HC Deb 24 October 1989 vol 158 cc779-819

'—(1) Every local authority, together with the appropriate local education authority, shall prepare a plan which shall—

  1. (a) ensure the development of day care and education facilities for all children under five who require them; and
  2. (b) include provision for children aged between five and fourteen before and after school hours and during school holidays.

(2) Every local authority, together with the appropriate local education authority, shall review child care provision within its locality every three years. Such a review shall include

  1. (a) the training needs of persons working with children
  2. (b) the requirement for child-care provision in the area.

(3) In assessing the requirement for child care under 2(b) above, the authority shall have regard to the wishes of parents in its area.

(4) Every review prepared under subsection (2) above shall be published, and shall be submitted to the Secretary of State, who shall publish a response to the review within three months of the date on which he receives it.

(5) In the course any plan or undertaking any review under this section, the local authority shall consult—

  1. (a) existing voluntary providers of nurseries and playgroups;
  2. (b) existing childminders;
  3. (c) the local Health Authority;
  4. (d) enployers;
  5. (e) relevant trade unions;.'.—[Ms. Armstrong.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take new clause 3—Code of Practice

'—(1) The Secretary of State, shall issue a code of practice to be used by local authorities when deciding whether to register an applicant for registration under section (Child minding and day care for young children: registration), which shall include standards which should be met in the provision of care.

(2) The Secretary of State shall not issue any code of practice under section (1) above unless—

  1. (a) he has consulted appropriate voluntary and statutory organisations on its provisions; and
  2. (b) a draft of it has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'.

New clause 4—Childminding and day care for young children registration

'(1) A local authority may refuse to register an applicant for registration under this Act if the care to be provided by that person when looking after any child as a childminder, or persons who provide day care for children on premises within that area, is in the opinion of the authority, likely to be seriously inadequate having regards to the needs of the children concerned.

(2) In assessing the adequacy of care for the purpose of this section, regard shall be had to the Code of Practice set out in this Act.'.

Government new clause 25—Orders pending appeals in cases about care or supervision orders.

Government amendment No. 388.

Amendment No. 30, in page 61, line 32, at end insert—

  1. '(e) require him to take out public liability insurance for his work as a childminder.
  2. (f) require him to attend a local authority approved course of pre-registration training.'.

Government amendment No. 484.

Amendment No. 31, in page 62, line 39, leave out 'seriously'.

Government amendment No. 130.

Amendment No. 33, in page 64, line 23, leave out 'at least once every year' and insert 'at least once every three months'.

Amendment No. 480, in page 64, line 23, leave out 'year' and insert 'six months'.

Amendment No. 27, in page 121, leave out lines 31 and 32.

Amendment No. 29, in page 123, leave out lines 35 to 43.

Amendment No. 361, in page 123, line 40, leave out 'and requiring him to pay to them such fee as may be prescribed'.

Amendment No. 360, in page 123, line 40, at end insert 'However the local authority may waive fees in such cases as it deems necessary and any prescribed fee shall not exceed £10 per annum'.

Ms. Armstrong

We now come to provisions in the Bill which, in some senses, do not have the consensus around them about which we heard earlier. The Government are missing a major opportunity here, despite all the rhetoric that we have heard from Ministers in the past few months. The issue of registration and regulation of day care facilities is central to the protection of children and the Government have missed an incredible opportunity.

New clause 2 sets out a broad framework for the way in which we should like to see registration carried out. I say from the beginning that there are significant omissions from the new clause. One is that there is no mention of any idea of charging for registration—an aspect with which I shall deal later in my speech.

I am anxious that the Government and the House should recognise that the Opposition believe that the registration and regulation of day care is a public responsibility and should, therefore, be an aspect of public policy and public spending. New clause 2, if adopted, would be one of the most important clauses in this important Bill. It calls for a regular public local authority review and a response by the Secretary of State to that review which will involve all the people concerned with child care provision. The new clause demonstrates the importance that the Opposition see for the future of child care and leads us to debate the entire provision of child care in our society.

People inside and outside the House see child care as one of the essential political issues of the next few years. It is the most important issue to women between 20 and 35 and is at the top of their political agenda. We know from their representations that many of them are worried about the level of quality that may prevail without good regulation of child care. We also know that they have little confidence in the manner in which the Government have addressed the issue.

This clause more than any other demonstrates the need for a new Labour Government to introduce child care regulations. We shall propose new legislation because we believe that central Government have a responsibility to all the nation's children, not just to those children who come before a court or who come within the Government's definition of children in need.

Since the Committee stage, Opposition Members who were critical of the Government's inadequate approach to child care have been joined by some important allies. I hardly dare quote one of them as I do not often see that organ of the press as an ally. On Thursday, the Daily Mail said that it had carried out a survey which had found that Britain had the worst child care services in Europe. That is important evidence. I hope that the Government will take note of that newspaper's findings, as they keep telling us that many of their supporters read it. Until the publication of that article, I had believed that Britain had only the second worst child care services in Europe.

The Government must realise that the crisis in child care will not go away. With the measures in the Bill it will only get worse. The clause providing for a local authority review is inadequate in a number of ways. That is hardly surprising, as it was placed in the Bill late in the Committee stage. In subsequent contacts with local authorities, I have not been able to find anyone who was consulted about the nature of that additional duty before the Government's new clause was tabled. Consulting everyone involved in child care is a central role that the Government should undertake, but they have chosen to ignore the consensus about what is needed.

Two vital additions in new clause 2 raise the subject of the national crisis in child care provision and the Government's abdication of responsibility. First, subsection (2)(b) lays a duty on local authorities and local education authorities to review the requirements for child care in their areas. It is vital for a local authority to know and understand the needs in its area. Secondly, subsection (4) requires the Secretary of State to publish a response to all those reviews within three months. It is not surprising that the Government have no wish to have an analysis of the need for child care. I suspect that they are frightened of what they would find if they tried to assess the need properly.

It is not surprising that a Government who have shown no inclination to take any responsibility for child care make no mention of their obligations. Their attitudes to their responsibility for child care make no mention of their obligations. Their attitudes to their responsibility towards child care are best summed up in the words of the Home Office Minister who chairs the ministerial group on women's issues. He summed up his view of Government responsibility by saying: I don't think that the State should step in to help the working mother unless her life has collapsed. The Government will only help with child care when a mother's life has collapsed. The message for mothers is that when they are on their knees they can go to the Government for help and the Government will consider giving it. The leak about child benefit confirms the worries people have about the extent of the Government's real concern for the children of Britain.

11 pm

The Government's attitude towards helping women return to work comes at a time when the rest of Europe is gearing up their work forces for the single market in 1992. I assure the House that Governments in other European countries are interested in helping mothers to return to work before their lives collapse. The social dimension of the market in other European nations is causing Governments to recognise their responsibilities to child care.

The European Commissioner Madam Papandreou has commented on the woeful record of this country in providing child care. Like other national Governments, she recognises how our national economy will be undermined by the Government's failure to take on the responsibility outlined in the new clause.

The Bill begins with a clause that the Opposition wholeheartedly support, which declares that the welfare of the child shall be paramount. The Opposition strongly support that. We believe that the same duty laid on courts in clause I should be laid on the Secretary of State in this section of the Bill with regard to child care.

New clause 2 raises three important issues of detail which are missing from the existing clause 17. Our new clause lays the duty for carrying out the review jointly with the local authority and the local education authority. It also lays the duty to ascertain the needs of the locality on the two authorities. That may seem technical and minor. However, new clause 2 applies to Scotland.

In Scotland the authority with responsibility for half the children in Scotland has already co-ordinated child care under the local education authority. It would be nonsense if one of the very few authorities to have co-ordinated and integrated child care were to be in difficulty. Many of the London authorities have made representations that under the reorganisation of education they want to place child care within the local education authority. We want to ensure that they can do that as they have recognised their responsibilities.

When the Select Committee on Social Services reported earlier this year, it recognised the importance of close co-operation. It stated: From our visits we have concluded that where there is a will to work together significant progress can be made in co-ordination and we reiterate that there are no easy answers to improving co-ordination. We therefore suggest the current progress towards the establishment of joint sub-committees in local authorities. Co-ordination and integration are central to the future opportunities of children in child care and it is important that the Bill offers the framework that enables and supports that rather than frustrating it.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms. Armstrong

No, I will not give way now.

