HC Deb 07 December 1973 vol 865 cc1751-62

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Nicholas Scott (Paddington, South)

I wish to turn to a subject which is not quite so exciting—

Mr. Hamilton

On a point of order.

Mr. Scott

—as the one which has been exercising the minds of hon. Members opposite.

Mr. Hamilton

On a point of order. As soon as the Whip got up to move the Adjournment of the House I shouted "No" as loud as my powerful voice will carry on the ground that we wanted to prolong the debate in which some of us have been denied the opportunity of taking part. We wish to divide the House on the motion, "That this House do now adjourn"

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Under Standing Orders, the House was not adjourned. I was not putting the Question.

Mr. Hamilton

No, Sir.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I was proposing the Question.

Mr. Hamilton

You are putting the Question, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Hamilton

I think there is a precedent for this. On the first Friday of this Parliament my colleagues and I voted on the motion, "That this House do now adjourn". The Opposition lost by two or three votes. I demand the right to challenge—[Hon. Members : "Withdraw."]—Yes, I demand the right to challenge—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There are a number of rulings from the Chair that a Division on an Adjournment which concerns unopposed business cannot be allowed.

Mr. Hamilton

If you will refer to the precedent—[Interruption.] I will not be shouted down by that lot.

Mr. Thomas Swain (Derbyshire, North-East)

They would not be here if the Whips had not sent for them—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman wishes to address the Chair. I should be grateful if he were allowed to do so on his own.

Mr. Hamilton

I am obliged, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Swain

Tell that lot to shut up then.

Mr. Hamilton

I should like to refer to the precedent of the first Friday of this Parliament when precisely this position occurred. The motion put by the Whip then, as now, was, "That this House do now adjourn." That was opposed and voted upon. What occurred then should be allowed on this occasion.—[HON. MEMBERS : "It was debated."]—It was not debated. But let us have a debate on it. The fact is that we either debate or vote on it.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I understand that the answer is that the precedent to which the hon. Gentleman has referred occurred before 4 p.m. If the hon. Gentleman can produce the precedent it will be looked at. It must have been before 4 p.m., because Mr. Speaker's ruling has always been that there cannot be a Division on unopposed business after 4 p.m.

Mr. Hamilton

I should be obliged, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you would adjourn the House for two or three minutes until you can find the precedent.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

No, certainly not.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

Without challenging your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I ask why the Question is put, "That the House do now adjourn", if the House has no power to take a decision on it? If the House cannot decide the matter, why does not the Whip say that the House does adjourn, instead of putting it in the form of a Question? What is the point of the Question if the House has no way of expressing its opinion?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I cannot consider that, and I call upon the hon. Member for Paddington, South to continue his speech.

Mr. Scott

I put it to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Opposition Members, having talked out their own motion and played the silliest of games, are now trying to prevent the discussion of a serious matter.

Mr. Hamilton

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you now answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden)?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I think that this matter has gone far enough. Hon. Members have a remedy. They can, if they wish, put down a motion against me. We are wasting time, and I call upon the hon. Member for Paddington, South to continue with his speech.

Mr. Scott

May I now raise the matter of play facilities for children, which is more appropriate than I thought it was going to be?

Play is a serious matter. About a year ago Trevor Huddleston, the Bishop of Stepney, wrote a letter to The Times in which he referred to an incident in which a young friend of his in Stepney, Bobby McNally, aged 9, was drowned in the Regents Canal, together with another young child aged about 7. It was on the first day of the school holidays that that tragedy occurred. The bishop went on to plead the case for more priority to be given to recreational needs, particularly in our large cities where they are so scarce.

It was nearly 150 years ago that the great educationist Froebel said : Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood. I do not think that any parent who sees his children growing up and having adequate facilities for play would deny that assertion.

