HC Deb 08 July 1975 vol 895 cc491-502

11.9 p.m.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

On Monday mornings it is my practice to take my three-year-old son to playgroup before I leave for London. We have in South Yorkshire a substantial number of happy and successful playgroups. The ladies involved in this work fulfil a useful and commendable rôle. We have many playgroups and a growing number of nursery schools. However, we still have not enough nursery groups, but the local authority is extending that provision.

Unfortunately, playgroups and nursery schools do not cater for all our children. For many little ones this provision is unlikely to be of help. These are usually children of full-time working mothers. They are often handed over to child minders early in the morning, and at the end of a long day a tired mother collects them from the minder.

I read in a book by Augustine John called "Race in the Inner City", published in 1970, a description of that part of our society which relies on child minders. Let me quote one passage: To stand on Grove Lane or Rookery Road around 6.30 in the morning and to watch streams of West Indian mothers taking toddlers by the hand into child-minding establishments—dingy front rooms in which anything from half a dozen to a dozen children will be herded for the rest of the day, a paraffin oil heater in a corner in the winter—is to observe a very different world from the one inhabited by social scientists, teachers and officials of various kinds. There are many children in such positions.

Playgroups and nursery schools provide excellent opportunities but operate only part of the time. For children of full-time working mothers, possibly in a one-parent situation, these opportunities are denied and the situation is unsatisfactory. The pity is that the little children who do not or cannot attend playgroup or nursery school are those who would most benefit from such attendance.

We are not talking about a few children. The latest estimate suggests that 1,250,000 children are in the care of child minders, and there are probably 300,000 of these ladies. In the last year or so more minders have been registered by local authorities under the terms of the 1948 Nursery and Child-minding Regulations or Section 60 of the 1968 Health Service and Public Health Act.

Despite the increase in the number of registered minders, it is fair to say that not more than 20 per cent. of Britain's minders are registered. In some areas the proportion registered is disgracefully low. In other areas it is better, but on a general view the situation is disturbing, even though some local authorities can be congratulated on the ground they have recently covered.

Despite having had teaching experience before I entered the House in 1970, my attention was drawn to this matter at a relatively recent date. It is not a very grave problem in my constituency, but my attention was drawn to representations made in this House recently. At the same time I learned a good deal about the problem from my trade union.

I declare an interest as a member of the National Union of Public Employees. Opposition Members are often critical of trade unions, and this year they have been critical of my union. It should be put on record, however, that my union is undertaking invaluable work in promoting the interests of over 1 million little children, including many of the most disadvantaged children in the United Kingdom. Encouraged by the general secretary and other senior officials, the research department of the union, especially Mr. Reg Race, carried out a great deal of work. These endeavours, plus many other representations, have led to my seeking this debate tonight.

It is relevant that another development in recent weeks has been the establishment of an all-party committee on the under-fives. This illustrates parliamentary awareness of the problem. There is support for the committee in all parts of the House. It is right that there should be, and I was pleased to accept the committee's chairmanship.

We have to look at the developing situation in the last century. In 1870 we saw the beginning of a national system of education which arose out of an acceptance of the need to ensure that the working population was literate. With this was linked the belief that proper instruction would maintain good moral and social values. The 1870 Act replaced the patchy provision which previously existed and which owed so much to the Christian ideal. In the century or so since then, however, we have seen a massive growth in educational provision. It has been particularly marked in the last quarter of a century.

I recall that 30 years ago I was the only child from my junior school to win a county minor scholarship. Today from that same junior school many more young children will go on to enjoy opportunity, and a very large, much increased, number will enter higher education. We have therefore seen the investment in education rise massively, and it is right that it should. That investment is vital. No one but a fool would deny it. However, there is a very serious danger in the fact that provision for over-fives or under-16s might proceed while at the same time we continue to neglect children below the statutory age.

We should bear in mind that the most formative years in an individual's life are those before he or she reaches five. If development is stunted then, if desirable intellectual, social or moral responses are not awakened and if words are not learnt, the child will be permanently disadvantaged. This is above all the reason for educational failure, because inevitably in our present arrangements the deprived child is the child who suffers most. Poverty and deprivation are transmissible. Thus if opportunity and growth are denied to the child of one, two or three, lavish provision later is much less likely to be successful.

