HC Deb 23 May 1969 vol 784 cc894-913

3.38 p.m.

Miss Joan Lestor (Eton and Slough)

May I join in the warm welcome back to the House extended to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security after his recent illness?

In an earlier debate today, my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesend (Mr. Murray) raised the question of the autistic child and referred to the 3,000 children who are desperately in need. I want to refer to a slightly larger number of young children who are also in great need of help, and I have in mind 116,000 children between the ages of three and five.

This week has been what those of us in the playgroup movement have called "Playgroup Week", in that we chose this week to draw the attention of the public, the Government and local authorities to the existence of the movement and to the fact that large numbers of children deprived of normal nursery school education attend playgroups largely run by voluntary effort.

A playgroup is a group of children, numbering between six and 20 ideally, which meets regularly most mornings of the week so that its members can play together. The rôle of the adults in this group is to provide an environment rich in opportunity for the children to become sociable and to learn together by doing things. The adults within the playgroup movement have maintained and supported these organisations and establishments for their children very often with little help from local authorities, since the means whereby local authorities may help them have been, and even now with some additions are, on the whole pretty meagre.

One reason why we have seen over the last nine years a mushrooming of the playgroup movement is, as I said at the beginning, because of the failure of us all to develop adequate nursery school education for children between the ages of three and five. I am very pleased that the urban aid programme is including provision for under fives in deprived areas. This is to be welcomed. Those of us who have raised this question in the House regularly over the last few years are naturally very pleased that at last we have come round to recognising the severe deprivation that exists in this age group, which has been the most under-privileged of our educational section. But this provision in the urban aid programme, and even the extra deviations that have taken place from the original ban that was imposed on nursery schools, still means that roughly one child in 50 will get the opportunity to attend a State nursery school. Although it is difficult to arrive at the precise figure, at the moment it is roughly one child in 63 of the three to five age group.

The Children's Playgroup Association has under its auspices over 4,000 playgroups controlling and providing for 116,000 children. This considerable number has grown over the past few years because everybody interested in children has recognised the needs of the young child for play facilities, the need to indulge in activities where it meets other children, and the need for mothers to be involved in this work. Yet we have failed to supply, through the Government and through local authorities, the necessary provision. Therefore, this has mushroomed.

The situation now is that the playgroup movement really belongs to nobody in terms of Government administration. It is registered under the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act. It does not belong to the Department of Education and Science. In a sense one can see that it could not if one was trying to equate it with nursery schools, since the provision of nursery schools by the Department of Education and Science requires people to be trained in the care and teaching of that particular age group.

Equally, although it is registered under the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act, it is not a process where children are merely minded. Neither is it a provision of day nurseries—another sphere where there is a tremendous shortage, which I and other hon. Members have mentioned in the House.

Since 1944 we have not been able to make provision for the under fives. Incidentally, I cannot help thinking that the advocacy and the commitment for nursery school education in 1944 was intended for those who are now the mothers of the present under fives who took part in the lobby last year on this question. Because of this we have arrived at a situation where both the Plowden and the Seebohm Report, have recognised the important rôle that the playgroups are playing in meeting the need and filling the gap of the nursery schools.

The Plowden Report recommended that the playgroup movement should become the responsibility of the Department of Education and Science. The Seebohm Report recommended that it should come under the Department of Health and Social Security. Clearly we must make up our minds as time goes on that the playgroup movement is here to stay and that somebody has to accept responsibility for it at least in part being an educational provision and also making up the necessary gap that exists in nursery schools for most of our children.

The Government, through the urban aid programme and the relaxation of the original ban on nursery schools, have done more and are committed to do more for the under fives than has been done in previous years. Nevertheless, the playgroup movement is here to stay. It has enormous problems and difficulties, many of them financial, and it is on this that I want to speak for a few moments.