Much more recently—indeed, less than a fortnight ago—at the opening of the Campaign for Fair Play for Children, the Duke of Edinburgh, in launching the campaign, said : Play is not just fun, it is part of the whole process of growing up. All the assumptions, the moralities and rules of play set standards which remain for life. Leadership in play is just as important as teaching in class ". I hope I have established from those three sources that play is a serious matter. I do not believe that I have to convince my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State that that is so, but I should like to reinforce my case by quoting fairly briefly from the Department of the Environment Design Bulletin "Children at Play", which was published last summer. It said : A century or so ago the full importance of play was not appreciated and even for the children of the wealthier classes it was frowned upon as frivolous, unnecessary and a manifestation of idleness. But it is now widely accepted that children have a deep and urgent need for play. What all the theories of play hold in common is that the child is father of the man ; that play is not an end in itself but has purpose ; and that therefore the child's opportunity—or lack of opportunity—for play determines to some considerable extent the sort of adult that he will become. The child who has not had the opportunity to meet his fellows, take part in their games, or explore his environment is deprived and therefore at a disadvantage. So at the very least we should ensure that opportunities for play suitable for each stage of development are available as far as possible for all children. There are the aims, accepted by Government, urged by voluntary bodies and paid at least lip service by many local authorities. With so much agreement, why the problem, why the need for this brief discussion of it? There are five problems. The first is that, while the authorities that I have quoted certainly convince me and, I know, the Under-Secretary, there is still widespread ignorance about the importance of play and how critical it is to the development of children.

Second, there is, at local level and perhaps a little at national government level too, with all the other demands for money and time, a slightly apathetic approach to the problems of play. Third, there is the lack of a strong policy definition at national level and a lack of a clear administrative structure to enable policy to be carried down to the local authority and voluntary agency level, where it has to be carried out.

Fourth, there is no doubt that in our large cities there is grave pressure on land space, which is a real hurdle when we are talking about the development of new play facilities. Last, of course, there is the shortage of money which affects all social priorities.

Because of these problems, there has been launched the campaign of which I know my hon. Friend is aware, Fair Play for Children. The history of this campaign is that the National Playing Fields Association—I have great sympathy with it because, as a Lords Taverner, I know that over many years we have raised money to enable it to pursue its aims, not in this field but in others—has long recognised the problem of play facilities and has provided money for the provision of space and for the training of leaders in play. It has also engaged in pump-priming operations at local level, putting in money to get schemes going, after which, hopefully, the local authorities have taken them over and developed them.

After Trevor Huddleston's letter, the NPFA approached the bishop and a committee was established which has now led to this campaign. We are not short of campaigns these days, but this one can clearly be seen not to be based on gimmickry or protest. What it understands, as all good campaigns do, is that people who understand the needs of this area should be drawn together at the grass roots level, or particularly at the level of the new district councils, to decide what the needs are and how they can be met.

If it is properly conducted, as I know it will be, and if it gets full co-operation from the Government and local autho- rities, this campaign could be the biggest job of community consultation in which we have ever engaged. It is the local community that matters and which will have to make the biggest contribution in management and, through the local authorities, money if this campaign is to succeed.

The aims of the campaign are, first, to increase the general awareness of the importance of play to meet the ignorance and apathy of which I spoke and to increase the awareness that play facilities are important in the development of individual children and their families as part of overall community policies ; second, to be able to suggest to local authorities the main problems of defining, implementing and financing a local policy, to make sure that there is sufficient play provision as part of a general community approach ; third, to make local authorities aware of the potential of children's play as a means of general community development, and then to seek to persuade central and local government to establish clear priorities for improved play provision and to achieve the clear administrative structure without which frustrations can be created for those who are seeking at local level to develop a proper approach to play policies ; and, last, to provide finance for play purposes through charitable funds, particularly for pump-priming activities to set going schemes which can be taken over and developed by local authorities. In short, the aims of the campaign are to tackle precisely the problems I set out earlier.

My hon. Friend will know that Government responsibility for play is dispersed through several Departments. We all know to our cost how, if one is not careful, a diversity of responsibility may result in buck-passing on a grand scale, frustration and sometimes even inefficiency. One of the most important jobs to which the Government must turn their mind is the creation of a clear interdepartmental structure to iron out the uncertainties and lead local authorities to a better understanding of their responsibilities and of the value of adequate play provision for the creation of balanced communities. People must be able to talk to the Government as such rather than to this or that Department, and the structure should enable them to do that. The Government surely have to give a lead in all this.

