HC Deb 04 November 1981 vol 12 cc104-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lang.]

10 pm

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

I welcome the opportunity of raising the subject of what are normally called latchkey children, in this, the first Adjournment debate of the present parliamentary Session.

By "latchkey children" we mean children of statutory school age who are too young to look after themselves either after school hours or during the school holidays—usually because their parents—more commonly, it is a single parent—are at work. Thus, the children will normally be between the ages of 5 and 11, although the problem also concerns some who are a little older.

The problem was most aptly described in evidence included in the sixth report of the Expenditure Committee given by Margaret Brammall on the subject of the employment of women, in the 1972–73 Session. She said: What worries us more than anything is the lack of provision for the child of school age during the holidays and after school hours before the mother comes home. We have considerable evidence of the rather ridiculous fact that a child up to the age of 5 is considered in need of full-time care. When he is 5 years old plus 1 month he is expected to be able to manage for himself. As a result, mothers who have managed and been lucky enough to have day nursery places are having to give up work just at the age when most mothers are considering now is the time they can safely leave their children and get out to work. We are talking of fairly large numbers of children. It was estimated by the Equal Opportunities Commission a few years ago that there were 300,000 children aged between 5 and 10 who were frequently left alone during the school holidays, and about 225,000 children of the same age who were normally left alone every day after school closed.

A survey suggested that about three times as many families would collect supplementary benefit if the mothers were not able to go out to work. So, although it may be argued that mothers should simply stay at home to look after these children, if they did so there would be a number of damaging consequences, including—although it may not be the most important of them all—an increased demand for supplementary benefits. But the more important issues are the needs of parents, particularly single parents, to earn more money by going out to work, and, above all, our responsibility to the children about whom we are talking.

There is fairly widespread agreement that such children are vulnerable and that they run serious risks. Let us take, for example, accidents in the street. In 1979, of all pedestrians killed or seriously injured, 3,500 were children aged between 5 and 9. I cannot prove that such children were always latchkey children, but it is a reasonable presumption that a fair proportion of them were. In the same year, there were 26,000 child pedestrian casualties. On Mondays to Fridays there were 20,000 casualties. The bulk of the casualties took place on Mondays to Fridays.

Looking at this matter by the hour of the day in which the accidents which caused child pedestrian casualties happened, one sees that the bulk of the accidents, affecting some 11,000 children, occurred between 3 pm and 7 pm but that at weekends there was no such peak in the number of accidents to children. These figures come from statistics provided by the Department of Transport. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, about 10 per cent. of accidents in the home happen to children aged between 5 and 9 and about one-third to children aged between 5 and 13.

I am aware that Britain has a better home accident record than many others. However, the cost to the community of accidents to children in the home and in the street is pretty high, particularly since many could be avoided. The cost must be set against the cost of making provision for latchkey children.

We are also discussing other features of the lives of children who are left to roam the streets in the afternoons and the holidays. There must be some relationship between vandalism and children who are allowed to roam. In the last few years there has been disturbing evidence of an increasd tendency to glue or solvent sniffing. I regret that in some instances it is practised by children aged between 5 and 13. Vandalism and other deliquent behaviour also occurs.

It is no coincidence that social service departments report that normally there is an increase in the number of children taken into care during the school summer holidays when children are left to themselves.

Reference was made during the debate on the Loyal Address in reply to the Queen's Speech to the Government's proposal to introduce legislation on criminal justice. I assume that it will include implementing some of the proposals in the White Paper on young offenders. I am sad that we heard nothing about preventive measures to reduce the number of young people who become offenders. Positive steps to provide support and care for latch-key children would be one such preventive measure. It would pay the dividend to society of making fewer children offenders because fewer would get into trouble with the law and appear in the courts.

The Queen's Speech also contains proposals to reduce the ability of local authorities to spend money on such schemes. That should not deter one from making the case nor from bringing the maximum pressure to bear on the Government to face up to their responsibilities for this group of children.

The problem is not new. We have known about it for many years. During the First World War, Government circulars were issued from the Home Office about the problems of children who were left alone to wander the streets. More recently, a series of reports and publications have drawn attention to the problem.

