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This is a serious matter; it is about the care standards experienced by many thousands of very young children. When parents leave their children with a child minder, often for many hours of the week, they need to have confidence not only that the child minder has been properly registered but also that the standard of child care practice is of a good quality. Some very young children spend most of their waking hours in the care of child minders. Therefore over the years the Department of Health has gone to great lengths to establish good guidance on child care practice, reinforced by legislation and regulation, and monitored through an agreed process of inspection.
I have no doubt, however, that the system of inspection and regulation of child minders can be improved, and would be improved, by the work and experience of the national care standards commission which the Bill establishes. I hope that the Committee will excuse some unparliamentary language when I say that frankly it seems to me just plain "daft" now to transfer this task of regulation and inspection to the Chief Inspector of Schools. I can see no relationship between the task of regulating and inspecting child minding and that of the Chief Inspector of Schools.
In order to emphasise that child minding is about social care and about good child care practice, and certainly not about education, I remind the Committee that it is not unusual for a social services department to reach an agreement with a parent of a young child who may be at risk that the child should be placed with a child minder. There are in this country some quite exceptional child minders who not only contribute to the assessment of the development needs of the child but also work ably with the parents. This is good child care practice at its best.
I hope that, although I have expressed my concerns with brevity, the Government will be willing to look again at this proposal because I feel deeply troubled as regards transferring the regulation and inspection of
Lord Clement-Jones: I support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Laming. I had not considered fully all the implications when we discussed this matter at Second Reading. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, had the courtesy to write to me. I raised the issue of the resources that would be available to Ofsted and I received some assurance that these would be considered. However, it seems to me that the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, on the practicalities are extremely powerful in these circumstances. My arguments at that stage were about resources, but if one adds the two arguments together, one has a very powerful case against transferring to Ofsted.
I have the impression that this extension of the remit of Ofsted has been greeted with some derision in certain circles. I think I am right in saying that the phrase "Oftot" has been used by some commentators.
The noble Lord made the case that this is primarily a matter of care standards; it is not primarily a matter of education. I entirely concede that a good childminder is perfectly capable of assisting in the education process of a child, but so are the parents. Anyone who has the care of a child--if he or she is doing so properly--is constantly aware that he or she is actually promoting the child's education in the widest possible sense.
That does not seem to me to be a matter that lies easily within the remit of Ofsted. To my mind, since it was set up by the previous administration, Ofsted has established its authority, its expertise, its credibility and its acceptability in a most remarkable way. However, it is essentially concerned with the formal education of children in schools. This extension to becoming the authority responsible for monitoring childcare, and day care by childminders of the kind we are talking about, would be of an entirely different character. To my mind, the matter essentially lies within the scope of the new care standards commission, which, after all, has a range of similar objectives in relation to other establishments.
Quite frankly, I am puzzled and astonished as to why the Government should consider that Ofsted is the right home for this particular extension. I agree that there should be proper control of standards, proper monitoring and proper registration, but it does not seem to me that that is an Ofsted function; it should be a function of the new commission. The noble Lord, Lord Laming, is right. I hope that the Government will listen carefully to an argument coming from such an authoritative source.
On this occasion he raises an important issue: which body should have responsibility for the regulation of day care and childminding in England. I am grateful for the opportunity he gives to set out the Government's position on this matter and to attempt to allay any concerns which may have arisen as a consequence of the decision to transfer the regulatory function to Ofsted.
That the regulatory function--and, in particular, the consistent application of standards--should be carried out by a single national body rather than by 150 individual local authorities, as at present, is, I venture to suggest, not in question. Responses to the Government's consultation in 1998 on the regulation of childcare showed clearly the importance attached to the delivery of regulation being consistent across the country; nor is there any doubt that integrating day care regulation and nursery education inspection will reduce burdens on providers.