No sane person is now suggesting or could suggest that Government and local authorities should promptly embark on massive expenditure to remedy the situation. The money is not there. However, my major purpose in seeking this debate tonight is to suggest, first, that the needs of pre-school children are important, and, second, that the national priority afforded to such children should be raised markedly, and as urgently as possible. We have to bear in mind that money spent upon pre-school children could yield a better social return than in any other sector in the whole field of eduaction and society.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will not need me to spell matters out at great length or with detailed statistics, but I should like to illustrate the position by referring to some not terribly dramatic new cases. We know of one case in which a minder had care of 17 children and was then given a foster-child by the local authority, and was accustomed to go out to do her shopping and leave the children unattended. We know of another case where a minder noticed that a two-year-old girl had tufts of hair missing from her head and informed the local authority. She was never informed by that local authority of the succeeding action. She was never told directly and she learnt only by accident that the child was receiving psychiatric help. There was inadequate consulation between the responsible local authority and the observant and very useful child minder, who had acted as the troubleshooter in the first place.

I have had quotations handed to me today concerning two ladies from the South of England who made the following comments about child minders. The first said: My minder doesn't look after my child properly. She has seven children to look after. The other said: My minder looks after nine children and goes out to work part-time as well. I can't stand it, but I'm helpless … I can't find another minder That was from a single-parent mother.

Those comments and illustrations reveal that matters are not right in Britain today in this sector. As I have said, only a minority of child minders are registered. However, I know that my hon. Friend is most concerned and will feel some justifiable relief that the numbers of minders who are registered is increasing, but registration itself is not enough.

A recent survey showed that 25 per cent. of minders were never visited by a social services officer. The same survey showed that 63 per cent. had only one visit a year, that 50 per cent. of the minders did not know how to contact the local social worker responsible for them and that 98 per cent. did not know the social worker's name. If we add the fact that it appears that child minders change their activities very rapidly and that we appear to have a 50 per cent. turnover in the ranks of child minders each year, the potential for difficulty and for deterioration is severe. The child minder bears a very heavy responsibility. Because of that burden of responsibility, it seems to be essential that the assistance and advice that minders need should not be denied.

I know that the Department is not keen on legislation and that, quite rightly, it is reluctant to trespass too much on the responsibilities of local authorities. On the other hand, too often the Government are keen to press work upon the local authorities and then complain about increased spending. The local authorities are rightly defensive in these matters, and often even resentful. Nevertheless, the welfare of a million or more children is too important to be left to chance. The Minister may feel reluctant about interfering in local authority matters. At the same time, we can rely too much on a flexible arrangement.

I agree with the Minister that we should be cautious about legislation, provided we can be confident that the arrangements of the local authorities are adequate. Unfortunately some local authorities, perhaps for unavoidable reasons, are not achieving all that they could. I know of one city where only 20 or 30 minders are registered. On the face of it, that is quite disgraceful.

Although the Minister may be right to decline to bring in major or complex legislation immediately, there is a case for considering the enactment of reserve powers or, at least, for regular circulars spelling out the needs and drawing attention to successful arrangements and emphasising the desirabilities. I understand that the Minister has communicated with the local authorities recently. He may feel it appropriate tonight to comment upon that communication.

I said that I was not demanding immediate and massive expenditure, certainly not for a year or two. However, this period of harsh economic restraint should be used as a time of assessment and preparation, a time to prepare the springboard that we need to create to provide the security needed by these children and to give Britain the insurance that educational investment will not be wasted and lost because disadvantaged babies are doomed before they even start school.

For these reasons, and knowing of the invaluable and essential rôle fulfilled by the ladies involved in child minding, my trade union has considered and approved of the Child Minders' Charter. The ladies from Sutton originally responsible for it were aware of the problems. They knew that there were bad child minders still caring for young children. They also knew that there were many devoted ladies providing well for their charges for meagre rewards.

Too often the rewards are very small. I believe that the average pay per child is between £3 and £4 for a 50-hour week, out of which the minder has to provide meals and meet other costs. It has been worked out that the real earnings cannot be greater than 3p per hour per child, and it may be less in many cases, especially in some localities where, because of excessive competition, there is undercutting. Where undercutting is practised, we must be anxious about the nature of the resulting economies and their effect on the children. Often the minder faces emotional difficulties and bad debts. Altogether, the lot of the child minder herself can be hard.

From the experience of these difficulties the charter was drawn up, and my trade union, having considered it carefully, has accepted its aims as broad policy. Perhaps I might refer briefly to some of the points in the charter, offer my commendation of them to my hon. Friend and ask for his comments.