I say that the movement is here to stay, not because I or those people associated with it regard it as necessarily an adequate substitute for nursery schools, but because, if we are realistic about the future, with the best will in the world we recognise that it will be many years before we get adequate provision through the Department of Education and Science. The need for these play facilities for young children, which rightly involve their parents and neighbours, will be intensified with the tendency towards building high blocks of flats where local authorities still have to put families with young children where there is no play space. I have never understood why we have such a high priority in providing garages for cars instead of play space for young children and why we still ban children keeping pets in local authority flats and fail to provide adequate means outside where this could be done. The tendency in planning today often forces us to provide the type of home that does not lend itself to the social environment and play needs which young children require and benefit from enormously.

I was particularly pleased that the second phase of the urban aid programme mentioned that local authorities could put in a request for help in providing supervisors to start and run play groups in their own areas. This is a welcome step forward. Voluntary supervisors, particularly in rural areas, who are doing this simply out of love, are known to travel as much as 1,300 miles in two months trying to supervise playgroups that they have set up in areas where they have not sprung up as spontaneously as in other parts of the country.

1 should like the Department to consider the desirability, irrespective of whether an area is a deprived area and has special needs within the meaning of the Act, of doing all that it can to encourage local authorities to appoint these supervisors to see that playgroups get off the ground in areas where they are lacking.

One criticism of the mushrooming of playgroups has been that they have tended to grow up in areas that are perhaps a little better off and where mothers are prepared to take the initiative because many of them have had the kind of education which would encourage them to know the approaches to make and where to go to make inquiries about starting these things. It has not always been so easy to start them in the poorer areas. Therefore, many areas not covered by the urban aid programme will still be desperately in need of these play facilities. We could well encourage local authorities, irrespective of any definition, to start providing these facilities almost as of right.

All concerned with the under fives are conscious that playgroups are mainly run by unqualified people. This is why they do not claim to be nursery schools. People running them may, by accident, be teachers, but this is not a requirement. By and large, they are run by mothers with a great deal of heart and, very often, a great deal of efficiency. If we could encourage the Department of Education and Science, and perhaps the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Security, to consider the possibility of organising a short, nationally recognised, training course for people who would like to take part in the running of playgroups, I am sure that we would find a ready potential among many young mothers who have previously been reluctant because they did not feel they had the necessary understanding of what they would be trying to do.

Some local authorities have co-operated in setting up short training courses but the future of the playgroup movement should be considered nationally, not as being compulsory—I should not like that—but in terms of encouraging people to take up playgroup work. It is being done haphazardly by some local authorities, but if the standard of playgroups is to be raised the question must be considered nationally.

I want to make it clear that I see an enormous advantage in the voluntary nature of movements such as this. The co-operation of parents in these movements and the assistance received, in terms of courses and supervisors, should not be seen as in any way taking away from the voluntary effort involved. We want to keep that. Where community effort has sprung up and is fulfilling a social need it is to be welcomed and encouraged.

I have mentioned the question of finance. It must be clear that 116,000 children in over 4,000 groups represent a situation in respect of which a lot of maintenance is required. The playgroup movement receives a very small grant from the Department of Education and Science—a little for secretarial expenses and the expenses of the national organiser. That is all that we receive. Some local authorities do much better than others in making grants available to local groups and associations.

The question of finance is actively militating against the development of the playgroup movement. If we are to maintain standards—and in the movement we try to get people to adhere to the standards that advisers and experts have set—and continue to make the claim that we can meet the requirements that many people seek to place upon us, the question of finance is very much involved. Because of recent legislation many groups now find that if they are to meet all the requirements of the health regulations, for example, they must either charge a fee that militates against poorer children attending their groups or keep their standards low, which means that they do not meet the requirements that they would like to meet.

We do not want to bring about a situation which will work against the child who may most need the service. A fee of 4s. or 5s. a morning may not mean much to a person in a higher income group, but £1 a week out of the wage packet of the average wage earner is a considerable amount, and many people would be stretched to meet it. Among the difficulties that we are experiencing is the financial one of meeting the necessary requirements—the cost of equipment and of trained personnel—and this often means making the difficult choice between maintaining the necessary standards and providing a service which will meet the needs of those children who most need it.

