HC Deb 12 June 1947 vol 438 cc1457-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

9.19 p.m.

Mr. Sidney Shephard (Newark)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the situation regarding the provision of day nurseries. It seems to me that at the moment the position is rather paradoxical. On the one hand, the Government are urging mothers with young children to go out to work and to leave their children in day nurseries. On the other hand, the local authorities are closing them down on the score of expense. A case of this was reported on Tuesday in the "Daily Express" which said: Wives seize a nursery. Mothers locked themselves in the day nursery in Littlemore Road, Pudsey, this weekend and refused to open the doors until the police came in through the windows. It was protest No. 1 at the Pudsey Council's decision to close the nursery because it was too expensive. Protest No. 2 will be a silent one. Thirty mothers will not turn up for work at local factories making textiles for export. 'We have to stay at home to look after the children,' they say. I do not say that that is necessarily typical of what is happening all over the country, but the fact remains that, last year, 167 of these day nurseries were closed. It is not my purpose tonight to discuss the merits or otherwise of day nurseries, or whether mothers with young children should go out to work. In normal times, the proper place for a mother with young children is in the home, and, however good a day nursery may be, it cannot equal a good home environment. But the times are not normal, and there is a recruiting campaign now in full swing, in those districts which are short of women workers, which is designed to persuade them to enter or re-enter industry.

Sir Godfrey Ince, speaking of this campaign, said there were 300,000 vacancies for women and girls at the employment exchanges; he said that the textile trades were 150,000 women short, compared with the number they employed before the war, that the clothing trades were 100,000 short and the laundry trades 23,000 short. He also said that, although there are 700,000 more women working today than were working in 1939, there are over a million less than were working at the peak period of the war. Unless we can get these women back into industry, and into these particular industries, there will be no hope of an end of clothes rationing, neither can these industries make their proper contribution to the export trade. It is quite useless the Government appealing to mothers to go to work unless they make provision for looking after their children on a proper scale. Many of these mothers are only too anxious to do their bit, and they would willingly work if they knew how to get their children properly looked after. During the war, there was a great extension of day nurseries. I believe there were io6 in 1939, and at the peak period of the war, there were 1,560, with accommodation for 60,000 children.

But in December, 1945, a joint circular was sent out by the right hon. Gentleman and the Minister of Education to welfare and local education authorities on the future provision of nursery accommodation for children under five, and that circular pointed out that, with the end of the war and the passing into law of the new Education Act, it was envisaged that the day nurseries, which had been set up to deal with the problem of evacuation and the production of munitions, would gradually cease to function, and that, complementarily, at the same time, there would be a wide extension of nursery schools and classes. The local authorities were to regard these day nurseries only as supplementary to the nursery schools and only to meet the cases of mothers who had to go out to work. I think that that policy was right at the time, but I do not think it was envisaged then that we should have this very serious manpower problem and, while very few nursery schools have been provided since the war finished, the closing down of these day nurseries has cut down the existing accommodation without providing any alternative.

In any case, nursery schools do not deal adequately with the case of the working mother. In the first place, they do not take children under the age of two, and, very often, not under the age of three. They are only open during school hours, and, of course, they are closed during the long school holidays. But I have no doubt in my mind that finance has a great deal to do with the closing down of these day nurseries. Up to 31st March, 1946, the Minister of Health assumed the entire financial responsibility for them, but after that date local education authorities only received the same grant as they received for education purposes—something just over 50 per cent.—and the position today is that there are only 897 day nurseries as compared with the figure which I quoted previously of 1,560 at the peak period.

There is the further point that, whereas during the war mothers paid only 6s. per child per week, today they are subject to some kind of means test, and have to pay anything up to 30s. It seems to me that a new situation has arisen which justifies a re-examination of this day nursery problem based entirely on the 'need to make provision for mothers who wish to go to work and want accommodation for their children. I know that a few firms have opened works nurseries. We opened one in my works, and I must say that it has been a great success. But we cannot rely to any great extent on works nurseries. In most cases the factories are not suitable for conversion. They have hardly the right environment, and further, very few firms have the necessary space available. I have not brought this matter forward in any critical spirit. I hope that the Minister will re-examine the problem afresh in the light of the present situation and see whether there is anything he can do to stimulate the local authorities to open or reopen day nurseries wherever the need exists.

9.28 p.m.

Mrs. Leah Manning (Epping)

I wish only to add a few words to what the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Shephard) has said. I am glad that he has raised this subject, because I think that there is a great deal of uneasiness in the country about it. However, I would like to join issue with him a little on the question of children under the age of two. I think that there is now a general feeling in the country that mothers with very young children should, if possible, be at home with them, and not go into the factory. We all know that there is a very great urge for mothers to go to work, but it is not quite the same urge as there was during the war years when we were very glad to have mothers, with babies who had just left the breast, going into factories.

