HC Deb 05 August 1975 vol 897 cc311-7
Miss Richardson

I beg to move Amendment No. 96, in page 32, line 12, at end insert: ' or she gives the employer a certificate from a duly accredited officer of the local authority within whose area she lives or within which is her place of employment that no nursery or child-minding facilities are available for her child '. I think that the amendment is self-explanatory, and I am sure that I do not need to tell the House how many women, whether they have been given maternity leave or are looking for a job anyway, are often prevented from working simply because they have nowhere safe to leave their children. We know of cases where their mothers-in-law, mothers and, occasionally, fathers and fathers-in-law are recruited as child minders to allow women to return to work or to go to work in the first place. We know, too, that in some parts of the country very good nursery facilities are provided by local authorities. I am sorry to say, however, that this is by no means universal, and, unless a woman can be sure that when she returns to work she will be able to put her child into some kind of child minding or nursery accommodation she will, since her first duty is to her child, be unable to return to work as she wants and may very much need to do. I therefore move the amendment if only to draw attention to the problem facing many women.

The future problem has been made considerably worse by the recent news of a cut-back in resources provided for nursery education. I do not know how the Government can believe that women will be able to return to work if there is not to be a continuing and increasing provision of nursery facilities. In connection with other amendments, we have talked about the way in which this country lags behind others. Not all countries provide nursery facilities through employers or through local or town authorities, but many do. In some countries in Eastern Europe, for example, it is mandatory upon a place of employment to provide creche facilities so that women can return to work as soon as they are able and want to do so.

7.15 p.m.

I am not asking employers to provide accommodation of this kind, though, now that I come to think of it, I might have tabled an amendment suggesting that more should take on this responsibility than do at the moment. There are some notably good employers who, because they want women employees to return to work, provide facilities on the spot. But, unfortunately, the numbers are abysmally low, and I believe, anyway, that the duty probably best rests upon local authorities to provide such facilities. If the children of working mothers were under the care of the local authority they would have the best possible supervision and the best standards—or they should have.

I can almost tell in advance what the Government's reply will be. They will say that the resources are not available, that the responsibility rests on the local authorities, and so on. Nevertheless, I wish to press the point that it will be unfair to expect women to return to work within the period specified in the Bill unless the Government take some note of the present lack of facilities. I do not want to see us get to the stage at which we have unregistered child minders, with mothers being forced to pay people who are not necessarily qualified to do it, to look after their children when they return to work. It is much better to have proper standards, proper creches and other facilities and the proper encouragement and provision of play groups, so that mothers, without anxiety, can return to work and do the jobs that they wish to do.

Mr. Harold Walker

The amendment seeks to provide that the four-weeks' extension that an employee can claim beyond her notified date of return will also apply where no local authority child-minding facilities are available. The purpose of the extension provisions in subsection (3) is to give flexibility over her return to work to a woman prevented by reasons beyond her control, such as illness, from returning when she should. The circumstances envisaged by my hon. Friend are not beyond her control in the same way or to the same degree. If too many grounds for extension are allowed, there will be a great deal of uncertainty among employers, who could never be entirely sure when an employee would return and would therefore be unable to make the necessary arrangements for taking her back.

My hon. Friend made it clear that one of the purposes of the amendment was to draw to the Government's attention the need for more expenditure on the provision of nursery schools and child-minding and care facilities generally. I am sure that she will understand that this is not only outside the scope of the Bill but outside the responsibility of me or the Secretary of State. Those are primarily matters for the Secretary of State for Social Services, and I shall ensure that her remarks are drawn to my right hon. Friend's attention.

Mr. James Dempsey (Coatbridge and Airdrie)

Will my hon. Friend also draw this matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland? One of our greatest problems is finding child-care facilities for these mothers. When we talk about employment protection, we should bear in mind the fact that we are providing employment and that it is difficult to do so while also protecting people by giving married women facilities to have their children looked after.

In our part of the country, we especially require women to train younger ladies in their trade, craft or profession. Teaching is also a matter for employment protection. Not only the jobs but the workers will be unprotected unless these facilities are provided. I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that the responsibility for such action in Scotland is that of the Secretary of State.

Employers have frequently tried to get local authorities to provide these facilities. I agree that the ideal institution to do so is the local authority, which can provide persons specially trained to look after young children. I appeal to my hon. Friend to do everything he can. I recognise that this is outwith his jurisdiction, but he could make representations to the Secretary of State for Scotland and emphasise that many of our efforts to implement the Bill will be abortive without adequate child care facilities in our part of the country.

Mr. Madel

This has been a useful debate, of which we hope outside organisations will take note. I agree that more local authority expenditure may be in- volved in this proposal and that some—perhaps not enough—employers already provide such facilities. This is a case for chambers of commerce to let it be known which of their members do so.

I also agree with the hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) about the dangers of unregistered child minders. Without necessarily incurring extra expense, local authorities could do more to co-ordinate efforts by voluntary organisations to see that codes of conduct or informal arrangements are adhered to.

This is another reason to ask for a speedy report from the Layfield Committee. The overwhelming majority of ratepayers would like to see more facilities for child minders but not another burden on the present rating system. This is August, and the Committee is due to report at the end of September. The earlier it reports the better. We can then do these extra things which are important for those who wish to return to work but find it impossible because no local child-minding facilities are available.