There is one other problem that I want my hon. Friend to think about, even if he cannot make any detailed comment on it today. I recently handed to his Department a copy of a circular giving particulars of a survey which had been carried out in respect of the sanitary facilities provided by playgroups. This was done because when we amended the Nursery and Child Minders' Act we imposed upon all playgroups a requirement to register with the health authorities. Previously, if a person had minded a child for only a short part of a day he or she did not have to register. Now, all people who look after children must register with the local health authority. That is right, and I and many others have argued for it in the past.

But what it meant was that all playgroups were made subject to the requirements laid down by local health authorities. A circular from the Department of Health and Social Security was sent out explaining what was desirable, in terms of the provisions made in a playgroup or a day nursery. This has led to some confusion. There are differences between those who are registered under the Nursery and Child Minders Act, who are minding children or running private day nurseries from 8 in the morning until 6 at night, and those in the playgroup movement with a small number of children attending for three hours a day. The needs that require to be met are very different.

One difficulty that has arisen concerns the provision of toilets. It has been suggested that there should be one toilet for every eight children. That is a far higher proportion than exists in many State nursery schools, and certainly in many infant schools. We must remember that there are differences between a self-help voluntary group, run by mothers for a few hours a day, and a day nursery which caters for 20 children a day over a long term. The latter undoubtedly needs to provide the facilities that the health authorities are demanding.

There is a further complication. Many playgroups are run in hired premises The local church hall is a favourite location. In many cases church halls demand little rent, because the church authorities want to feel that they are part of the service. When a local health authority states that it requires the provision of two or three more toilets in such premises it sometimes causes difficulty. It is not always possible to obtain permission from the owners to knock down walls in order to make the extra provision. In such cases it is not possible to meet the demands of the health authority.

I should like to know what the playgroup is supposed to do in those circumstances. Even where the owners give permission, since playgroups are nonprofit-making organisations they are not always able to meet the cost of making the extra provision without help. I hope that that help will ultimately be given by local authorities. The local authorities cannot have it both ways. If they expect playgroups to raise their standards they must provide some help to allow the movement to make the extra provision.

But there will still be many cases in which, although permission to make the necessary alterations is not forthcoming, the playgroups concerned have been running for a long time without dysentery or any other ill effects having manifested themselves. One of the things that the Department might do is to point out to the local authorities the fact that there is a great difference between children attending a playgroup for only two or three hours on three mornings a week and 20 children attending an establishment for six or seven hours every day for five days a week. This distinction must be made if we are not to force playgroups to close down for lack of finance or ability to provide what the health departments require. Many of their requirements are totally unrealistic.

I have not time to go into the detailed survey that many playgroups did on toilet use by young children, but some of the demands made are totally unnecessary; the children do not need as much provision as is required. We went into this matter very carefully in the playgroups, and found that one toilet to 10 or 12 children would be much more realistic, and more in line with what is demanded in our nursery and infant schools.

Nobody wants to lower standards or run health risks, but we do not want to risk having to close playgroups and deny to many children a play and social facility from which they benefit because the play groups cannot meet unrealistic requirements based on an overall assessment of the situation. Playgroups are rather different. In the provision for the under-fives they fit in somewhere between nursery schools and child-minding. There must be a clear definition at some stage. They are a separate provision. They are not day nurseries—they do not cater for the working mother—and they are not nursery schools. These matters must be considered by the Department, particularly as it is clear from the Seebohm and Plowden Reports that the playgroups are recognised to be here to stay and to be making a valuable contribution to play provision for the young child. We want to keep the standard as high as possible.

I do not want what I say to be interpreted as an attack on local authorities, many of which have been very helpful to the playgroup movement. But, for example, in interpreting the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act and applying it to playgroups a medical officer of health in an area which I will tell my hon. Friend about later has said that no child under 21 must be allowed on the premises while the playgroup is running. This means that a mother with a child of four who would dearly love to help in running a playgroup will not be allowed to do so since she will not be able to bring her younger child with her. There have been many arrangements that have worked out entirely satisfactorily with the little child tagging along with its older brother or sister, enjoying the benefits of the playgroup, and in such cases as I have mentioned local authorities are a little officious in their interpretation of the regulations.