I feel that perhaps the Minister has not taken sufficiently into consideration the fact that we had hoped that nursery schools would be opening almost immediately, and that they would take over, for children over the age of two, the functions with which during the war the day nurseries had to concern themselves. Our anticipations, unfortunately, have not been realised. There are many reasons for that which need not be dilated upon now, because they are too well known to everybody. The Minister of Education has had to say that the shell, the essential part of the schools, must be built first, and that such adjuncts as nurseries, and even canteens, must wait until a little later. The necessity for that raises a rather new situation. How ought this situation to be dealt with?

The hon. Member for Newark has mentioned something in which I am very interested, and I am anxious that the Minister should pursue some inquiries about it. It is the question of day nurseries being built near or actually at the works. During the war we felt that that was a mistake because most works were in vulnerable areas. We turned our face against it then, but the position is different now. We have to consider the case of the mother who gets up early to go to work and finds that the only nursery to which she can take her child is at the other end of the town. It means a long journey both before she goes to work and afterwards, when she is tired. It also means that she is cut off from her child all day long. Perhaps we can pursue this matter a little further. I would like to press the Minister for his views, and perhaps for a promise that he will consider the question. We do not want any kind of place in the factory for the children, but somewhere with pleasant surroundings. We want a place that is properly furnished and well equipped, and with suitable people in charge. It would be a very great convenience to mothers in industry, especially in places where nurseries have not already been built. The mothers might be able even to see their children at lunch time and have their meals with them in the canteen. It is along those lines that I should like the Minister's advice tonight.

9.32 p.m.

Mr. Drayson (Skipton)

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Shephard) for raising this subject, which has a bearing upon the production problem with which the Government are now confronted. I had not intended to intervene in the Debate, but it happens that yesterday I received a letter from a branch of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, deploring the fact that a day nursery in the town was being closed down. My first reaction was to write to the local authority before I approached the Minister, but as we now have an opportunity to discuss day nurseries, I will bring the matter to the notice of the Minister, and inform him that this branch of the A.E.U. has written to me in protest. The town in question has a large number of operatives engaged in the textile industry. It is an essential industry employing a large number of women. Many of us would much prefer that married women with children should remain in their homes, but this is becoming very difficult at the present time. I ask the Government to consider, if local authorities have difficulty in meeting out of the rates expenses incurred in running day nurseries, whether some assistance can be given. The North of England suffered considerably during the recent fuel crisis in loss of wages, owing to the industrial shutdown. The Government might see their way to keeping the nurseries open. I have taken the opportunity to inform the Minister that the A.E.U. is particularly interested in this subject. I hope he will have some announcement to make and that he will be prepared to consider assisting local authorities who feel they cannot continue the expense of day nurseries.

9.35 p.m.

Dr. Haden Guest (Islington, North)

I hope the Minister will keep his mind open on the possibility of improving the conditions as they exist at present. On many occasions in my constituency there has been brought to my notice very forcibly the need for extra nursery accommodation at a reasonable price. I would also point out that in the London area many women go to work not in factories, but individually, or one or two together, so that there is no question of having factory or works crèches, which in their way, of course, are very desirable. I hope the Minister will keep in mind another factor which ought to be given "points," so to speak, in estimating the necessity for these places, and that is the question whether the homes from which the children come are of a suitable kind. If they were very good homes with plenty of accommodation, it might be possible for mothers to arrange for someone to look after them at home, but unfortunately many of them are not suitable. In many parts of London, however, that is not possible. The type of home and the cost are matters which have been brought to my attention by several trade unions and local authorities, and I hope the Minister will be able to say something which will give hope to those who find it difficult to carry on working because they have no place to which to take their children.

9.37 p.m.

Mr. Baker White (Canterbury)

There is one aspect of this matter which I would like to mention, and that is its effect on agriculture. In the coming years we have to produce more food, and particularly more fruit and vegetables in this country. In many counties, notably counties like Kent, we rely largely on women to get in those crops. I admit it is seasonal. It starts with pea picking, and goes on to the soft fruits crop, then hop picking in Kent, and finishes with apples. Some difficulty has been experienced in getting women to leave their homes because there is nowhere to leave their children, particularly young children, while they are working. I realise that the Minister cannot do anything about it in this present year, but as the matter has been raised, I have called attention to this problem of day nurseries as it affects the countryside.

9.38 p.m.

Mr. Chetwynd (Stockton-on-Tees)

I would like to know whether the Minister of Health could give some information about the average cost now charged to people for sending their children to day nurseries. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Shephard) said that in some cases the cost was as much as 30s. a week. I heard that general allegation made some time ago, and I took the trouble to investigate it. I found the average cost was about 10s. a week, and that, in many cases, parents were sending their children to day nurseries free of charge. Could we have some information on that point, because it is most important? On the question of young children of about one or two years of age I would say that during the war my wife was working and our young baby, who was then under one year, went to an admirable day nursery, but we found the arrangement did not work. She was miserable and unhappy, and we had to take her away. I would like some guidance as to whether it is wise to send children of that tender age to day nurseries.