The next issue concerns consultation with voluntary bodies. The Opposition have constantly stressed the importance of co-ordinating statutory, voluntary and private child care provision. This new clause is no exception. Given the importance of the voluntary sector, it is necessary for the primary legislation to specify the fact that consultations will take place and that there will be central involvement. The reality of child care is that, as parents desperately look for the best situation for their child, they must frequently put together a patchwork of provision. If anything happens, the patchwork comes apart, so co-ordination is essential.

Mr. Marlow

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms. Armstrong

I will give way to the expert on child care.

Mr. Marlow

I apologise to the hon. Lady if she has answered the question that I am about to ask, because I had to go outside to get this piece of paper. If she did not do so, could she do so now? This is a very exciting and interesting provision that the hon. Lady has put forward in new clause 2. Could she tell the House how much it is likely to cost and who would be paying for it?

Ms. Armstrong

The hon. Gentleman should read the Government new clauses, because there is a similar proposal from the Government. Hon. Members have not had a costing, nor have we heard how the measure will be paid for. I shall be interested to hear the relevant information from the Government. I am talking about the differences that my new clause raises.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

My hon. Friend should ask the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) what value the Tory party places on child care and the prevention of abuse. That is the real issue. I should have thought that all hon. Members would be concerned not with cost but with the effects on children—that is, children first and costs second.

Ms. Armstrong

My hon. Friend makes an important point.

The next issue which is contained in our new clause and not in the Government's new clause is the importance of considering parents' wishes when drawing up plans. The omission of parents from the Government's plans for review is significant. They know what parents are saying about child care. Parents do not expect their lives to have to be in a state of collapse before the Government come to their aid. They believe that the provision of child care is right and that people in this country should at least have equal opportunity with their European cousins. Great numbers of people have been saying and will continue to say, as they did last weekend, that they expect and will look for a Labour Government who will actually take child care seriously. I can assure them that they will not be disappointed.

New clause 3 outlines the importance of a code of practice developed by the Secretary of State, and again demonstrates the importance of consulting bodies. On Friday, the Government announced the new child care accreditation scheme. They said that they were keen to encourage high standards of child care, but then said that they would hand the responsibility to a new body which they hope will be created and which we assume will be the nursery equivalent of the chamber of commerce. The Government also said that they wanted a new national body of private nursery providers to give information about availability in local areas and develop its own code of practice to which its members would subscribe. We have had plenty of experience of that. We discussed some of that experience last night when we discussed some of the vile practices that have been going on in some independent schools. The private market cannot and never has delivered high quality.

For the Government to abandon their responsibility and to transfer it to the private market is a tragedy for children and an indictment of the Government. The Government's approach is totally inadequate. We need a code of practice to be incorporated in the Bill, or at least a commitment from the Government, recognising their responsibility to develop a code of practice which would then be applicable across the board, in each authority.

This meek and mild new clause was tabled in the hope that the Government would take hold of the principle and work on it. It is not doctrinaire. It recognises that the Government have a public responsibility which they should not shirk.

New clause 4 underlines the importance of registration and a code of practice. Again, it simply seeks to ensure that we establish national guidelines by which local authorities can operate. I have been to local authority after local authority in England, Scotland and Wales, and each has said that it needs guidelines that it can adapt to its local situation, but which will give it power if challenged. They fear that many of the new private nurseries will wish to challenge their decisions and they want to know that they can go to court, with clarification as to the basic minimum standards they must demand. They want to know that they will be able to defend those standards in court. At the moment no local authority feels confident about going to court and saying, "We refuse to register this nursery because we do not feel that the staff are sufficiently well trained or qualified to care for children." It is a great indictment of the House that we have not given local authorities that commitment.

Amendment No. 30 gives the Government a clue as to how they could get near the basic minimum. We have said that each child must have a carer who matches the minimum criteria. The criteria that we have identified in the amendment are insurance and training. We want to be sure that every child minder, play group and private nursery has insurance so that if a child is injured on its premises there will at least be some compensation. We feel that that provision will in itself ensure that those who care for children will be mindful of the health and safety needs of the child and will ensure that those needs are addressed.

The second issue, which is of great importance, is training. I have discussed this matter with an authority which is trying to establish the practice outlined in these provisions as part of its registration process. Preregistration training should be a requisite for any person or group applying to be registered. Apart from anything else, where this has been tried, it has meant a self-cancelling-out process. When people who want to be child minders attend short courses—the Open University has developed some good course material—and go through what it means to be a child minder in terms of one's own family, one's responsibilities and one's relationships with the child's parents and the child minder support network, there tends to be a self-weeding-out process. When some people realise what the job really entails, they say, "This is not for me—my family and I cannot match those needs." Pre-registration training also means that local authorities can discover what motivates those who put themselves forward as potential child minders.

We cannot overestimate the importance of this matter. This part of the Bill will touch many more children than the rest of it because it deals with the many thousands of children whose parents want them to have child care opportunities before they go to school and, when they are of school age, after school and in school holidays.

11.15 pm

If we want to protect children, what is the point of developing a structure to protect them from abuse, or to help us to identify abuse and protect them? We want children to be in a protected and supportive environment from the beginning.

Amendment No. 31 removes the word "seriously" from the phrase "seriously inadequate" as the reason why a local authority can cancel registration. Local authorities are worried that "seriously inadequate" will be difficult to sustain. I do not believe that any hon. Member would be happy to leave his or her child or grandchild with someone who is inadequate, let alone seriously inadequate. The House ought not to be satisfied with such a definition.

Amendment No. 33 decreases the span between inspection from one year to three months. We believe that we ought to encourage best practice, not minimum standards. Many local authorities already inspect more regularly than once a year, and we want to ensure that that best practice is encouraged.

Charging is the issue which worries voluntary groups most. I am bewildered by the Government's attitude on the subject. I listened carefully in Committee and I have re-read the Hansard reports of our debates, but I am unable to detect why the Government have introduced this part of the Bill.

Last night, we discussed the contradiction between charging voluntary groups and child minders for registration but not, for reasons I understand, public and independent schools. The contradiction may be apparent to us in the House, but it will seem an enormous political blunder to the people who run voluntary play groups. More than that, it will demonstrate to them that the Government simply do not understand or care what happens to them and their attempt to provide a public service.

How can the Government talk seriously about charging child minders and pre-school play groups, for example, when they recognise the problems of trying to charge independent schools? Do the Government understand what they are suggesting? The Pre-School Playgroups Association has 14,000 registered groups, which have 600,000 children. Parents already contribute, through fund-raising and charges made for the running of such groups, the sum of £50 million a year. The association's groups receive the magnificent sum of £4 million per year in grants from local authorities and industry. Already, they have to raise money just to stand still. Those groups do not want to bear additional burdens—they want to be involved in training and to ensure that their employees receive a decent rate of pay. At the moment those working for the PPA receive, on average, 70p per hour. Far from being able to bear the additional costs, the PPA is looking for support. It fears that its existence is threatened by the amendments, especially in areas such as mine where parents' resources are already stretched to the limit.

The House should recognise and value the voluntary play groups and community nurseries as part of a group of services from which parents can choose the most appropriate care for their children. We should be supporting those groups and should consider them as part of the public services provided for our children. Those groups have fought for better regulations and support. They have pressed the Government to give them greater involvement and closer working with local authorities. They want to be part of the national structure, but they are now under threat of closure.

We are simply unable to understand why the Government are pushing the issue of charging. In Committee and in the House the Minister assured us that he was minded to fix the charge at a low rate, but that he needs time to consult groups and authorities about the level of charge. If the charge is to be so low that it will not threaten the existence of play groups or community nurseries and will not discourage child minders from registering, it will be lower than the cost of collecting it. Such is the nonsense with which we are now involved.

The Minister also assured me that the charge was not meant to raise revenue for improving services, so why impose it? I can think of no other reason than political dogma. I have searched Hansard and the Government press statements—there are plenty of those—and I have searched my head, but I cannot come up with any rationale apart from Government dogma.