I have no doubt that all the things I have mentioned are done with the best will in the world. I do not question the motives behind them, but having been involved in running a group for many years, and knowing something of the difficulties, I think that it would benefit all if there were a little guidance from the Department to local authorities not to be too rigid in their interpretation of regulations but to look at the realities of the situation and the requirements.

We heard earlier this afternoon about the autistic child, this is a very important subject. As I go around the country in my capacity as adviser to the playgroup movement—I hasten to add that I receive no remuneration, lest this be misunderstood in the light of recent discussions—I am very impressed by the way in which mothers have taken into their folds handicapped and subnormal children, because the provision for that group of pre-school children is totally inadequate in most areas. I am impressed when I see blind, deaf and physically handicapped children being warmly welcomed into a group. But the time has come to look very closely at the needs of the pre-school subnormal, maladjusted and handicapped child to see whether we can help the playgroup movement to take them under its wings. If this is not possible we should make far more adequate provision through local authorities.

These are just some of the points we wanted to raise in Playgroup Week. We recognise that when the bowl is small we cannot get as much as we would like, but now that the movement has for many years filled the gap in nursery school provision it is time for recognition of what has been done by voluntary effort. Voluntary effort cannot be stretched any further to meet needs as great as those we are now being stretched to meet. Some of the difficulties I have mentioned could be overcome by a sympathetic attitude on the part of both Government Departments and local authorities.

The playgroup movement is very conscious that high standards are essential, and that proper equipment and trained people are also desirable in any organisation dealing with young children. But if we are to meet the requirements and to come anywhere near being a reasonable substitute for nursery schools we shall need a great deal of help for the thousands of young children now under our care.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must remind the House that despite my interest in children this debate must end at 3.30.

3.5 p.m.

Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham, Handsworth)

The hon. Lady the Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor), who speaks with very great personal experience, has done a service in bringing this subject to the House in playgroup week. I must apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House for the fact that immediately after speaking I shall have to leave because I have to catch the 3.45 train for my constituency in order to fulfil an engagement.

I agree that the playgroup movement is expanding rapidly, for a number of reasons. A growing number of mothers want it; a growing number of parents are reading the large amount of material about the part which play can take in the life of even the youngest of our children; a great many people are coming to realise that proper nursery education, even in educational priority areas, will only spread slowly. I suggest, therefore, that the Government ought to do something and regard it as their responsibility to keep playgroups, as it were, on the right lines, and to foster them as the best means of countering the various unsatisfactory types of child minding that can exist. Equally, I am sure that the hon. Lady was right to draw attention to the large number of highly public spirited mothers who are anxious to do something here and to try to tackle the needs of a wide range of very young children, including a number of handicapped children as well.

I underline what the hon. Member said about the importance of the Department continuing its grant for a national playgroup adviser. I think I am right in saying that the present sum of £3,000 a year was granted for three years, so about 18 months of that period has now gone. We should not forget the importance also of some grant aid towards administrative overheads which are bound to be quite high. The P.P.A. could do with considerably more administrative help and I think that we must remember the importance here of full-time office staff and of a telephone to deal with the voluminous inquiries for help and guidance. I am indirectly associated with a body called the National Extension College, closely linked to the A.C.E., and I am struck by the enormous number of requests which come from parents all the time to deal with various stages of education.

I also underline the importance of positive encouragement to local education authorities to appoint playgroup advisers and organisers. The P.P.A. is right to think that one of the most important and economic ways of helping is to appoint playgroup advisers for every area—something which already happens in inner London and a number of other authorities as well. It is important here to find one good person, preferably with some real understanding of playgroups, and not just some reluctant, perhaps retired, professional person with orthodox classroom prejudices. It is important to have someone who has sympathy and a feeling for the responsibilities and possibilities of playgroups.

There is a great danger of too much strain being put on one person in a widespread area. Too much crucial work in this country rests on the shoulders of a very few people. It is worth remembering that playgroups can get by often with a quite small grant. Often a £50 foundation grant can help a playgroup to get started in an area where the parents cannot afford the initial outlay.