Mrs. Millie Miller (Ilford, North)

I hope that the Minister will also draw the amendment to the attention of the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The recent decision to cut back on expenditure on nursery schools means that women and children will be still further disadvantaged. The object of nursery schools is not merely to help mothers to return to work, but there are often possibilities for them to work within nursery school hours. In such cases nursery schools with proper educational facilities should be made available.

It is tragic that so long after the war day nursery and nursery school facilities are lacking to such a degree.

Mrs. Hayman

Is it not a disgrace and a mark of how much we value women as workers now, compared with during the war, that we have fewer day nursery places than in 1945?

Mrs. Miller

I agree, but it is a double disgrace because we are choosing as objects of the economic stringency we hear so much about the most vulnerable in our society—women and young children. I hope that the Minister will bear this in mind and discuss it with his colleagues, remembering that children should be educated early and that if women decide to continue their careers their children should be properly cared for, educationally and socially.

Mrs. Wise

I should like to criticise the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel), who implied that the facilities needed can somehow be supplied with little or no increase in public expenditure. He diverted the House in his reference to the Layfield Committee.

Mr. Madel

For the second time in less than an hour, the hon. Lady has not listened to the debate. I accepted that there would be an increase in local authority expenditure. What I did not accept—and suggested that many ratepayers would not accept—was that it should go on the existing rating system. That is another reason for changing the local government finance system. The hon. Lady's own Government are apparently keen on this, since they set up the Layfield Committee.

Mrs. Wise

I am keen on it as well, but it has not escaped our notice that hon. Members on the Opposition side, in practice, often encourage people to think that services can be provided without anyone having to pay for them. So it is a question not of not listening but of exercising a certain scepticism, on the basis of experience, about the speeches of Conservative Members.

I agree that voluntary groups can play an important rôle, but they want some assistance from local authorities, probably in the provision of premises. It is not codes of conduct or supervision by local authorities which is the prime need, but physical assistance, especially with premises.

I ask my hon. Friend to draw this matter to the attention not only of the Secretary of State for Social Services but also of the Secretary of State for Employment. As I understand it, we have a system of Cabinet responsibility, and I have no doubt that the Secretary of State for Social Services would say that although she agrees with us the exigencies of the situation prevent the Cabinet from going ahead and authorising such expenditure. The Secretary of State for Employment, as a member of the Cabinet, has just as much responsibility for taking an interest in this matter, and it certainly impinges on the work of his Department.

7.30 p.m.

Mr. Clemitson

It would be a great pity if the case for nursery education became confused with the question of returning to work. The case for nursery education is surely to be found precisely in its educational value to the children, and particularly to those who are disadvantaged in various ways. It would be a great pity if it were thought that a case for nursery education were being made out in order to enable women to return to work at an earlier stage.

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale)

I agree very much with the hon. Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson). When the hon. Lady the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman) interrupted earlier and mentioned the rundown in day nurseries since 1945, it struck me that it would be interesting to have the statistics for the increase in nursery schools and nursery classes, which are a far better provision than day nurseries. Indeed, I am not anxious to see an extension of day nurseries, because they were meant for children under two years of age.

I invite hon. Members to consider my personal record in my constituency. I have as much experience as the hon. Lady has and probably over twice as long a period. Day nurseries were the responsibility of the old health committees. They were meant originally to provide for children of the age of two. It is true that the age can be extended to four, but only for social service cases.

This is why I welcome the pressure put on the Minister to extend nursery schools and nursery places. I want to refer, with due modesty, to the record of Rochdale, which is one of the leading authorities in the country for the provision of nursery schools and nursery places. I am proud to say that I served for 21 years as a member of that education committee, and for eight years as the chairman of the committee. We have a record second to none in this respect. Indeed, under my chairmanship we lowered the entry age to schools from five to four. There is now a Labour council in Rochdale which says that it has to restore the age to five for reasons of economic stringency.

Mrs. Hayman

I accept everything that the hon. Gentleman says in favour of nursery education, but the amendment deals primarily with the problem of mothers with very young children. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that no amount of nursery education, as such, can solve the problem, particularly of the unsupported mother and also the mother with the low-wage-earning husband with a very small child—the mother who needs, for economic and social reasons and in order to be a better mother, to go out to work? We cannot dodge the responsibility of providing for such people.

Mr. Smith

I agree. That is why interceded to support the hon. Member for Luton, East. I am very keen to support his view that we should not confuse the provision of nursery schools, which are for educational purposes, with the provision of day nurseries, which are intended, if you like—though I place them much higher—as child-minding centres. That is why I believe that the mover of the amendment was wrong to press the Minister of State to take up the matter with the Secretary of State for Education and Science. It is a matter for the social services, and I hope that the Minister will stand by his earlier remarks.

Mr. Harold Walker

With the leave of the House, I shall not follow this very interesting but none the less rather tangential debate, other than to seek to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) and others that I shall draw the points made in it to the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Secretary of State for Social Services, the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Secretary of State for Employment.

Amendment negatived.

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