In 1948 a report "Out of School" published by the Central Advisory Council for Education, stated: The Minister should make an urgent appeal to LEAs to apply their powers under the Education Acts so as to increase and improve by every possible means, facilities for the play and recreation of children out of school hours. In 1961 a report was published by Yudkin and Holme. "A Survey of Women's Employment" was conducted in 1965. A report by the Expenditure Committee on "The Employment of Women" stated: We therefore recommend the provision of facilities for the after school and holiday care of school-age children. In 1976 the Transport and General Workers Union made a similar point. Equally important is a report by the Central Policy Review Staff, normally called the Think Tank, on services for young children with working mothers which was published in 1978. It stated: There are a further two and a half million children between the ages of five and ten whose mothers work and for whom virtually no provision is made outside school hours … But services for younger children have been neglected and even curtailed. Young children do not, as yet, have any high political priority and their needs tend to be regarded as optional extras in the main programmes. The Think Tank report then went on to talk about difficulties faced by local authorities in their departmental structure. The report suggested that it would be sensible if the local authorities set up joint policy committees for children under the age of 10 comprising those concerned with social services and education, with members of area health authorities sitting in as advisers.

Similarly, the report talked about the split between departmental responsibility at Government level. It suggested that a joint unit should be established by the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Social Security to oversee policies and expenditure on young children. The lack of departmental co-operation, both at local authority and Government level, must be one of the reasons why the problem of latchkey children has not been as fully recognised as it should have been and has not been high enough in the scale of political priorities for positive action.

The Government should and could do a number of things. It is some years since the previous occasion when the Government conducted a survey among local authorities as to what action was being taken in their localities to make provision for latchkey children. There is no central body of information about that matter. It will be helpful if the Government take upon themselves the responsibility of discovering what is happening or, as I fear will more often be the case, what is not happening.

It is not just a matter of local authorities. It is also a matter of services and support for latchkey children provided by voluntary and community groups, sometimes supported by local authorities. In my constituency of Battersea, South—and in the borough of Wandsworth where it is located—there are a number of such schemes that are very successful and supportive and where much trouble is taken to look after latchkey children. The Inner London Education Authority is probably better at that sort of scheme than most education authorities in Britain. A number of schools provide support for latchkey children after school hours. Children are taken, or occasionally transported, to those schools. The picture in London may be better than in other parts of Britain, but it would be useful if the Government were to take upon themselves the responsibility of finding out what was happening and about the pattern of provision.

Some of the schemes are supported by urban aid. The difficulty with local government cuts is that when the urban aid time period runs out the local authority cannot continue to provide such support unless the Government step in and provide some help and encouragement, possibly by continuing the urban aid schemes or by reversing the attempt to cut local authority expenditure.

There is also a need for a central body that would be a resource to help local voluntary and community groups. An application for such support landed on desks in the Department of Health and Social Security some time ago. That was a request by an organisation called the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres, which asked for funding for a modest unit called an out-of-school unit that would provide support for various schemes in Britain. It would not only provide support and encouragement for those setting up projects but would monitor and evaluate schemes taking place, provide training for workers in such schemes, seek to increase public awareness and encourage local authorities in their support.

I hope that in his reply the Minister will say something about the worthwhileness of the scheme, which seems to be the catalyst necessary to encourage more action at a local level to meet the problem. I also hope that the Minister will say whether lack of co-operation at local authority or Government level is the problem that has been suggested and whether he has any proposals to tackle it.

There is general agreement that although the problems of latchkey children have often been neglected—they are not often discussed or in the forefront of political debate—the needs of those children are very real. The contribution that we could make to their well-being and subsequent development would be significant. I hope that, despite the Government's policy of public expenditure cuts, there will be some hope or comfort in what the Minister has to say, at least in recognition of the needs, and in his willingness to support voluntary and community activities to provide for latchkey children.

10.14 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security (Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg)

The hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) made an interesting speech. Although a comparative newcomer to the Government side of health and personal social services, I appreciate from my local government experience that the way in which we as a society care for and bring up our children is rightly the subject of a great deal of public interest and debate. That is right, as they are extremely important matters, and I hope to clarify the Government's views on the provision of services for one specific group of children—those of school age whose parents work full-time outside the home. That group formed the basis of the hon. Gentleman's arguments.

