HC Deb 24 April 1967 vol 745 cc1063-6

10.4 a.m.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to alleviate abuses in the care of children and to amend the provisions of the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948. The purpose of this Bill is to draw attention to the problems involved in the care of young children and to suggest one or two amendments to the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act, 1948, which may help to assist in this very depressing and worrying situation. The ultimate object of any solution to the problems of the under-fives is obviously an urgent expansion of the day nursery service, particularly in areas which could be described as deprived.

I think, too, that the country has to make up its mind about its attitude to working mothers. It is no use encouraging mothers of young children to go back to work or putting them in an economic position where they have to go to work and not providing facilities whereby they can get their young children minded.

Whether one approves of it or not, it is obvious that more and more mothers of young children are going out to work and being forced to use all sorts of unsatisfactory services because we do not provide facilities at local authority level whereby children may be looked after.

At the moment, there are over 4½ million children under five. In 1955, there were just under 4 million, and it will be seen that the increase has been roughly 20 per cent. Against that figure, since 1948, local authority day nurseries have declined from 910 looking after 43,000 children, until 1965, when there were 448 looking after just over 21,000 children.

To the extent that the day nursery facilities provided by local authorities have declined, the provision for childminding by private nurseries has increased. In fact, the figures are quite alarming. In 1949, there were 250 private nurseries looking after just under 7,000 children, whereas in 1965, there were 2,200 private nurseries looking after 55,000 children. In child minding, the same situation has arisen. More and more children are going into the private sector of the child-minding service, be it a day nursery or a woman registered as a child-minder, because facilities for looking after children in the public sector do not exist.

With this lack of provision, what we have seen, particularly in our larger industrial areas such as London, Birmingham and Liverpool, is a mushrooming in the service provided by the unregistered child-minder, and it is on that that I want to focus most attention in the few minutes at my disposal.

Although it is an offence for any woman to look after children unless she is registered with the local authority, the means of ensuring that registration takes place are so loose and ineffective that more and more women are looking after children, the numbers of which we can only guess, without local authorities having knowledge of it or having any contact with the persons concerned through their public health departments. It might be said that in some areas it is becoming almost like the baby-farming which occurred in the Victorian era.

One of the biggest avenues for the unregistered child-minder to get children is through the advertisement boards displayed outside local shops and through local newspapers. If one cares to look round, one can see advertisements asking for children to be minded or offering to look after children. One way in which something might be done about registration is to make it illegal for a newsagent or newspaper to accept an advertisement for child-minding unless the person placing the advertisement has a certificate of registration issued by the local authority. I realise that this will not close the gap completely because much of the touting for children which goes on is done through neighbours by word of mouth, but it would do something to bring to the attention of people who may be ignorant of the law that they have to register with the health authority before they look after children.

One of the dangers of interfering with what one might call the private sector of child-minding is that unless we make adequate provision through the local authority this practice will go on unchecked because women will always find somebody to look after their children, and we will, as it were, push unregistered child-minders underground. I want to give mothers every facility to use the advice and help available from the local authority through the health visitor and through the medical officer of health.

One of the most alarming facts which has emerged from recent reports and surveys on child-minders is the total ignorance of many of the people doing this service of the needs of the children under their care. They have no idea of the physical conditions under which the children should be looked after, nor any knowledge about diets and using the proper means of heating. We have recently heard of a number of tragedies resulting from the use of unsafe oil heaters when a large number of children are gathered together. To prevent further tragedies of this nature we must do all that we can to provide facilities for people engaged in this work to take advantage of the advice and guidance which they can receive from a local authority.

The other aspect of this matter is the confusion which exists between the educational sphere of nursery schools, and the health responsibility of day nurseries. Local authority day nurseries are registered under the Health Act, nursery schools are registered under the Education Act, and yet a person looking after anything from 10 to 20 children is registered under the Nursery and Child-Minders' Act, if she wishes, although she may be conducting what is really an educational establishment because she has in her charge a large number of children who must constitute some sort of nursery class.

I suggest that the Department of Education and Science and the Ministry of Health should consider having a joint responsibility for all children over the age of three and under the age of five, so that rather than have one group under education and one under health, all groups of children over three would be given at least some recognition by the education authority, and children under three would be the complete responsibility of the health authority.

I think that that is important, because it is obvious that in the foreseeable future there will not be adequate provision for the under-fives either by means of a day nursery service, or a nursery school service, and as the private sector of provision for the under-fives increases by play groups, kindergartens, and so on, it is important that these children who are in what ought to be educational establishments are given the advantage of receiving guidance from and inspection by the education authorities otherwise we shall tend to develop two classes of young children, some having the advantage of education, while others are deprived of it, merely because they are registered under a different Act.

The comments made during the last two years by various medical officers of health, and the knowledge which health visitors have gained about the whole problem of the under-fives and working mothers add tremendous weight to my plea for a public inquiry. We do not know why women put their children with unregistered child minders, rather than with registered ones. We do not know enough about the conditions under which these children are looked after, but we do know that the under-fives, and particularly those over whom the local authority has no control, are open to wide abuse. We are subjecting many of our young children to physical and mental dangers. We ought therefore to have a public inquiry so that we can make recommendations about the best way of dealing with this problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Miss Lestor, Dr. David Kerr, Mr. Carmichael, Mr. Whitaker, Mr. Ellis, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, and Mr. Winnick.

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