Having a single regulatory authority operating the national standards will ensure that a child's welfare and safety will no longer be a matter of geography but one of consistency across the country. We believe that the present system has become, in effect, one of localised regulation, which has led to widely varying interpretations of guidance in different parts of the country. A national framework will help to ensure a level playing field for providers and will deliver clarity for both the regulated and the regulator.
In reaching its decision on which body should be responsible for regulation, the Government were bound to be aware of some people's perceptions of Ofsted, particularly having heard the notable contributions to the debate today. I refer, for example, to the perception that Ofsted has no experience of the provision of childcare and that, as a consequence, this will lead to an education "take-over". We acknowledge that that is an important concern. It is one which all who have spoken to the amendment so far have reiterated.
The Government's decision to cast Ofsted in the role of regulator does not ignore these concerns and it is important that I explain the rationale behind the decision. I should also like to reassure the noble Lord, and others who share his concerns, that the well-being of our children will remain the highest priority under the new and distinct early years directorate, which will be established within Ofsted and headed by the early years director, a new post created to carry out this important work.
First, and most importantly, the legislative provision set out in the Children Act 1989, which this Bill seeks to improve further, presents a very clear framework to ensure that the care, welfare and development of children is at the heart of the regulatory function. A new framework of standards will be set by the Government for the provision of care
I must also make it clear that there is no intention of ignoring or marginalising the vast amount of expertise of the staff currently involved in this work. It is the Government's intention that local authority inspectors, managers and administrative staff will be given the opportunity to transfer to the new early years directorate, bringing with them their knowledge and experience. It is essential that the best of the existing system is maintained in the new one. The necessary competence to carry this forward is currently vested largely with those working in the local authorities.
I do not think it is unparliamentary language--nor do I think that what the noble Lord, Lord Laming, said was unparliamentary--to put the matter directly. Ofsted does not have hundreds of staff hidden away waiting to take on this work. The early years directorate will achieve greater success if many of those doing the job now opt to continue to do it.
In coming to their decision, the Government had regard to the burden that dual inspection placed on many providers. Bringing together the regulation and inspection systems for early years childcare and education in England signals an end to the confusion and duplication which operating two separate regimes has created.
There are a number of other practical considerations to take into account. Ofsted has experience of inspecting new areas of provisions and of successfully putting in place the means to do this. In 1992, Ofsted was given the task of setting up an independent system of school inspection. It had to devise a framework for inspection applicable across all schools, recruit sufficient numbers of suitable inspectors and ensure that they were appropriately trained in the framework and in quality assurance throughout the whole process. We believe that this was done successfully, not only meeting the targets but achieving quality inspections.
When Ofsted was given the function of inspecting nursery education, that was also new to them. They have made a success of this by drawing upon and harnessing the expertise of those in that sector and training them for the purposes of raising and ensuring the standards of education for four year-olds, now being extended to cover three year- olds. Inspection of nursery education has also been generally successful because Ofsted has worked in close partnership with providers and relevant bodies such as early years development and childcare partnerships in this sector.
Ofsted has undoubted considerable experience in driving up standards. It has always delivered what has been asked of it and it has never failed to meet its targets. Ofsted has a national framework for education inspections and, most important, it already has in place a national and regional organisational structure.
Furthermore, Ofsted has experience of publishing inspection reports--an important aspect of the new legislative framework--enabling providers and parents to see the quality of provision at present and what the provider needs to do to make it better. Ofsted has experience of producing thematic reports on more general trends in the provision of education. These types of reports will be important in giving an overview of the national position as regards childminding and day-care provision.
I have taken a little time to explain the Government's rationale in the decision they have made. I sincerely hope that the noble Lord and other noble Lords who have spoken are happy with this explanation of how the Government came to their decision on Ofsted and how Ofsted will operate within the new framework. I hope also that the noble Lord will consider what I have said and will take the opportunity--which of course he knows exists--to meet with myself and others to discuss further this Government decision in the weeks ahead.
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