During the summer many press statements were made about child care. The Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science has told us that we are about to see the biggest push for child care since the second world war. We have had the famous five-point plan from the ministerial group on women's issues which was to sort out all the child care problems, but where is the substance? Where is the Government commitment to provide anything? The Government have said that they expect the market to provide.

The rest of the Bill is designed to limit the market and private exploitation of children, but what we are discussing will touch more children than the rest of the Bill. The Government, however, are stuck with the ministerial group saying that market forces should meet the needs of child care.

The market cannot protect children, we know that. It is our determination to demonstrate to the country and to the voluntary organisations that we recognise a central vote for Government in co-ordinating and regulating the quality of child care so that it is the best possible. We are determined that all children, not just those classified as in need, should have the best opportunity for quality child care. That is why we have said that it is the duty of local authorities to assess the need of all children in their area when they review the services for children.

The Government have a role and I beg them, for the future opportunities of children in Britain, to recognise that they are missing a chance to take that central and important role. The clauses, particularly when taken together with the statement about the new group on voluntary accreditation, will lead to confusion, with everyone paddling their own canoe, instead of co-ordination.

Let us recognise that it is the duty of the House to lay down guidelines which will enable local authorities to ensure that every child in their area has the best possible opportunity. That should be done in co-ordination with voluntary organisations and parents. It is our responsibility to ensure that.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The issue of charging has caused a great deal of anxiety in the voluntary play group movement. It is my view and that of my party that we should seek to expand the grossly inadequate provision of day care and nursery education by working together with local education authority nursery provision, workplace nurseries and the voluntary play group movement. Charging is likely to present an obstacle to successfully achieving the registration and inspection system which, in itself, is desirable. Many play groups are already closely involved with their local education authorities in registration systems and some local authorities, including my own, seek to provide advice and support to play groups when possible.

In many areas introducing a charging system will drive parents towards back-street child minders instead of proper organised groups and will drive many good play groups out of business. That problem will be acute in urban and rural areas. My right hon. and hon. Friends and I have received representations from many different kinds of areas including urban and rural.

I quote from a letter from Bradford which states: Without doubt this new levy would result in the closure of many playgroups in Bradford. mainly those in the inner city areas where the state nursery provision is failing to cope with demands by parents. That is certainly a serious threat in many inner-city areas.

I know and represent rural areas in which my wife used to work for a play group. I too have been associated with quite a few such groups. In many cases they are the only form of day care provision available to children in the area. They are not the preserve of a small coterie of middle class parents, but are the only provision available and are used by the poorest families in rural areas. Rural poverty is particularly acute because it is usually associated with high-cost transport to the facilities which are available in urban areas, or no transport at all.

Many play groups in the scattered rural areas are extremely worried by the threat of charging and are uncertain about what levels of charges might be introduced. They fear that they could run into hundreds of pounds. Will the Minister look again at this aspect and say more about it tonight? If he is unable to do so, he must not be surprised if a note of controversy, which has been absent from much of the Bill, arises at this stage.

The Minister has an ally in voluntary play groups if it is his ambition to expand day care and make use of voluntary help. However, he will prevent his major ally from doing its current job if new charges are imposed which discourage groups from being formed and parents from making use of them. Therefore, I urge the Minister to look again at the issue.

11.30 pm
Mr. Hardy

In Committee, Government amendments on the subject with which we are now concerned were tabled late, making it difficult for the voluntary organisations to react. Nor was the matter debated fully in the other place. For that reason it is appropriate for the House to discuss the issue in considerable detail now. It also provides hon. Members who were not fortunate enough to be members of the Committee with an opportunity to express observations on behalf of themselves and some voluntary organisations. For example, the NSPCC welcomes the opportunity that we have at this stage of the Bill to discuss certain issues at greater length.

About 11 years ago I initiated an Adjournment debate on the subject of child minding and on that occasion I made a number of recommendations, some of which are embodieds in the Bill, while others appear in various amendments. For example, while registration is necessary, that process is not assisted by the imposition of a charge, and I urge the Government to review that aspect of the measure.

I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) about play groups. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) said there were 14,000 such groups in Britain, and I have a few in my constituency. They do a good job. If, in addition to their existing responsibilities, they must raise money to pay a fee, the people running the groups will bitterly resent that imposition.

I hope that the Government will accept our amendments. The proposed cut-off age of eight is not reasonable. Children between eight and 14 merit consideration and there should be adequate provision and safeguards for children of that age. Some voluntary bodies will no doubt be prepared, given the approach of the Government. to accept a cut-off at the age of 12 rather than 14, but few outside the House would agree that care of this type should cease at age eight.

Some of the proposals in the Bill are of a historic nature and the Government have made some concessions. Indeed, this is the first major piece of legislation concerned with nurses and child minders since the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948. Should future electoral fortunes turn out to be different from what my hon. Friends and I expect, the Bill may stand as the major basis of law and practice for generations to come. That makes it even more important for the Government to take a more forward-looking view of the area we are discussing. If the measure is to be relevant for, say, the coming 20 or 30 years, more generosity should be shown by the Government to the issue of day care for young children.

Registration fees must not he imposed in such a way that unsavoury or inadequate practice might be encouraged. The argument that I adduced 11 years ago was relevant then and, unfortunately, remains relevant today. More progress should have been made in the intervening years. The Government now have an opportunity to make progress, particularly in view of the co-operation and bipartisan approach that, I understand was evident in Committee. I hope that the Minister will assure the House that, if there is to be a charge, it will be minimal—minimal as the Opposition might think of it, not as Tory Members might. In many of the poorest areas of Britain what might sound modest sums to Conservative Members can seem penal——

Mr. Michael Welsh

This point is vital in mining areas in which a great deal of unemployment has occurred in recent years. My oldest child goes to a play group; if there was a charge for it, the group would close. Where would we go from there? It exists now only because of the kindness of the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church. If there were a charge, what would happen to the young people who are being prepared, during their formative years, for when they start going to school seriously?

Mr. Hardy

My hon. Friend is right. I have been compiling details of cases of low pay in my constituency. Only four days ago I encountered a case of an adult who is working full time, from 8 am to 5.30 pm with half an hour off for lunch, and being paid £39 a week gross. Another is being paid £43 a week gross. When that sort of wage is being paid and people are facing the stark horror of poverty, there is no scope for their children to attend groups for which there is even the "nominal" contribution that Conservative Members may want. I am extremely anxious that children from ordinary and poor homes shall not forfeit the opportunity and educational advantage that membership of and activity in these groups and schemes provide.

It is essential, if the Government want in any way to remain the one-nation party that their party once sought to be, that they re-examine these fees. If, in addition to their application to pre-school play groups, fees are to persuade child minders to operate unlawfully and improperly, the Government will do great deal to undermine the many good aspects of this Bill. To maintain bipartisan support and to command the respect of the voluntary bodies which have developed a considerable regard for this area of Government endeavour, the Minister must reveal a little more generosity than we have been led to expect from the Bill that emerged from the Committee.

I did not intend to make a long speech, but this matter is important enough for us to call on the Minister to offer a response that will relieve some of the anxieties that have grown up about this part of the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I apologise for having missed a small part of the speech by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong), but I did hear most of it.

I have no doubt that child care will become one of the most important political issues of the next five or six years. It is central to equality of opportunity, to the aim of getting more women into and back to the work force, and to keeping them there if that is where they want to be. It has all sorts of connotations in relation to preparing children for education. It is a major subject and there is no doubt that the House will return to it. The Bill is not the instrument in which to set out a whole new policy for pre-school child care.

I was recently lobbied by play groups in my constituency and they expressed considerable anxiety about the effect of a registration fee. I have no doubt that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister has the best possible motives for introducing such a fee. I am not trying to put words in his mouth, but I am sure that he will think that there is great security to be derived from creating a contractual relationship between local authorities and groups and child minders so that there is a mutual obligation for groups to register and for local authorities to inspect the groups to see that standards are sufficiently high.

In my county play groups are inspected as often as three times a year and that is done without a fee. The one matter on which I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Durham, North-West is that if the fee is set low so that it is not a burden it may well prove to be too expensive to collect. I am uneasy about that matter.