The hon. Gentleman said that there is a specially difficult problem in connection with the lower age range of that group, children between the ages of five and 11, who are of statutory school age but who are too young to look after themselves before and after school hours and during the holidays. I do not deny that there are difficulties facing the family when both parents want to work full time when their children reach school age or where there is a working lone parent.

However, I cannot accept the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the needs of those children for out-of-school care should be met by the State. As I and my predecessors at the Department of Health and Social Security have already made clear on numerous occasions, responsibility for the care of children is primarily a matter for their parents and must remain with them.

If parents with young children decide to go out to work, that is their business. I would not presume to tell them that they should not do so. But in making that decision, they must take into account the needs of their children and accept that they have duties and obligations as parents which cannot be handed over at will to the State.

Many, indeed most, working parents with school-age children fully accept the need to ensure that their children are properly cared for. Many of them make arrangements for the children to be looked after by a relative or friend at the end of the school day and in the holidays; some use registered child minders, who usually care for under-fives but are often willing to take older children for the short time involved; some get together with other parents to make informal arrangements so that, for instance, mothers or fathers at home with their children can help to look after other children, often on a rota basis.

Although the Government take the view that the main responsibility for the care of their children must remain with the parents, that is not to say that they must always solve all their problems unaided. The Government, of course, appreciate the difficulties facing many one-parent families and the main benefit schemes, including family income supplement and housing rebates, contain important concessions for those families. In addition, many one-parent families are also entitled to one-parent benefit and, of course, for tax purposes one-parent families can claim an additional personal allowance that gives them the same tax allowance as a married man.

There is also a good deal that the public authorities can do, and are doing, directly and indirectly, to help provide care and play facilities for school-age children whose parents go out to work. The extent of the problem will vary greatly between areas, and consequently it is very much for individual local authorities to consider what particular responses are appropriate for the needs of their areas.

Local education authorities have powers under section 53 of the Education Act 1944 to provide or assist with the provision of facilities for recreation and for social and physical training for school children. A number of authorities have used those powers to establish adventure playgrounds, play centres or play parks.

The Inner London Education Authority, for example, makes extensive use of its school premises immediately after school hours for play centres, junior clubs and similar activities. A sample survey in 1978–79 indicates that about one-fifth of all primary and secondary schools in England were used regularly during school holidays. Activities of organised groups and societies and of youth services accounted for over 40 per cent. of the total usage. I understand from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science that a summary of this survey is to be published shortly.

The Department of the Environment also takes an interest in this problem and is concerned to encourage the provision of play facilities for children. It has, for example, published in its design bulletin detailed advice on the needs of children and factors to be taken into account when planning play facilities.

I might also mention that following my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment's visits to Merseyside the Government have announced that they are prepared to allocate an extra £1 million towards the improvement of sporting facilities on Merseyside, if this can be matched from voluntary sources. It is intended that schemes involving children of all ages will have a high priority.

The Sports Council gives an annual grant to the National Playing Fields Association, which is the foremost voluntary organisation for children's play. In addition, the council gives grants to other children's play facilities which have an element of sport—for example; "kickabout" areas.

Within my own sphere, local authority social services departments have powers under section 1 of the Child Care Act 1980 to make provision where necessary for the welfare of children before and after school hours or in the holidays to diminish the need to receive them into care. Several local authorities now provide care and play schemes by means of these powers. In addition, some social services departments provide care for young school age children in day nurseries or family day centres out of school hours and during holidays.

Local voluntary and self-help organisations are also very active in providing out of school schemes, sometimes with help, including grant aid and professional advice, from the local authority. Particularly successful examples are the gingerbread playschool scheme in Croydon and the schemes run by the Bristol Association for Neighbourhood Day Care.

The urban programme, whereby the Government meet 75 per cent. of the cost of approved projects, is an important means of developing local schemes. Applications are currently being processed for schemes to start in 1982. As well as the traditional programme, under which about £1¼ million was approved for schemes to benefit young children in 1981–82, additional special funds totalling £500,000 were also made available for projects operating during school holidays. Priority in funding these schemes is given to those aimed at helping families with special problems, such as ethnic minority groups and one-parent families.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the risk that latchkey children may get involved in delinquent behaviour. The family service unit in Sheffield, with a grant from my Department, is running a pilot intermediate treatment project specifically for children aged 10 years and under in selected areas. Many of the children have committed delinquent acts and the project aims to prevent them, as they grow older, continuing in this way.

