perhaps declare an interest here and say that my wife employed a number of very satisfactory au pairs, but with differing degrees of experience. It is an essentially personal relationship; it is an extension of the family. In the ordinary au pair situation, the au pair, who is almost always a girl--but not necessarily--lives with the family, eats with the family and has an understanding as to how much of her time is to be spent looking after the children and how much is available for doing courses (often English-language courses) or for other activities.

If the Government take the view that to try to regulate this activity is unacceptably bureaucratic, I can only reiterate, "Hear, hear!" If ever there were a case of proportionality, this is it. There are a few unfortunate cases, which always seem to attract newspaper headlines because there is something newsworthy about the au pair relationship. However, they represent a tiny number of the totality of families who have found the au pair arrangement eminently satisfactory. I strongly resist any suggestion that there should now be an entirely new extension of childcare requiring the registration, and all the rest of the paraphernalia, of au pairs. If I may put it this way, I hope that the Government will stick to their guns and

18 Jan 2000 : Column 1021

not be beguiled by what I am sure will be a very eloquent case made by some of the interest groups and, indeed, by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones.

Lord Bach: Perhaps I may, first, thank the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, for welcoming me to this Committee. I say that with some reservation because I know that noble Lords on both the Front and Back-Benches are experts in the field. Therefore, I approach the matter with some caution. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his kind words.

In responding to the noble Lord's amendments, I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 128A tabled in the name of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. I do so because all three amendments in this group deal with providers exempted from the requirement to register as either child minders or day-care providers under the new Part XA to the Children Act.

The effect of Amendment No. 128ZA would be to bring childcare provided in the parents' home under the regulation of Ofsted, or the assembly, while Amendment No. 173A would bring in any day care provided by independent schools. The Government fully understand the concerns which lie behind these amendments, although we take a different approach to tackling them. It may be helpful to the Committee if I set out briefly our plans in respect of these important issues.

As regards Amendment No. 128ZA, the Government believe that care provided in the parents' home, such as that provided by nannies, baby sitters and au pairs, should not be subject to regulation in the same way as that provided by professional child minders, nurseries, playgroups, creches, and so on. We have sought--and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, may get some satisfaction from this--a less bureaucratic approach, which, nevertheless, strengthens safeguards for children looked after in the home.

Yesterday, the Minister for Employment and Equal Opportunities, Margaret Hodge, announced that the new guidance for nanny agencies of the Department for Education and Employment will be published in the spring of this year. The guidance will underpin the revised regulations governing all employment agencies to be issued by the Department of Trade and Industry. The guidance will include advice on areas such as identity checks and verification of a candidate's right to work; further detailed advice about checking work histories, qualifications and references; advice about interviewing candidates; and placing candidates with suitable employers.

The Department for Education and Employment has worked closely with nanny agencies to draft a code of practice which will form the basis of the new guidance. I am sure that it will provide parents and agencies with the help that they need to minimise the risk of children being cared for by unsuitable nannies. In addition, last year the department, in collaboration with the Daycare Trust and the National Early Years Network, issued Need a Nanny, a guide for parents

18 Jan 2000 : Column 1022

giving the advice and information that they need to check the background and suitability of a nanny before offering employment.

We believe that there are practical problems to the regulation of nannies or the establishment of a register. For example, it would be very difficult to determine what constitutes a "good" nanny. Who would decide--and on what basis--whether someone was removed from a register? Would that be decided on the basis of the parents' word alone? Nannies can move from post to post quite regularly. It would be extremely difficult to keep a register up to date. We do not believe that it would be in anyone's interests to have a register that did not work and which may lull parents into a false sense of security. We believe in short that unless a register works it is better not to have a register at all.

I turn now to Amendment No. 173A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones. We share the concern that provision of day care in independent schools is not regulated to the same prescribed standards as other day care providers. That is why we have taken a power in the new Schedule 9A in Schedule 2 to this Bill to prescribe circumstances in which the exemption will not apply.

We recognise that some may wish to see the exemption done away with in this Bill. However, we believe that in the first instance it is appropriate to consult the independent schools sector on this issue. As part of a wider review of the regulation of independent schools, the department is to carry out a consultation exercise this year. The consultation will seek views on strengthening the existing requirements for day care in independent schools to bring them into line with those required in other settings. The department will make proposals following the outcome of that exercise and until that process is complete it would not be sensible or right simply to remove the exemption.

I turn now to the Government's Amendment No. 128A. This amendment relates to the exemption from regulation of informal evening baby-sitting arrangements provided away from the parents' home. It is necessary because, as drafted, the current wording would unintentionally exempt much professional after-school care provision from regulation.

We believe that it is important to ensure that informal arrangements such as evening baby-sitting are exempt from regulation and that we avoid unnecessary regulatory burdens whenever that is possible. However, it is not our intention to exempt from regulation professional arrangements for after-school care--a form of care which, as the Committee will know, is vital to so many working parents.

The amendment is therefore essentially a correction which restructures current wording to prevent the existing two-hour disregard in new Section 79A(7) being "added" to the evening baby-sitting exemption over two days, thereby extending the total exemption period from 4 p.m. on day one until 2 a.m. on day two.

18 Jan 2000 : Column 1023

In simple language the net effect would be to restrict the baby-sitting exemption from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. instead of 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.

6 p.m.

Lord Clement-Jones: I thank the Minister for his considered response. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, I cannot say that I have experience of employing nannies or au pairs. Indeed I cannot comment on his statement that only a small number of problems arise with au pairs or nannies and that essentially they are regarded as part of the family. However, I am concerned about the quality of care that they provide. If they are considered to be members of a family and enjoy a huge amount of trust, that is precisely where problems may arise. I appreciate the Minister saying that he accepted the concerns that have been expressed even if the way that he mentioned of dealing with those concerns was rather different from what has been suggested by others. I was grateful to the Minister for setting out how he believes the safeguards are being strengthened in terms of the new guidance for nanny agencies which is shortly to be issued.

I believe that the best way to deal with the amendment is to consider that guidance in detail. I hope that it will be issued as the Bill progresses through this Chamber and possibly before Report stage. That would be helpful. Then one would be able to judge whether the regulation of nanny agencies will be tightened up in the way that the Minister suggested. I accept that practical problems arise when one deals with nannies and au pairs in individual households. However, it is important to find some means to ensure that standards in this area are maintained and improved.

I also thank the Minister for his response to Amendment No. 173A to new Schedule 9A. I very much hope that the consultation will be designed to be completed to enable time to be given--in this Chamber or in another place--to consider its conclusions and to table suitable amendments to the Bill, if that is considered appropriate. If, following the consultation, conclusions were reached that a different kind of exemption would be appropriate, it would be unfortunate not then to be able to amend the Bill. That would represent a missed opportunity. I am not sure what future opportunity could easily be found to amend the legislation if we miss the opportunity to do so as the Bill progresses through Parliament. I hope that the consultation will be speedily completed. The Minister mentioned the spring but I do not know whether he can give us a further indication as to when the consultation might be completed. The Minister does not indicate any knowledge of that. I shall withdraw the amendment but look forward to further information on that point at a future date. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

18 Jan 2000 : Column 1024

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page