I am certain that we cannot continue with pre-school play groups outside the voluntary organisations that are nationally recognised. We cannot have haphazard, casual groups being set up and accepting standards that none of us would accept as appropriate. I have no doubt that the Minister's proposals are intended to correct that, but I ask him to think carefully before he demands a registration fee.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

The hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) was wringing his hands both figuratively and physically during his speech. I am not surprised because I am sure that he feels a little uneasy about what the Minister has proposed.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) for proposing the new clause and the group of amendments which refer to the valuable work carried out by pre-school play groups throughout the United Kingdom. I understand that the amendments apply to my country of Scotland as well as to the other nations of the United Kingdom.

As always, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) helped to concentrate our minds when he intervened in the debate. He asked my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West how much it would cost if the amendments were incorporated in the Bill. May I turn that question around and ask him how much it would cost the nation if it failed to make adequate provision for our youngsters? The children of the nation are its future and if we neglect them it will cost the whole nation dear.

Pre-school play groups do a valuable job. From time to time I meet the members of such groups in my constituency and, happily, they are well supported by Lothian regional council. It is Labour controlled and generously supports voluntary organisations in terms of finance and in the provision of premises. It is right for the authority to do that. Would it not be ridiculous if the Scottish Office were to be required under this legislation to require local authorities to give grants to play groups and then to take money back in the form of fees? Such a provision does not make sense.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) highlighted the importance of such nursery provision in rural areas. While it should be the objective of any responsible Government—that rules out this bunch—to provide nursery education to the best possible standards of pre-school education, that will not be possible in the remote rural areas. Therefore, it must make sense to encourage the voluntary sector to carry on with its valuable work. I fail to see how that will be possible if we tax these people for the work that they are doing.

11.45 pm

I should declare an interest as my wife has, for a long time, been a member of the executive committee of the Scottish Pre-School Playgroups Association, so I get lobbied on this subject. She has often made the point that it is galling for mothers who have to make costly arrangements to attend the education and training sessions and the meetings of groups, deal with highly paid civil servants, have to do so in their own time, often with considerable travel expenses. Here we are considering the imposition of yet another burden on people who do such voluntary work, and there can be no justification for such an imposition on that voluntary sector.

The Minister may recall that the Prime Minister, on numerous occasions, has sung the praises of the voluntary sector. I suppose she is trying to kick over the traces in regard to the undertakings that she has given about nursery places for every child. She has spoken of the great job that the pre-school group movement is doing, but this provision will kick that movement in the teeth by imposing a tax on it. I hope that the Minister will think again.

Mr. Paice

I am in somewhat of a quandry in that I had expected the debate on charges to come on a later amendment, but as it has been raised now, perhaps the debate should be complete now.

One aspect of charging has not yet been mentioned. The role of the pre-school play groups is recognised and endorsed by both sides of the House. Concern for their welfare is not the sole domain of the Opposition, and I recognise their value, particularly in the rural areas described by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). They have a vital role to play and are often the only provision in such areas. I do not want them to be jeopardised by the implementation of anything that would be to their disadvantage. However, some play groups are run on a commercial basis. A number of organisations covered by the schedule to which these new clauses refer set out to make a profit from their operations. I should be surprised if the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) and her colleagues did not believe, as I do, that such organisations should pay a realistic fee for the necessary registration and inspection of their premises.

That is important, but it has to be set against the larger number of play school groups which are run on a charitable basis and on a shoe string, with voluntary help. We should not dismiss charging, as the Opposition suggest, but my hon. and learned Friend must devise a charging mechanism flexible enough to recognise that those organisations which set out to make a profit from their operations should pay a full cost recovery based fee but that all the others working on a charitable basis should pay a nominal fee, in the order of £5 per year. I appreciate that that is hardly worth collecting, but such a charge should not prejudice the excellent work that is being done. We must try to distinguish between the different operations that are undertaken. Accordingly, I could not support the proposal to abandon the idea of a fee. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will recognise the need for a mechanism which is sufficiently flexible to cover the various forms of provision.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

The Government's proposal to levy a registration and inspection fee on pre-school play groups has sparked considerable controversy in Bradford. The hon. Member for Berwick-on-Tweed (Mr. Beith) told us that he had received representations from people in Bradford. During June and July I received petitions signed by more than 400 of my constituents who are involved with various play groups, including the Trinity Methodist church play group, Thornton play group, the Manningham Asian Women's Centre play group, the Horton Bank Top play group and the Millan Centre play group. In Bradford, there are 30,000 children under five years of age and there are no more than 500 public nursery places.

One of the petitions that I received stated: We should like to draw to your attention that this group is a charity, run by volunteers, to meet the needs of children under the age of five in our community. Play groups provide a vital educational service to the community, using volunteers, and we strongly oppose the suggestion that a financial penalty should be imposed on this service. Despite constant, regular fund raising—jumble sales sponsored events, etc.—it is still necessary to charge a fee in order to pay the rent, provide equipment (paint, paper, glue, climbing frame, books etc) and pay expenses. The imposition of a registration fee could lead to the closure of our group with grave implications for the children of our community. My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) said that she had searched high and low for an explanation from the Government of why they were pressing for the introduction of a registration and inspection fee for pre-school play groups.

Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have searched the group of amendments that we are discussing and I cannot find any reference to charging or not charging. I ask you to advise me whether the issue comes within the group. I do not believe that voluntary play groups should be charged, but I seek your advice.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I can tell the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce), who is signally ignorant about these matters, that amendment No. 27, and the two amendments which I have tabled, Nos. 361 and 360, deal specifically with charging. I have no doubt that in the early future I shall be given the opportunity to elaborate on these amendments.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We have before us a wide group of amendments, but amendment No. 27 refers especially to the issue of charging. It is in order, therefore, to refer to charging.

Mr. Madden

I am speaking in support of amendments Nos. 27 and 29.

I was about to say, before I was interrupted by the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce), who has only recently entered the Chamber—it is no wonder that he has no grip or understanding of these matters—that the Minister, who replied on 23 August to a letter which I sent him on 17 August, wrote: I know that there is a lot of anxiety about this change to the registration system. Local authorities are already faced with an enormous increase in requests for registration, particularly from the private sector. They need to be able to provide an efficient and reasonable quick registration service and I think they should be able to charge for this. It seems to me that anyone proposing to provide a service where there is a statutory registration requirement should look on a fee as part of the setting up and running cost. I believe that in time these fees will be seen in that way. It is clear that the Minister and the Government are seeking to introduce the fees because they look around and see a burgeoning private sector which, as the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) said earlier, are organisations charging fees and seeking to make a profit on a commercial basis.

I, along with the majority of those hon. Members who have spoken tonight, are worried about the voluntary organisations, in many cases charities, who provide an important service in working class areas for working class children whose parents find great difficulty in making ends meet. The introduction of a registration and inspection fee will, as the petitions to which I have referred show, force the closure of many groups in my constituency and will put others in considerable financial difficulty.

It is extraordinary that the Minister should come to the House proposing such a fee without having the foggiest idea of what its effect would be. On 20 July I asked the Minister: what research he has undertaken about the likely impact of registration and inspection fees being imposed on pre-school playgroups (a) in Bradford and (b) elsewhere. His answer was brief. He said: None. It is extraordinary that the Government should be proposing to introduce such fees without having any idea of, or without having undertaken any research into, what the effects would be.

I also asked the Minister: if he will take steps to provide grants for pre-school playgroups in areas where there is no public nursery provision. Again, the Minister's answer was brief. He said: No. This is a matter for local decision."—[Official Report, 20 July 1989; Vol. 157, c. 297.] Rather than suggesting the introduction of a fee, which will inevitably cause the closure of many groups and create even more financial difficulties for many others, the Minister would have been well advised to provide extra money for local authorities so that they could fund existing pre-school play groups in areas such as mine, which are doing an excellent job. That would be far more welcome to the groups than the proposal that he has put before the House tonight.