First, minders should be given some training. I believe that this is necessary not least in first aid. Training opportunities are desirable, preferably practised in an informal and relatively simple way. In addition to training, however, there should be a steady flow of advice and guidance, if only because it provides a contact point which is highly desirable. The child minder operates in isolation, often isolated from other adults, and contact with the social services could give support and reduce the feeling of isolation or even stress.

There is also a case for minders to be directly employed by local authorities. This may be arguable, but such arrangements could prevent abuse and help to stamp out irresponsible and illegal activity. Certainly the local authority could be more involved in the whole sphere. For example, it is astonishing that at least half of Britain's child minders seem to be unaware that local authorities may pay for a child minder where the child of a one-parent family is involved. I believe that provision ought to be more generally known and operated.

I understand that some minders are paid under the Government's urban programme. That is so in Edinburgh and Lambeth. That is commendable, but deprivation is universal, varying only in its degree. Perhaps the scheme should be built on more generally. I also believe that the Minister should take note of the more successful local authorities.

I have been tremendously impressed by the work done by the Rotherham Borough Council, my own metropolitan district authority. The director of social services, Mr. J. Ashmore, has achieved a great deal. I only wish that the rest of the country could follow our example.

The Minister might like to know a little of this achievement. First, virtually all minders are registered. Before they are registered, the authority has to be satisfied that their premises are adequate, airy and well lit, with a minimum of 25 sq. ft per child. There must also be proper washing and toilet facilities and adequate scope for play. No single-handed minder may have more than four children under the age of five years, and of the number minded no more than half in any group are to be below two and a half years of age. A minder with an assistant over 16 years of age may care for up to eight children. In all cases a register has to be maintained and a second adult must be within reach.

In my area, elementary in-service training is being carried out with the cooperation of the education committee. We employ two organisers who are responsible for child minders and playgroups. Therefore, in my locality at any rate, the ideals of Seebohm have not been ignored. I must stress that we are fortunate in not having some of the challenges which have to be faced in inner city areas. However, even in some of the most severely depressed areas a great deal has been achieved, notably in areas like Lewisham. Despite our achievements—in recent years they have been real—the problem remains extremely vast.

The Minister will not need me to go on at much greater length, but there is one other point which it is essential to stress. Many people engaged in administration appear to feel that the child minder is not involved in education at all but that her function is merely to provide care. I reject that view. It is too easy an attitude to take. These are the most formative years in a child's life—the years when the stimulus provided by existence determines the individual's social response, and education is linked with that. In the adult-pre-school child relationship, whether the adult is a teacher or not, education is implicit. For that reason, educationalists cannot deny that child minders are involved in education.

We need to be assured that neither administration convenience nor professional sensibilities are given too high a priority, certainly not higher than the needs of the disadvantaged child.

I am pleased that we have seen progress. I am pleased that the seven Government Departments with concern for these children are working together on the inter-departmental consultative group on provision for the under-fives. I understand that out of their deliberations we may see a circular. I hope that the Minister will be able to say when that circular will be published. I hope he will also be able to give an assurance that it will contain valuable advice and information and that it will be followed by even more useful action.

11.29 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Michael Meacher)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) for his choice of debate—child minding—and for the detailed, concerned and sincere way in which he has covered the various issues involved. I know that for a long time my hon. Friend has shown concern for the care of young children, and I very much welcome the formation of the all-party group on under-fives of which he is chairman.

As a form of day care, good child minding offers many advantages. For parents it provides a flexible and often cheaper alternative to care in a day nursery or other provision and in many cases it is the most local service—the one nearest home. From the child's point of view, a good child minder can provide him with the kind of informal care in familiar surroundings that is the nearest substitute for his own home and also give him the opportunity to form the close continuing relationship with one adult that most research has shown to be so important for his development. For the young child this is much more in tune with his limited capacity for social contacts than the communal experience of a day nursery.

Child minding is, therefore, a service that I entirely agree should be recognised and developed. It should not be seen simply as a second-best alternative to a day nursery place. Indeed, I am quite sure that even if it is cheap for the parents we must not think of child minding as something to be obtained "on the cheap".