9.39 P.m.

The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Shephard) for having raised this very important matter, because it provides me as, indeed it has provided other hon. Members, with an opportunity of saying a word or two on the subject. There is some misapprehension about the existing situation. It is not quite as bad as it is made out to be in some quarters. In 1939 there were 104 day nurseries in England and Wales. In 1944 the number increased to 1,550, with places for 71,000 children. In 1947 these had fallen to 900 with places for 44,000 children. In the meantime we have 370 nursery schools for 19,000 children. These figures show a higher proportion of women in industry and of nursery facilities than in time of war, and so we are nor falling behind in that regard. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Epping (Mrs. Manning) that the substitution of nursery schools in place of day nurseries is progress. We all regard nursery schools as the better solution of the two.

But I do want to make it quite clear that the Government are not making a drive to recruit for industry women who have children under two years of age. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Epping that it is undesirable for a mother to leave all day her child of that age. We do not wish to encourage it. Nor, indeed, do we wish to drive women into employment who have got burdensome domestic responsibilities, because the maintenance and welfare of a young family is one of the most important considerations for the State; and we must not allow ourselves to be panicked into recruiting women into industry if, as a consequence of that, we have neglect of young children and what was seen during the war, the appalling indiscipline of many young children. I do hope we shall have a sense of proportion.

Now, of course, day nurseries will increase; but, as hon. Members in all parts of the House know, there are very grave physical limitations on what we can do. We have limited physical resources. We need very much more than we have got. So it is not possible for us to extend to the extent that we might like. I would remind hon. Members that it is not easy to staff nurseries when we have them. Domestic staffs, nursing staffs are very difficult to get, and very often these nurseries have been closed down because of the absence of efficient staff. That is a further difficulty that we are up against. We have, of course, about 150,000 children in infant departments of primary schools, which is a very considerable contribution towards helping to solve this problem, and about 250 wartime nurseries have become nursery schools. So we are making some headway. We are hoping to expand wherever the need is proved. Whenever the Ministry of Labour say that more nursery places are required, the Ministry of Health at once approaches the local welfare authority, and arrangements are made for the opening up of the day nurseries.

But hon. Members must not imagine that this is always an economic affair. Indeed, some of the nurseries have been frightfully expensive. It would be far better if women just remained at home. Some have cost so much we could have afforded to send the mother and her child on holiday to the South of France rather than keep the nursery open at all. So we must not imagine that the day nursery is an economic proposition. We have to balance the disutility in maintaining a day nursery against what a woman would be producing in industry, if she went into industry. We must not have these babies wrapped up in platinum merely in order to say we have got day nurseries. For instance, in the hon. Gentleman's own constituency—at Newark—half the present accommodation is unused.

Mr. S. Shephard

I was not talking about my own constituency.

Mr. Bevan

No, but that is slightly relevant. It does go to show that where these nurseries are provided they are not always used to the extent we should like to see them used, and to the extent they are not used, of course, the overheads can become really too burdensome, and local authorities then close them down.

I have been asked whether we would consider assisting financially local authori- ties who find the burden too heavy to carry. I must be quite frank with the House. I do not consider it good public policy to give local authorities special grants which are so high that the local authorities have no financial interest in the economic management of their own affairs. We give an average of 50 per cent.; and that is an average above most of the other grants. If the grant is increased to 75 per cent., or, as I was asked by some hon. Members the other day, to 100 per cent., it would be monstrously extravagant. If we are to entrust, as we must, the management of these day nurseries to local authorities, the national finances must be safeguarded by giving the local authorities an interest in the economic running of the day nurseries. If the local authorities find that the discharge of these services becomes too burdensome the solution is, not to make them financially irresponsible by increasing the amount of the grant, but to re-adjust the local burden all round.

It very often happens that the House of Commons is subjected to pressures which ought, in fact, to be exerted against local authorities. If local authorities are negligent—and they are, after all, elected bodies, and it is open to the citizens of those areas to make the local authorities face up to their responsibilities—a good deal of the pressure which is sometimes exerted against me might be exerted to far better effect against the negligent local authorities up and down the country.

Let me say a few words on the very important point of créche facilities in fac tories. I am not quite sure what my powers are in that regard. I think that probably it would be better to do it by persuasion; by giving assistance here and there, where-ever it is required; by giving help and guidance, unless we had some wide legislative power—which, indeed, we have not got at the present time. Not all factories are desirable places for young children to go to. What my hon. Friend the Member for Epping has said is quite sound. If a mother has to travel long distances in order to deposit her baby, before starting work, and then has to travel that long distance to get the baby afterwards, the attractiveness of work becomes quite impossible in certain circumstances, and we should pay a very high price in the fatigue of the mother, and lose as a consequence.

I will certainly explore further to see to what extent it is possible to provide creches in suitable factories; because it does not require argument to appreciate that if a mother can run out for a moment or two in the course of the day to look at the baby she is much more satisfied, and the baby is much more satisfied; and she would be able to take the baby home with her straight away, without having the fatigue of unnecessary travel. We attach very great importance indeed to the development of day nurseries, but not to the development of day nurseries which are so under-used as to make them quite uneconomic.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten Minutes to Ten o'Clock.