Circular 79/72 on children's play space, although it was welcomed, did not go far enough. The space standards were too low, but, more important, it dealt with outdoor space on future local authority housing estates. That is a very narrow part of the problem which we should be tackling. There is no mention of the private developer and the standards he should be asked to include. There is no mention of providing play space in existing residential areas of even in the general improvement areas. There is nothing about the need for indoor provision and play leadership, which are an essential part of good play schemes.

The committee of the Fair Play for Children Campaign needs to be able to enter into urgent consultation with Government as a whole, to begin a dialogue that will lead to co-ordinated policy on vastly improved and much more comprehensive standards of play provision. We also want effective criteria for funding subsidies for these schemes at local and national level. This will not be easy, particularly in the densely-populated recreational priority areas where the need is greatest. Only by a partnership between local and national government and the voluntary agencies will we get anywhere near a solution. After all, in any new development, private or public, we insist on certain minimum standards for the parking of vehicles. It would be no bad thing to have such a comprehensive approach to the provision of play facilities in any new development.

Once we have established these standards, hopefully in consultation with the committee, I hope that the Minister responsible will quickly circulate local authorities urging them to pay serious attention to the new criteria and methods that have been established. I hope that the development of play facilities will lean heavily on consultation at grass roots level. We know of some of the problems of bigness which the reform of local government can create.

Provision of play facilities gives us a chance to involve local communities in the provision, planning and management of these facilities. Often the plans will stem from a particular community. A community will put forward a plan It should then be possible for consultation to take place. Often, if the plan can work to the extent of providing a basis for play facilities, it will be possible for those facilities to serve other needs such as mothers' clubs, housing advisory centres, legal advisory centres and others.

This debate has been truncated, though not at the wish of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and myself. The Government should take note of the aims and hopes of the Fair Play for Children Campaign and begin consultations immediately with the campaign. They should face the responsibility of deciding who at Government level has responsibility for play, and they should develop an administrative structure and a set of priorities that will enable voluntary agencies, local authorities and national Government to co-operate to see a vastly improved approach to this problem.

4.22 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, South (Mr. Scott) for raising the matter of children's play facilities. I will do my best in the limited time available to reply to the many interesting points my hon. Friend has raised.

I am sure we all feel that opportunities for children's play is a vitally important subject, and, I can assure my hon. Friend, one to which the Government have given and will continue to give every consideration.

Earlier this year my Department published Design Bulletin 27, entitled "Children at Play", of which Her Majesty's Stationery Office has so far issued 7,335 copies. Each local authority was sent a copy of the Design Bulletin with a covering circular.

The bulletin was based on extensive research of more than 50,000 observations of children's outdoor activities in 16 housing areas, an adventure playground, a recreation ground, interviews with several hundred adults and children, and detailed costings of play areas. One of the housing areas studied and the adventure playground is situated in Paddington, the recreation ground in nearby Kensal Town, and over 100 of the interviews with children were conducted in Paddington schools. I am sure my hon. Friend will find this publication of particular relevance to his interest and his support for the Fair Play for Children Campaign.

I ask my hon. Friend to consider the points I shall make and see what progress can be made in the new district councils. I appreciate the importance of his point when he stressed the contribution that can be made at the grass roots by those authorities.

Even before publication the Government made full use of the research findings by making available in August 1972 subsidisable allowances towards the cost of providing equipped outdoor space suitable for unsupervised play on new housing schemes. The details are set out in Circular 79/72. The cost of providing or improving play space on existing estates to the standards described in that circular is reckonable for subsidy under the Housing Finance Act 1972. I am sure that local authorities will recognise the practical value of this provision.

The standards now set are a considerable improvement on the earlier Parker Morris recommendations.

The space standards were carefully chosen after extensive research. My Department found, after this extensive research, that with proper use the space standards are adequate. It is often a matter of making a good use of space.

The standards, which are a considerable improvement on the earlier Parker Morris recommendations, have the following characteristics. First, they require the play spaces to be equipped with a range of equipment known to be well used and liked by children. Secondly, the equipped play space allowance from the Government is in addition to the basic yardstick allowance. Thirdly, the allowance applies to all schemes irrespective of density.