A constituent of mine who has been involved in play groups for a long time has written to me saying: Most playgroups get no financial assistance, make no profit, run on a shoestring—do not pay their workers anything or if they do only £1–£2 per session and endeavour to keep costs for parents to a minimum—they are not middle class institutions and very often serve as the beginning of the road back to employment/training,'further education for working class women. They are used not only by parents but by childminders grannies etc. in areas where no state facility whatsoever exist—how anyone (the government) can suggest that such groups pay a (yearly) registration fee makes my blood boil—they should be making grants to playgroups riot the other way about. We are told that we are now confronted by a listening Government. If the Minister has been listening to the contributions made in this short debate, he will be clearly of the view that there is no support for the introduction of fees for inspection or registration. Even those Conservative Members who have spoken have not supported the proposal. The sensible action for a listening Minister from a listening Government who wishes to respond to the genuine concerns and anxieties of the voluntary sector and charities doing vital educational work, preparing young children for their state education, would be to take the proposal away and say that he will seriously reconsider it. Let us all hope that he will throw it in the ministerial dustbin as soon as he possibly can. If he is not prepared to do that, I urge those Conservative Members who have expressed their deep reservations about the proposal to join us in the Lobby and vote down this silly and regressive proposition.

Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)

I am pleased to see so many hon. Members present at this time of night to discuss an important issue. I am grateful for the support that those of us who have worked on the Bill have been given tonight by others who share our concern about day care and provision for children.

12 midnight

I have always been worried that the issue of day care has been regarded very much as a Cinderella service within social services. It is important to make the point that the new clause relates to Cinderella provisions which are the worst in the Bill. One or two of us vigorously opposed certain aspects of the Bill last night, but our worries then were as nothing compared with our worries about the provisions we are discussing now.

I have long been concerned about day care, and I have been worried by the fact that many local authorities have not given sufficiently serious thought to the importance of day care. I discussed with one of my colleagues a few minutes ago the position in Wakefield in 1983 when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Buckley) who was on the council with me will recall, the then leader of the council, Mr. Jack Smart, came up with the proposal that we close the entire day nursery provision in Wakefield district to meet the Conservative Government's targets on spending. Many of us in the group felt strongly about that, so we took the issue to the High Court. Eventually Mr. Smart, who was given a knighthood by the Government for the work he was doing on behalf of the Tories at the time, was replaced, not before time, as the leader of the Labour group in Wakefield. I am pleased to say that in my own area we are now rebuilding the day care provision for vulnerable young people.

The Bill gives only scant consideration to a fundamentally important part of child care provision. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) a few minutes ago when he talked about his worries on day care. It struck me at the time that I was not alive when the Act that currently regulates day care was passed by the House in 1948, which was shortly before I was born. My hon. Friend probably remembered the Bill going through the House and he may have taken part in the debate, if he was here at the time.

The regulations that currently govern day care stem from the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948 and they are wholly inappropriate to day care in 1989. When I worked in social services, I had to administer the regulations and put them into practice and I am worried because they are incredibly loose and insufficiently clear. One worrying factor is that it is obvious that they are interpreted in widely differing ways by different authorities, so the arrangements in the Act are not applied consistently throughout the country.

An area of great concern to me and, I suspect, to many others involved in social work is what is called the "fit person" clause, which is the definition of a person who is fit to offer services as a child minder or day carer, or to run a nursery. That provision leaves much to be desired in assisting those who have the task of registering people concerned with day care.

It is also important to make the point that the current regulations mean that the physical arrangements for the children involved are vague. The criteria on matters such as the suitability of the premises offered, the amount of play space and the ratio of staff to children are left, under the regulations, entirely in the hands of the relevant local authorities. People who move from one local authority probably find wholly different interpretations of the regulations in another.

It is not surprising that our present problems were not anticipated in 1948. The Act failed to lay down any form of national standards, resulting in patchy and viable provision among local authorities. Some split responsibility for nurseries, play groups and child minders between three departments. There is no coherent policy among local authorities. Recently I found that the designated officers involved in day care in Kent work in six separate areas, lacking any common approach. That is nonsense in a service that should justify a coherent approach and common standards.

The Opposition are attempting to tighten the legislation and provide for proper regulation of services. I am worried because, unless the Government have amended the Bill in a way that I have not picked up—I have studied the amendments carefully—there will be complete deregulation of the provision of care for children over eight. That conflicts with the rest of the Bill's provisions, which set clear standards for child care and which will ensure that we promote the welfare of children in different circumstances.

I should like to know the thinking behind this measure. I am worried about the Government's reasoning. I suspect that they want to remove the need for them to provide local authorities with more funding for registration and inspection. Undertaking registration and inspection costs local authorities money. Knowing the Government's philosophy, I suspect that they also want to free the market to make it easier for people to provide. I am not happy with that. We had a free market in the independent sector in education, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) referred. It allowed the serious abuse of young children. To their credit, the Government have dealt with that problem, but why did it take so long for that serious issue to be tackled? I am worried about the Government following the free market approach to the welfare of children and easing the regulations to attract more people into the business.

I take seriously some of the comments made by people with detailed knowledge of day care. The National Childminding Association has done a great deal in pressing for national regulations. Sue Owen of the NCA said: They've tried to exempt as many things as possible because they're concerned at the resource implications". She predicted that change would mean that we'll probably see armies of unregistered child minders. which we've been trying to prevent for years. There are still many unregistered child minders. I suspect that the majority in certain cities are unregistered. Rather than tackling the issue, the Government are making things worse through the Bill's provisions. The chief executive of Gingerbread said that deregulation was "absolutely horrendous" and completely against the rest of the Bill's provisions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West referred to training. I am concerned that the Bill does not do anything to assist with the training of those who work with young children. My four-year-old son recently started at a nursery school. I see at first hand the care that the teachers provide. Their skill has come about not by accident but because they have been properly trained. We should accept the need to train people beyond the level that they willingly undertake in the excellent courses offered by the Open University. It is vital that we establish proper training, but the Bill does nothing to move us in that direction.

As has been said already, the Government are offering a bias in favour of the private sector and against the public sector. The Bill requires local authorities to provide only for children who are defined as in need. That is a very narrow definition which will cause no end of argument. It restricts authorities in what they can do. That is a bias against the public sector while the private sector can provide for children who may not be in need or require the limited service available in a particular area.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) referred to the effect of the charging particularly on the voluntary schemes. The voluntary day care schemes offer a fundamentally important service which is often lacking in many local authorities. Those schemes will be hammered by the financial constraints being placed on local authorities which at the moment offer grant assistance. The Government are changing the regulations laid down by the Health Services and Public Health Act 1968. Organisations which previously received grant assistance on a year-by-year basis will be restricted to five years after which the core funding will end. That will directly affect the provision of many voluntary play groups in areas like mine.

Hon. Members have come here to argue in favour of charging. It is astonishing that hon. Members can consider costing issues like this while they disregard the welfare aspects with which Opposition Members have been concerned throughout the passage of the Bill. I am worried that the charges for registration and inspection will particularly affect the voluntary sector which, in many areas, is doing an excellent job. Charging could well mean the end of many local voluntary groups that operate on extremely tight budgets.

Reform is long overdue. In a sense it is 40 years overdue. We should have grasped the issue many years ago in the interests of thousands of children who have not had the deal that they should have received. The burial of the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948 and the regulations stemming from that Act should have coincided with bringing forward new regulations and a radical improvement in the present provisions. That opportunity, sadly, has been missed.

There have not been many scandals involving day care. When I consider the scandal about private schools which caused the Government to react in some parts of this Bill, I suspect that we will have to return to the House and claim that we should have done something in this Bill to prevent a similar scandal occuring in day care. I hope to God that such a scandal involving children being interfered with in day care does not occur, but I am worried about the possibility of that happening.

Mr. Cryer

A query was raised earlier about charging and the relevant amendments dealing with that issue. A cursory examination of the Amendment Paper will disclose that amendment No. 27 proposes to remove paragraph 1(3) of schedule 8, which states: An application under section 64 shall be accompanied by such fee as may be prescribed"— that is, for the registration of child minding and day care for young children. Amendments Nos 360 and 361 stand in my name and they provide an alternative for hon. Members to vote upon. The charging would be twofold: there would be a charge for registration and a charge for inspection. Schedule 8 7(1) states: where … they shall serve on that person a notice informing him that the inspection is to be carried out and requiring him to pay to them such fee as may be prescribed. Amendments Nos 360 and 361 either leave out the requirement to pay such fee as may be prescribed or add at the end However the local authority may waive fees in such cases as it deems necessary and any prescribed fee shall not exceed £10 per annum. My amendment would be helpful and would meet the point about having a nominal fee. I hope that, when the House divides on amendment No. 360, Conservative Members will join the Opposition in the Lobby and ensure that there is a nominal fee. The amendment would also enable local authorities such as several in my constituency that are in particular financial difficulties—that is, if the Minister argues, for example, that the fee is absolutely essential for the good conduct and running of pre-school groups—to help particular groups. The local authority has knowledge of what is going on in the relevant area and will be able to select groups on that basis.