I have mentioned the importance of direct help and of contributions to initial outlay coming from a number of sources. When we were discussing the urban programme, I drew attention to the importance of a larger budget for the Community Relations Commission so that it could give grants to a number of special groups in multi-racial areas. I am certain that grants coming from a number of sources can be highly important.

I echo and support what the hon. Lady said about mothers bringing very young children along with them. One of the first relaxations in relation to nursery schools was that relaxation to encourage married women to get back to the primary schools. By the same token we want here a system of administration which will help more mothers to come along bringing with them their very young children.

I realise that we cannot today talk about legislation. I am tempted to say that I hope there will be a time when we can discuss what should be in the new Education Bill. Purely in terms of policy it is important that playgroups should be recognised in our education law, that local education authorities should be enabled to grant-aid them if they wish, and—this is one point on which the hon. Lady and I will begin less agreement—to charge fees from those parents who can afford to pay. I am still impressed by the minority report arguments in Plowden that in the sphere of pre-school education and playgroups a certain amount of private money might help to get ventures off the ground—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman has warned himself that this would require legislation.

Sir E. Boyle

Perhaps as this point has already been raised, Mr. Speaker, you will not rule me out of order if I say that I agree with the hon. Lady about not forgetting the burden of charges for playgroups on those who are not well off.

It is important that the Government should be able to give guidance to a powerful and growing movement which could become administratively too complicated for a voluntary part-time organising staff. One of the main lessons we tried to set out in the Fulton Committee was the importance of professionalism and a professional approach in a wide range of activities. In playgroups, too, it is important to have a professional cadre who can advice, just as it is important to have a national playgroup adviser.

I believe that in the most difficult areas of this country playgroups can be one of the quickest, cheapest and most effective means of helping children and mothers, and we must remember that it is the needs of children and their parents which can be helped by this organisation.

3.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Health and Social Security (Mr. Julian Snow)

I know you will acquit me, Mr. Speaker, of unfairly trying to involve you in this discussion if I say that your well known interest in children is equalled only by the interest which has always been shown by the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor)—

Mr. Speaker

Technically, the hon. Gentleman needs the leave of the House to speak again; I am sure that he will obtain it.

Mr. Snow

I ask leave to address the House again, Mr. Speaker.

May I first address myself to the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle). My departmental responsibility makes me cautious about too much talk of professionalism in a subject of this sort. This is a human problem and we must guarantee against too remote influences being employed.

My concern with playgroups arises from the duty which local health authorities have under the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act, 1948, as now amended, to register and supervise private nursery establishments, including playgroups, and the powers those authorities have been given to require satisfactory standards of care for the children looked after.

While we have no precise figures of the number of children attending playgroups, we know that at the end of 1968 there were just over 155,000 children receiving care on a sessional basis in nursery establishments registered under the Act. No doubt a large proportion of this total relates to children attending playgroups run in church or village halls or similar premises.

I take my hon. Friend's point about the need, where such privately owned or semi-officially owned establishments are used, for small capital investment for the provision of lavatories and so on, and I will look carefully at the remarks she made.

We welcome the valuable contribution which playgroups can make to the opportunities for the development of the under fives. Playgroups provide opportunities for developmental play and for the children to meet and mix with others of the same age.

The advice of medical and other authority is that the proper place for the child under 2 is at home with his mother and that provision for children between 2 and 5 should normally be by way of nursery schools and classes where the hours are shorter than those, for example, at publicly provided day nurseries. Playgroups have an important contribution to make in the day care of children precisely because they operate for relatively short periods and so avoid difficulties which sometimes arise as the result of maternal deprivation when very young children are separated from their mothers for a whole day in a nursery.

Local health authorities have no powers under the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act to give financial assistance to playgroups. They are, however, empowered under the Health Services and Public Health Act, 1968 to give assistance to non-profit making organisations which provide care for children who have a special need on health and welfare grounds.