The basic allowance is £18 per child bed space, but with the appropriate regional variation this means that an Inner London borough would be eligible for subsidy towards expenditure of up to about £3,000 on a housing scheme providing 100 child bed spaces. The bulletin gives full guidance on how play spaces should be sited, equipped and managed, a summary of which appears in the excellent guidance notes appended to the circular to help local authorities.

All Government Departments concerned—and I should like to assure my hon. Friend that there has been con- siderable co-operation in this work—are fully aware that opportunities for play should be as varied as possible. I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that the Design Bulletin gives considerable guidance, not only to designers and housing managers, but to education and social service departments. It not only gives guidance on the planning of play space in new housing areas, but also suggests ways and means of providing for children's play needs in older housing areas. It recognises that there is an urgent need to create spaces for play where none exists and to make better use of existing space. I am sure that such guidance is already being put to good effect.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction was pleased to note in the course of his recent visits to areas of housing stress the way in which land temporarily vacant is being used to provide play space and facilities for children. Clearing waste and derelict land, and making better use of school premises, parks and recreation grounds are some of the ways of making better use of scarce resources. For instance, the Inner London Education Authority runs play centres and junior clubs in some primary schools every afternoon and evening after school.

These and similar schemes rely heavily on supervision and the last part of the Design Bulletin stresses the advantages and implications of supervised play, and stresses the importance of providing for a variety of play schemes for all ages. Not only does supervised play introduce some children to a whole new range of activities, but it can help also to make better use of existing sites. The Department's research found that, when a holiday play scheme operated at the recreation ground in Kensal Town, a quarter of the supervised activities took place on a previously unused area of waste ground.

We realise that, to provide a wide range of play facilities, many authorities will rely heavily on voluntary organisations. There are many ways in which local authorities may give financial assistance to such bodies. For instance, social services committees of local authorities have powers to give financial and other assistance to voluntary organisations in order to start play groups, by offering advice, surplus equipment or suitable premises They have been encouraged to place children with special needs in play groups and, in appropriate cases, to pay their fees.

Under the Urban Aid programme, £666,000 has so far been given to individual play groups and local branches of the Pre-School Play Groups Association ; £1.4 million to adventure playgrounds and £240,000 to Easter and summer holiday projects. A circular has recently been issued by the Home Office asking for applications for holiday projects to be run in 1974. A further circular will be sent by the Home Office to local authorities early in the New Year, inviting proposals to assist areas of special social need ; providing another opportunity for authorities to bid for play schemes if they so wish.

The Government's plans for a massive expansion of nursery education will provide many children with better opportunities for play. With the benefit of sympathetic and skilled supervision, children will be helped to make great educational progress before the age of five. It is planned that nursery education should be available, mainly on a part-time basis, for all children whose parents wish them to attend. Progress has already been made in some deprived urban areas under the urban programme, but it is estimated that up to 250,000 new places in nursery classes will need to be provided. As a first step, the Government have authorised a special building programme in 1974–75 and 1975–76 to the value of £35 million.

Another Government aid to providing play space is my Department's recommendation that the need for children's play areas should be one of the factors to be given careful attention when a local authority is considering what environmental improvements should be made in a General Improvement Area.

One of the most conclusive findings to emerge from the research was that play provisions will be less used by children who live above the first floor. In the accompanying circular to the bulletin, my Department strongly recommended local authorities to house families with young children on the ground floor, wherever possible. However, we realise that in some situations—such as in Paddington—where higher density building is inevitable, this may produce difficulties.

My Department is therefore hoping next year to start an investigation of the extent to which children live above the ground floor, and of what can be done to help authorities to move families with young children to more suitable accommodation, and when this is not possible to suggest ways of compensating the children. The recommendations in the bulletin would seem to be applicable to most housing schemes. Therefore, my Department is considering further how it can encourage local planning authorities to seek provisions for play on private housing estates.

In conclusion, I should like to draw attention to the second report on sport and leisure which has been made by a Select Committee sitting in another place. I am sure that the Government's response to this report will be an encouraging one, and we shall be paying careful regard to the question of play space for children, particularly in urban areas.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.