12.15 am

I provide that discretion in my amendment, in spite of the knowledge that Bradford is under the temporary control of a group of as vicious and hard-hearted Tories as one is likely to come across. However, one should not necessarily legislate in the knowledge that there are such grim-faced tyrants in Bradford city hall. One should give discretion to Labour-controlled authorities, who would use it sensibly. In any case, Pickles and his cronies will not last very long in Bradford city hall, and we shall want to make use of this legislation, if my amendment is passed, to ensure that pre-school play group associations are given the help that hon. Members say they richly deserve.

I have about 18 letters and a petition containing nearly 100 names from Bierley community centre pre-school playgroup association. It is genuinely concerned about registration and inspection fees. It points out that it is a charity which offers a vital education service. It operates on an estate in my constituency of nearly 1,000 dwellings, so it is a large community by any standards. It is much opposed to any financial penalty. That is how it regards the charges, whatever the Minster might say about regulation and a service being provided. The association regards the charges as a financial penalty.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

It is in Bradford, South.

Mr. Cryer

It is in Bradford, South, as my hon. Friend points out.

Despite constant regular fund-raising, the association would find it extremely difficult to pay any additional fees because it must charge parents for its services in any event. We are talking about parents, many of whom do not enjoy an adequate income in the first place, who made the point that registration fees could lead to the closure of their group. No hon. Member would want that to happen.

I have also had letters from Ambler Thorn play group and from St. John's church in Great Horten, which organises the St. John's under-fives playgroup association. The Bradford branch of the pre-school playgroup association has also written to me to express support for my amendments. People who actually organise and run pre-school playgroup associations welcome the amendments. I hope that the Government do the same.

Woodside play group in my constituency has also expressed serious concern at the proposal for registration and inspection fees. It says that it needs regular fund-raising to survive. It has a whirl of jumble sales and socials to raise £20, £30, £40 or £50 at a time, and is struggling week in, week out to pay the fees that community centres must charge for heating, which is vital for such young children, and lighting, general caretaking and so on. The provision of facilities or premises does not come cheap, but, at the same time, large sums are not involved. I emphasise that even if the Minister were to charge a modest fee—apparently he is minded to fix the charge at a low rate—an extra £50 per year might well mean the end of some pre-school playgroup association.

It is all very well for the Minister to say that he is minded to fix the charge at a low rate—we do not question his determination to do that—but, as he knows only too well, Ministers do not stay in their jobs for ever. Indeed, there is constant chopping and changing of Ministers by this Conservative Government. I do not blame them because they are trying, in a desperate situation, to give a new gloss to their wilting Government and, in moving Ministers around, are attempting to give a better impression. However, the Minister of State cannot bind future Ministers. If he has power to prescribe fees, so have his successors. Although he may prescribe them at what he considers to be a low rate, his successor—a Right-wing extremist—might decide that market forces——

Mr. Hinchliffe

The Minister is a Right-wing extremist.

Mr. Mellor

indicated assent.

Mr. Cryer

From what I can gather, the Minister has confessed to being a Right-wing extremist, but another even more Right-wing extremist may take his place and the fees may well soar. We know that the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) has ambition to move further down on to the Treasury Bench—it is gleaming out of his eyes—and we know the astronomical fees that he might charge.

Therefore, I am not satisfied by the assurance that a particular Minister will be reasonable because, although he or she may carry out that assurance, Ministers change and the next one would not be bound to prescribe only modest fees.

In the 1960s when my wife and I were involved in the formation of a pre-school play group association at Oakworth in Keighley, the premises were inspected by the local authority and, at the request of the local authority, the committee had to undergo a medical inspection. All that was carried out without charge by the Conservative-controlled local authority. In those days, before the Right-wing extremism of the present Government had spread its tentacles over the land, that authority would have been shaken at any suggestion that a service for the protection of children should be the subject of charging.

It is important that we note that this proposal comes from a Government who are supposed to recognise the value of the voluntary sector—

Mr. Skinner

And the family.

Mr. Cryer

Yes, as my hon. Friend says, of the family also. "The family" and "the voluntary sector" are phrases that the Government are prone to use, yet they are proposing to penalise the voluntary sector.

Earlier today we had defence questions and we learnt that about 21 Tornado aircraft have crashed. The Government expressed their mild platitudinous concern, but I remind them that that figure represents nearly £400 million-worth of aircraft, and that is quite apart from the several hundred thousands of pounds spent on training the pilots and aircrew. The Government seem prepared to lavish money on activities such as the provision of Tornados—indeed, the purchase of Tornados is the largest defence procurement in our history, totalling about £13 billion—yet when it comes to small children, taking their first few steps in the world, the Government propose to heap penal charges on the organisers—on volunteers. I recall that only last week we spent two days—obviously partly in prime time—on the defence estimates. Of course, they are important because they involve the expenditure of £21,000 million and yet only now, late at night, are we spending time on something vastly more important—our future generations. It strikes me that a better illustration of decent human priorities, with concern for our children coming first, would be for the Government, since they are so keen on market forces, to subject Trident to those market forces. They should give some small proportion of the money that they are lavishing on Trident to pre-school play groups.

It could all be left to market forces. The Government could have gone around collecting for Trident with charity boxes and seen how the market responded. If they could get the £10 billion from street collections, they could build it. That would be a splendid test of their philosophy. In the meantime, they could use some of the money they already have on provision for new generations. That would symbolise a determination to provide for a peaceful future, as opposed to one of an ever-growing threat of mass extermination.

My attention was caught by the disparity between those two priorities. When the Labour party conference passed a resolution suggesting that some of our present defence expenditure should be put into education and pre-school play groups, for example, what did we get from Conservative Members? Sneer after sneer that anyone should aspire to such a priority.

My proposals are modest. There should not be charging or, if there is, it should be at the discretion of the local authority not to charge if it thinks that there is a particular need. If a pre-school play group in my constituency is unable to keep going, its organisers will not be able to afford to go to Whitehall to see the Minister to ask for assistance; they will go to the local authority. It therefore makes good sense to provide local authorities with discretion so that they can say, "We shall inspect the premises but waive the fee because we know that you are in financial difficulty. We have looked at your accounts. That is the right and sensible thing to do."

The House has an opportunity to remove registration inspection fees. It can say, "We recognise the importance of pre-school play groups and believe that voluntary work in the community should be recognised. We shall not penalise these people and send them out on even more fund-raising events to the point where they spend more time on raising money than they do on developing facilities and caring for children."

Pre-school play groups fulfil an important need in rural and urban areas such as mine, where nursery facilities are less than adequate. We would be foolish and misguided if we imposed a charge on such organisations. I very much hope that the House will reject charges. I hope that it will recognise that local authorities have to make some provision. That is what they are there for, but that function should be recognised through the rate support grant. The cost of providing such facilities should not be borne by the people who do the hard work of providing them.

I hope that the Minister will accept our amendments. His assurance about low charges is not likely to carry much weight with me. I chair the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and, every 12 months, we have the round of 150 or 200 statutory instruments raising charges, sometimes by as much as 100 or 150 per cent. When that happens, we ask whether it is an unusual use of powers. In every case, when we raise the matter with the Department concerned, we have to accept that the power for the Minister to prescribe fees exists in legislation. So we retire defeated as what the Minister has done does not constitute an unusual use of powers.

I recognise the good intent of Ministers in some cases, who say that they will keep fees low. That assurance is not adequate as they have the power to prescribe fees. We are dealing with primary legislation and once that legislation is out of our hands we are left with a cumbersome and inadequate method by which to try to redress the damage.