Authorities were informed of this power in a circular sent to them in October last year, and were told that where there were insufficient groups to meet the needs of priority children the Secretary of State hoped that authorities would encourage suitable people and organisations to start a nursery group and offer them advice and, where possible, surplus equipment or premises that were not used for the whole of the day. The circular also commended the placing of children in special need in private and voluntary playgroups, the authority bearing the whole or part of the fee where appropriate.

Although I would like to say more later about Government help to playgroups, I have thought it right to indicate to the House my Department's attitude of help and encouragement to the playgroup movement because I want to say something about the standards of care which local health authorities are empowered to require in the day care of children.

These standards have become a focus of discussion since amendments to the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act, 1948 contained in Section 60 of the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968 were introduced on 1st November last year. These amendments extended the requirement of nurseries to register with local health authorities and strengthened the powers of authorities to supervise standards of care. They also provided heavier penalties for evasion of the law.

The amendments were introduced because my Department's enquiries had shown that the standards of care for some children in nursery groups were unsatisfactory and because it was essential that authorities should have the power to deal with the situation so as to safeguard the health and welfare of the children looked after. When the amendments were brought into force my Department took the opportunity to issue further advice to authorities on the question of standards of provision.

The House will, of course, appreciate that in the matter of standards the Secretary of State must ensure that the guidance given to local health authorities properly reflects the need for ensuring the welfare and safety of the children and providing the environment for their proper physical, emotional and intellectual development. Many of the children who are looked after outside the home during the day may be described as emotionally vulnerable and it is especially important that standards of day care for them should be such as to compensate for the disadvantages with which they may be faced in that respect.

I fully recognise that the standards recommended should not be so high as to discourage provision of day care facilities altogether, especially in areas where the lack of such facilities might result in mothers making wholly unsatisfactory arrangements, possibly with unregistered minders. I hope that is on the decrease. It is a matter of fine judgment to strike the right balance. In formulating our general guidance to local health authorities we were very conscious of the special position of playgroups and we were at pains not to make life unnecessarily difficult for them. The advice therefore took full account of the nature and duration of playgroup care.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to the recommended standards of space, toilet and staffing provision, and some people have felt that these standards are too high. They were, however, drawn up in consultation with the Department of Education and Science in the light of their standards for children in nursery education. We are satisfied that they represent, as a whole, reasonable standards of care which will enable children to enjoy the benefits of playgroup activities without hazard to their health and welfare.

I should make clear that the Secretary of State has no statutory control over the standards of provision which are essentially a matter for each local health authority. I take note of what my hon. Friend has said. Perhaps in one or two cases there has been rigidity of mind in this matter. If she lets me have details, I should like to look at the cases she has in mind. The question of standards is very important, and we would expect our advice to be heeded. It is necessary not to let enthusiasm for standards outrun judgment in these matters.

I return to the question of Government help to playgroups. Assistance or encouragement has been given to the playgroup movement by both central and local government. For example, the Department of Education and Science gave a grant to the Pre-School Playgroups Association for the salary of an adviser and some of the office and administrative costs. The right hon. Member for Hands-worth was right when he said that we must take into account the likely burden on the telecommunications and other communications requirements, which tend to be a big burden on costs. I am sure that hon. Members will support the Government in considering that aid to playgroups would be a particularly useful object of expenditure in the second phase of their programme of aid to urban areas of social deprivation.

Perhaps I should point out to my hon. Friend that the benefit deriving from the special financial help which the Government are making available to these special areas can also be made available when a major local health authority can demonstrate that socially deprived areas are included in its responsibility. Therefore, the assistance is not so tighly drawn as was previously envisaged.

The programme is designed to assist urban areas which bear the marks of multiple deprivation—for example, deficiency in housing, over-crowding, persistent unemployment, a high proportion of children in trouble and—a matter which I have very much in mind—the child, not only of the unmarried mother, but of the divorcee. Departments are now considering authorities' proposals for giving assistance to playgroups which meet this kind of social need. As with other forms of expenditure under the programme, approved financial assistance to playgroups will attract a 75 per cent. Exchequer grant. I can speak only for my own Department when I say that the response from local authorities has been rather good. It must be for authorities to determine which groups need help and the form in which it would be most effective, but it is available, for example, to provide for improved premises, to help with salaries of organisers or leaders, or to support running costs. I took particular note of what my hon. Friend said about providing lavatories in perhaps rather old-fashioned designed halls.