Prevention is an important part of any total strategy for intermediate treatment. Areas which seem to produce a large number of older juvenile delinquents can benefit from improved facilities for younger children which generally can reduce the level of delinquency later. These facilities can be provided by a number of agencies both statutory or voluntary; and there is considerable scope for the use of concerned volunteers.

I am convinced that local voluntary or self-help initiative, using resources from within the community itself, offers the best way ahead for latchkey children. Not only do they provide a flexible means of responding to the individual needs of each area, but they offer to parents themselves the opportunity of active involvement in their setting up and management.

I was particularly pleased to see that the United Kingdom Association for the International Year of the Child had laid stress on voluntary schemes and that this had also been one of the main themes of the follow up conference on out of school care organised by the British Association of Settlements and Social Action Centres in 1980. The hon. Gentleman referred to the application submitted to the Government earlier this year by that association for a grant to set up a unit to encourage and evaluate the development of our school facilities by community groups, voluntary bodies and others. This proposal covers a wide range of activities which span the interests of several Government Departments. As is usual with such applications, the response is being co-ordinated by the voluntary services unit of the Home Office. This has taken a little time, but I understand that it should have a decision very shortly.

The importance of collaboration and liaison between the various Government Departments and voluntary organisations concerned has already been stressed. When so many different interests are involved, as they are in the development of services for latchkey children, co- ordination is essential if we are to make progress. However, there is no one prescription for successful coordination. I think that the hon. Gentleman accepts that. At local authority level, social services, education, housing and other departments may all have something to contribute. It is encouraging to see the progress with collaborative projects that has already been made in many areas, particularly where local government is working in partnership with local voluntary and self-help groups.

At Government level, there are frequent informal contacts between officials from the various interested Departments. I doubt very much whether any more formal co-ordinating machinery would be the best way of serving children's interests. Such a step would encourage yet another shift of responsibility away from parents, relatives and the community. I do not think that that would be right. There would also be the danger that services for children would become divorced from more general policies in, for example, health, housing, education and recreation.

The Government believe that this is very much a matter for parents, having considered all the implications, to get together and to make provision among themselves. That approach provides a good opportunity for voluntary service, which is geared more towards the needs of individuals in individual areas. It seems to be one of the most successful ways of operating.

I return to the point where I started. Primary responsibility for the care of children of all ages must rest with their parents. For far too long organisations and individuals have tried to persuade parents to abdicate that responsibility. I do not believe that parents wish to abdicate that responsibility. It is the State's job not to take over from them, but rather to be ready to provide help when needed to enable parents to fulfil their obligations more effectively. I believe that we are pointing in a direction that will be of more benefit to parents and their children. I hope that I have succeeded in indicating some of the ways in which we are doing that.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

I agree with much that the Minister has said. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) referred to glue sniffing, which is rife throughout the country. Not many days ago the hon. Gentleman responded to my letter about the problem. In that letter I suggested that we should deal with it at the manufacturing end. Why do we not give parents some help by taking that approach? I do not accept the Minister's view as expressed in his letter. He thinks that the answer lies in educating youngsters not to sniff glue. That is not the answer. The answer lies at the manufacturing end. Why do the Government not accept that responsibility?

Mr. Finsberg

It might have been better if I had not allowed the hon. Gentleman to intervene. He seems to be saying that he wants the State to do everything for everybody. That is not the right approach. If he pursues his argument to its logical conclusion, he will encompass many varieties of harmless glue that are sold in shops. I do not think that we can contemplate introducing a ban on the sale of glue in shops. If we did, we would have to try to find a glue that did not have all the characteristics that he has in mind. There would be many problems. Many of the policies that the Labour Party is trying to put together would be left in separate pieces, because it would not have the glue that it needs to paste over the cracks the paper that was offered earlier today. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's idea is sound. We must rely upon parents and education. I hope that I have answered the hon. Gentleman's question.

The Question having been proposed at 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 half-past Ten o'clock.