If the Minister prescribes fees that we do not like they will be subject to the negative procedure. Someone must then put down a prayer to annul the instrument. The debate on that may or may not be held as there is no guarantee that a prayer put down to annul an instrument will be debated. There is no Standing Order—itself a minor disgrace—requiring that a prayer which is tabled should be debated and a decision taken. The only thing that we can cling on to is that if an instrument is produced by the Minister which the House does not like, we may have a debate and, possibly, a vote. The chances are, however, that it will not get that far. That debate would be, in any case, limited to an hour and a half. That means that a few minutes would be available for about eight hon. Members, followed by the Front-Bench spokesmen, and that would be it.

I am unhappy about giving Ministers powers through negative procedure instruments and therefore I am not much taken with any assurances that the Minister may give.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

My hon. Friend has described the Government's abuse of statutory instruments. Does he recall that the budget for the Inner London education authority, which included its preschool provision, of almost £1 billion was decided on a vote after a debate lasting less than an hour and a half during which a minority of hon. Members representing London were able to participate?

Mr. Cryer

My hon. Friend has illustrated the point that I was making.

The Government make good use of the statutory instrument procedure. Conservative Members should recall that this is the Government who were going to take legislation off our backs. The number of statutory instruments, rules, regulations and orders produced by the Government is rising each year they are in office. They make use of the statutory instrument procedure and therefore it would be far better to get the primary legislation correct to ensure that we decide in straight forward cases. I accept that, in some instances, there may be technicalities and that Ministers must take into account so many variables that it is difficult for hon. Members to reach a decision.

In this case, however, the issue is clear. The voluntary organisations are making provision for young children and providing a magnificent service. They have limited financial means at their disposal, but it is proposed that charges should be imposed at the Minister's discretion. The House should say that it accepts the argument, but that there should not be charges and that it will not give the Minister the power to prescribe the fees as it does not want such fees prescribed, especially in view of the uncertain nature of the prescription.

In view of the argument deployed overwhelmingly from the Labour Benches, I hope that the Minister will accept it and will withdraw the relevant sections.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

In Committee I had to declare—I do so again to the House—that I am not a parent. During exchanges in the frivolous time that we spent in Committee the hon. Lady the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) made me an offer that I could refuse. Shortly afterwards she was dispatched to Beijing to prevent our relationship flourishing.

I support the new clause that has been moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong)—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Lady is in Beijing. The issues she has raised are of great importance to the Bill's progress. When I introduced a ten-minute Bill on 13 July 1988 I recall that I was contacted, shortly before the Bill was to be read the First time, by two parliamentary private secretaries for two different Ministers because there was then, and there remains, confusion among Government Departments about who is responsible for dealing with these matters. I felt then, and feel now having listened to contributions from my hon. Friends, that there is a clear need to clarify this aspect of the law. New clause 2 is, therefore, an attempt by Opposition Members to ensure that there is a clear plan and strategy about the way in which we approach these matters.

The inconsistencies and differences between Government Departments are mirrored at local authority level. Hon. Members have rightly said that there are differences between the way in which different local authorities appear to support the idea of child care. Those inconsistencies cause great hardship and distress to those who wish to be part of that system.

My Bill, which unfortunately did not become law, sought to put these changes into effect. I gave a long history going back to 1936 and cited the report of the board of education on nursery schools and classes as our authority for ensuring that all children under the age of five should have the right to education. I said then, and repeat now, that the Opposition believe that education begins at birth. The legislation and the intentions that followed the board of education's report endorsed that view.

I also mentioned the Education Act 1944, which originally placed the discretion on local authorities to provide such education, the 1965 Plowden report, which strongly supported the idea of nursery education and the 1972 White Paper on education, which was introduced by the Prime Minister in her previous incarnation. In those days, 48 to one was regarded as a defeat. The White Paper stated that the aim is that within the next 10 years nursery education should become available without charge … The Prime Minister's words never became law.

I mentioned the Treasury Committee's White Paper called "Better Schools" and the Select Committee's report., which endorsed the views of so many hon. Members that the right to nursery education should be supported.

The plan, which is essential to new clause 2, recognises the changing role of women in our society. I remind hon. Members of Mr. Malcolm Wicks' report, "Families and the State", which was published at the end of last year. It states: Certainly it remains the case today that the lives of many families, particularly mothers, are dogged by the sheer difficulty of finding, and retaining child care. Mr. Wicks added that, although 47 per cent. of children aged three and four were receiving pre-school provision in 1985, there was evidence of inadequacy in the quantity and quality of it. In 1931, only 13 per cent. of married women aged between 25 and 34 were working, but by 1986 64 per cent. of married women were economically active. Those are appropriate words—"economically active"—with which to announce the return to her place of the hon. Member for Billericay, who I hope will take part in the debate and support my hon. Friends and me. On the other hand, I may be wrong and find that she will disappoint us.

The importance of recognising the changing role of women is essential to the new clause. It is an essential part of the way in which the Government have approached other aspects of the Bill that we should have planning and appropriate training. Yesterday, the Solicitor-General, when moving amendment No. 37, spoke of the need for planning and timetabling in respect of courts dealing with child care matters. We say that if it is good enough for the courts to timetable, it is good enough for local authorities, in those circumstances, to plan.

My hon. Friends have referred to the position in their constituencies and have appealed for more resources. I endorse their comments. Before introducing my Bill last year, I spent a considerable time speaking to people who ran mothers and toddlers groups, who were involved with pre-school education societies and who were active in promoting provision for the under-fives.

As I visited neighbourhood centres in my constituency—at, for example, Netherhall, Northfields and Coleman—I met women who were active in the campaign. They pointed out that they could not play their full role in society unless provision was made for their children. I watched with anxiety the ways in which they tried to raise money for their causes and felt then, as I feel now, that central Government should make the money available.

Were the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) in his place, he would probably ask, "What about the cost?" He always asks that question. It is important for us to show that Parliament is prepared to invest in the nation's children, recognising that the mark of a civilised society is the way in which it treats its most vulnerable members, its children.

That is why we on the Committee spent many hours deliberating various aspects of this historic Bill. Mothers and others in my constituency are forced to rely on jumble sales and raffles to raise funds for what we recognise—as was recognised in 1936—to be an extremely important measure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) said, they are forced to spend their time on fund-raising exercises when it would be better spent on activities concerned with the children.

They must go from one local authority to another, from charitable trusts to other bodies, trying to raise funds. I congratulate my authority, Leicester city council, and its chair of recreation, Derek Fryett, and its director of recreation, Alun Llewellyn, on picking up the tab for many of the activities which should be paid for by Leicestershire county council.

So often groups and individuals have gone to the county council to seek financial support. The county council, like so many other local authorities, has faced enormous difficulties because of the Government's restrictions on local government expenditure, but it has been mean about this issue, to such an extent that only 23 per cent. of the under-fives in Leicestershire receive education of this sort. Often these individuals and groups have had to go to Leicester city council, which I am happy to say is Labour-controlled, and ask its recreation department to supply the grants necessary to ensure that their organisations are successful. That is a pathetic way for central Government to treat such an important matter.

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West about the need for a multi-agency approach and for other organisations to be consulted. The Minister of State was described yesterday as Mr. Nice—or was it Mr. Nasty?—and I am sure that he will consider my hon. Friend's points. These organisations must be consulted because they are working at the grass roots.

12.45 am

I should have liked the Bill to contain considerably more than it does. I would have liked much more about the need to treat child care as part of a wider package to encourage women's equal access to jobs. I should have liked provisions to allow all pregnant women the right to maternity leave, and to introduce maternity and family leave in all areas of work. I would like increased opportunities for part-time work—for job sharing and so on. I want credits for child care allowances for employers, and the abolition of the iniquitous employers' tax on work-based nurseries—an issue that has been the subject of many parliamentary questions to the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I should have liked tax relief on child care in the Bill.

Opposition Members would have liked all these measures in the Bill, but, alas, they have not been included. The debate on the new clause gives us the chance to put our case in good faith to a Minister who has shown in recent negotiations that he is prepared to listen and to meet the objections of those with experience. Here is an opportunity for him to show that he is prepared to put his faith in children and to recognise that child care facilities and opportunities should be available for all. This is a unique chance to put the law right. I urge the Minister to seize it and enfranchise the children of our country.

Mr. Corbyn

Like my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) and for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), I am sponsored in the House by the National Union of Public Employees. We have a particular interest in the debate as our members provide a large proportion of the pre-school facilities in this country.