I know that some people take the view—my hon. Friend hinted at this—that the law which requires child minders to register should be repealed, or at least fundamentally changed, on the ground that it is honoured more in the breach, is unenforceable and, therefore, serves no purpose. I cannot agree with that argument. We have to lay down standards, whatever the difficulties of applying them, and to repeal the existing provision would be to sacrifice the measure of control which local authorities possess.

Although I do not for one moment deny, and my hon. Friend quoted examples, that some unregistered minders have unacceptably low standards—that is common ground—there is no evidence to suggest that all those who are unregistered give a poor standard of care. Many of them may well look after their children as capably and with as much love and affection as minders who are registered.

The underlying cause for concern is much more a matter of the absence of any positive check on their standards: the fact that local authorities are not always able to make contact with them or be absolutely certain about the welfare of the children they mind. I find it encouraging that authorities are increasingly moving away from a purely "policing" rôle and are treating their statutory duty of registration as an opportunity to help child minders—registered and those hitherto unregistered—to raise their standards and come to a greater understanding of the needs of the children for whom they care. The speed with which they can move in this direction will be determined by the resources that they are able to make available.

One of the problems is, of course, that while we know that there are about 30,000 registered minders looking after about 85,000 children, we cannot estimate with accuracy the number of unregistered minders or the number of children they mind. I certainly accept that there are far more unregistered minders than we would wish, but some of the highest estimates, ranging up to 300,000 children in the care of unregistered minders, as my hon. Friend quoted, are based more on conjecture than on solid evidence. Therefore, his suggestion that only 20 per cent. are registered minders may perhaps be exaggerated.

In his reference to the NUPE Child Minders' Charter, my hon. Friend suggested a number of interesting ways in which we might be able to help child minders. I particularly welcomed the emphasis which he laid upon the need for support from local authorities. I believe that that is a key point. I am not sure that the proposal that child minders should be employed by local authorities would necessarily in itself help matters, but there can be no doubt that if child minding is to be made an attractive occupation, and not merely a respectable one, there is much more to be done by way of support. Only by making registered minding attractive shall we encourage the unregistered to come in and register, and only by continuing to help parents understand their children's needs and the importance of good standards of day care for them shall we encourage a demand from parents that their children's minders should be registered.

I have already recognised the financial implications of child minding support schemes, although I have said that it is a good investment. But it is enormously encouraging that so many local authorities—34, including 21 in London, at the last count in November 1974—are already actively pursuing the best way to help child minders. The Child Minding Research Unit, with which we keep in close touch, found in its second report in November last year that there had been what it described as an explosion of activity in local authority support schemes unparalleled in any other part of the social service field. Support schemes vary from formal courses to discussion groups, from drop-in centres to play-groups, from grants for equipment to toy lending schemes.

But there is, of course, much still to be done. It is not enough simply to support minders, although it is important to do so. Child minding must be integrated with the whole day care spectrum, itself a community service which is in turn part of the wider range of services available to families with children. We know that many minders, both registered and unregistered, suffer from a feeling of isolation. While discussion groups and adequate support from social services staff help to remove this, it is in itself an indicator of the need for greater integration.

I am greatly encouraged too by the number of imaginative support schemes directed at helping to bring this about which were submitted by local authorities for urban aid, and I am delighted that we are enabling seven of them to go ahead with support amounting to £60,000 under phase II of the urban programme, ranging from a training programme in Southampton to a resource centre for minders in Manchester and from the lending of equipment and extending support in Tower Hamlets to the appointment of a child minding adviser in Newcastle.

As part of the process of integrating child minding into the day care service as a whole, we shall have to lower barriers and get rid of over-sharp distinctions. The day nursery, for example, provides an obvious focus, physical and otherwise, for the child minder and the children she looks after. I envisage more local authorities extending the use of their nurseries so as to bring in minders and provide a centre for discussion and advice so that the day nursery extends its rôle towards that of a day care centre. We are following with interest the progress of the scheme in Lambeth, which the Government are supporting through the Inner Area Study, whereby minders are recruited and paid by the local authority and linked with a day nursery, at a cost estimated at £12,500 per annum in 1974.

It is not surprising that the playgroup, as one of the most successful community developments of recent years, now providing for about 350,000 children, also has much to offer child minders. Playgroups in themselves can offer the diffident minder the chance of meeting others who care for young children, whether or not their own, and of coming to understand more about the play and developmental needs of children. They provide an admirable opportunity for informal instruction and discussion and give older children in particular the chance of mixing with their contemporaries that many who are minded—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-one minutes to Twelve o'clock.