I am sure that we all agree about the desirability of playgroup leaders and others having some training in understanding the needs of children so that they can obtain at least some of the skills necessary for them to encourage the children's proper development. Authorities were reminded in 1965 and again last year of the need to provide training courses for people engaged in the nursery care of young children. I am glad to say that a number of courses have been established in recent years. We are currently exploring what more needs to be done, and the three Departments concerned are in close discussion with the Pre-School Playgroups Association on this matter. Yesterday afternoon my Department and the Department of Education and Science had a most amicable and useful exchange of views with the Association about the training of playgroups staff.

We have also encouraged local health authorities to secure closer contact with local education authority advisers and teachers so that staff can be helped to increase their understanding of children's needs.

We must be very cautions about amending the requirements of local health authorities, particularly the need for ensuring that adults in charge of playgroups are 100 per cent. fit medically. It takes 30 seconds or less for infection to pass, and we cannot take risks. However, I take my hon. Friend's point that there should not be rigidity in other respects and that as much help as possible should be given to make the regulations enforced by local authorities reasonable and efficient. The House is indebted to my hon. Friend for raising this matter.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)


Mr. Speaker

I call Mr. Hill, with the reminder that he must sit down by half-past three.

3.25 p.m.

Mr. Hill

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Miss Lestor) upon the moderate and extremely convincing way in which she stated this important case, and I should like to associate myself with everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) said. We all thank the Under-Secretary of State for the reply which he has given. It reflects the present position.

If I might summarise the position in relation to the description of the Regulations, and so on, it seems clear that the existing Regulations can be either interpreted to assist the movement or enforced so as to frustrate desirable voluntary effort. I therefore urge the Under-Secretary to try to advise local authorities that they should adopt a flexible attitude in regard to playgroups. My reason for saying that is that the extent of the need is extremely great, the resources available are limited and, therefore, if effective action is to be taken, it is essential not to let the best provision become the enemy of the good.

In considering this whole problem we must bear in mind that whatever the returns and statistics may say, below the level of knowledge there undoubtedly persists a good deal of unsatisfactory child-minding and, what perhaps is more important, a great many children who are lonely and longing to play with other children but who are cooped up in some of the very small, one-family homes, often isolated, in high blocks of flats.

Nor do I think that this country should be anywhere but in the van of the playgroup movement. I would point out to the Under-Secretary that Australia and New Zealand have made progress which is probably ahead of us in intensity. For example, in Australia, I understand that in Victoria alone there are over 800 playgroups among a population which is only a fraction of the size of London or Birmingham. Likewise, in New Zealand, playgroups have for a long time received a £50 grant to start them off.

The problem falls into two sectors. There is the sector of acute social need as is covered by the intentions, if not yet the achievement, of the urban programme. In that field, quite clearly the quickest and most effective remedial action will come through encouraging the playgroup movement, because there is the expertise and the willingness standing by. I do not want to rehearse the detailed arguments and figures that we gave in the debates on the legislation which brought in the programme. If one wanted to get quick action, I think that the voluntary societies should be rather more encouraged than at present.

This week is also the 50th jubilee anniversary of the Save the Children Fund. That fund has great expertise. It could move into other deprived areas if its advice was sought. I understand that so far there has not been quite the appeal for the fund to move that was expected. I hope that as a result of this debate, more local authorities who face this problem will think in terms of asking the Save the Children Fund to come in with its advice and experience on how best to tackle the problem, because it has great experience, particularly with a high proportion of immigrant children.

The other side of the coin is the area of voluntary movement, where, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hands-worth has said, development will go ahead in spite of the Government. Here, the important thing surely is to keep it on the right lines.

In the short time available, I do not want to enter into the discussion of which Department should be responsible. What is important is that the Government as a whole should take an interest in this movement and, where necessary, provide the—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that, so far, everyone has kept to the timetable.