I find it strange that we are here at nearly one o'clock in the morning discussing the care of children. In this place there are no facilities for that and the hours of work here are not conducive to looking after children.

The new clause adds up to a charter which would revolutionise the treatment of children and the opportunities for parents—especially women—to go to work and take up fulfilling careers. My constituency is probably one of the most densely populated in the country. It has the least amount of open space and it has some very bad housing, as bad as in almost any part of London. There is much overcrowding. Many children live in high-rise flats or in overcrowded flats in converted Victorian houses with no garden space and there is limited and inadequate provision of pre-school facilities. The chances of those children being able to develop their personalities, abilities, interests and excitement to the same extent as children growing up in a wealthier, more suburban environment with greater access to open space are limited. The House should be concerned about that.

The lack of pre-school facilities discriminates against the children of working-class parents and against the parents themselves and denies such people many of the opportunities for achievement that are available to others. The new clause brings to our attention the way in which children would be able to develop much better and shows how this country should treat its children.

The provision of pre-school facilities in Britain is very uneven. However, that unevenness is not based on wealth or on areas or counties but largely on the political complexion of local authorities. Labour local authorities, such as the one in the area that I represent, do everything that they can to provide pre-school facilities. They provide children's day centres, day centres, nurseries, play groups and training for child minders.

What is the response of central Government to the provision of such facilities? Since 1980 there has been an unremitting press and political attack on our local authority with allegations of gross overspending. It has been suggested that we should cut expenditure on pre-school facilities. Councils which refused to do that were rate capped. Local authorities in areas such as mine have been penalised for attempting to provide some of the facilities that my hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong) suggested when she moved the new clause. I hope that the House recognises the importance of that.

We are also debating the range of child care facilities that should be on offer. The Labour party strongly believes that there should be statutory provision of pre-school facilities for parents who want to use them. It is a matter not of forcing people to use such facilities but of ensuring that a choice is available so that parents may have their children looked after safely in an educational environment which will ensure their development or may look after them themselves. They should not be forced, as are many people in my constituency, to live in grossly overcrowded flats with limited access to pre-school facilities because that is detrimental to the development of children. It is a serious issue.

I am always amazed at how badly Britain provides for pre-school-age children. We compare badly with every other country in Europe, east or west, and with many countries elsewhere which have taken seriously the question of pre-school provision. When overseas visitors visit the House or my constituency they often ask about pre-school facilities. I tell them that in my constituency the facilities are good compared with the national average but that they are still inadequate, as the local authority would be the first to recognise.

We are also debating registration and regulation. The provision of pre-school facilities should be subject to tight regulation. The facilities should he safe and should not be overcrowded. Staff should know what they are doing and be properly trained and the children should be properly looked after.

If the Government pursue their line of charging any voluntary organisation, whether it is a playgroup, a child minder or anyone else, for those facilities and for registration, that will be an incentive not to register and to dodge the register. If there is an incentive to do that, and to make as much money as possible, many people will do that. These provisions will encourage child minders not to register, and to take on more children. Those who will suffer will he the child minders and, of course, the children.

I recognise that the vast majority of child minders are good, do a good job, work extremely hard and are dedicated and loving to the children for whom they care. However, it is important for the security and benefit of those who mind children that there should be proper registration and regulation. The Government appear to believe totally in the free market economy. If that were taken to its logical conclusion, anyone could take on the care of children of pre-school age for whatever amount of money they could get. Those who will suffer will be the poorest children in the poorest areas. They will be the most exploited.

We have an appalling mess and mish-mash of pre-school facilities. In the west end of London, there are private nurseries for the children of business people which charge between £150 and £200 per week—up to £10,000 per year. That is way beyond the ability of many people to pay. At the other end of the scale there is a lack of local authority provision at a cost which anyone can bear. Such provision should be free. As a result of that lack, there are only the private nurseries, and many people cannot afford them, so both children and parents suffer.

I hope that the House will recognise that the 1948 regulations, advanced though they were for 1948, are inadequate and that the proposals in new clauses 2, 3 and 4 are very much in line with Labour party policy. They set out a system under which children could be properly cared for and given proper opportunities for development, and their parents could be given real opportunities for working with the security of knowing that their children will be properly looked after. All that comes under the charter in the new clauses.

The lack of adequate pre-school facilities for children is damaging to children, but also to parents. Usually, women have to stay at home to look after the children where there is no public provision. Many of those women lose their career prospects as a result, and few facilities are available for education at a later stage for women who have had to stay at home to look after children, so they lose out on fulfilment. Often the children lose out, too, because of the difficulty of the housing conditions in which such families live.

We are proposing a radical change to the lives of those people. If we allow this crazy free market philosophy to envelope everything and to take over the provision of pre-school facilities, the losers will be the children of the poor, the parents who are not wealthy. The gainers will be those who can afford to send their children to expensive private schools and those who can make money out of them.

Education should be universally available and free at all ages—not just at the school starting age but well before that, when the crucial stages of child development take place. It is a scandal that the House is debating this at this time of the night. The subject is too important to be debated at this time, and in this atmosphere. I hope that the Government will recognise the importance of this and support our new clauses.

1 am

The Minister for Health (Mr. David Mellor)

I shall begin by referring to the three Government amendments that are part of the group of new clauses and amendments that are before us. Amendments Nos. 388 and 484 provide a power to make regulations about the requirements that local authorities have to attach to the registration of a person providing day care and prescribe requirements which authorities must not attach. Amendment No. 130 is a drafting amendment which is intended to correct a mistake in clause 67(2)(c)(ii) in relation to persons providing day care.

I shall deal with the substantive matters that we have been discussing and the range of new clauses which have been proposed by the hon. Member for Durham, North-West (Ms. Armstrong). The hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) and others have been kind enough to observe that where it was possible to make changes in Committee and at other stages of the Bill's consideration to ensure that there was a substantial—indeed, overwhelming—measure of cross-party support for the Bill, I endeavoured to do so. The Amendment Paper is littered with amendments that pick up agreements to reconsider as a result of the Bill's examination in Committee. The hon. Lady and her hon. Friends will know that the issue that has been the subject of this debate, which we discussed fully in Committee, reveals a philosophical difference between the two sides of the House which I fear that it will not be possible to bridge tonight. I shall, however, say a few words about the new clauses 2, 3 and 4, beginning with clause 2.

Government policy is based on the philosophy that parents are responsible for bringing up their children. If they need or want help with this task, they should make the necessary arrangements and meet the cost where they are able to do so. We believe that it is up to parents to decide, in the light of their own circumstances, whether both should work, for instance, while their children are young. We consider that the state should not be involved in that decision and that the welfare of the child must be of paramount consideration in reaching such a decision. We believe, however, that assistance should be given to children who are in need, and that is the thread that runs through the Bill.

Unfortunately, new clause 2 goes further than the duty that is provided for in clause 17, and avowedly so. The hon. Member for Durham, North-West makes that point. The new clause would require every local authority to plan for the development of day care and education facilities for all children under the age of five who require such facilities, and "requirement" appears to mean, in effect, all those who ask for these facilities.

Ms. Armstrong


Mr. Mellor

The hon. Lady confirms that. There is an honest disagreement between us. The new clause goes too far and I fear that I am not able to move further in that direction tonight.

New clause 3 provides a statutory code of practice to which local authorities would have to have regard when deciding whether to register an intending child minder or day-care provider under part X. A code of practice would set down standards to be met by child minders and others providing day care for young children.

I do not think that there is much difference between us in this instance. We recognise that local authorities are likely to find guidance helpful in exercising their registration function efficiently and effectively. We shall be issuing guidance in the form of a departmental circular to local authorities on this and many other provisions in the Bill. In preparing the guidance we shall consult widely with statutory and voluntary bodies. We shall have regard to matters that are raised in this debate.

I hope that in the light of what I have said the hon. Member for Durham, North-West will not feel it necessary to push new clause 3 to a Division. If the clause were to form part of the Bill, a formal code of practice would be invoked for one item alone. We have accepted that for other parts of the Bill it is appropriate that there should be guidance under regulations. I hope that the hon. Lady will not consider—I can see no basis for it—that there is a need to establish a special way of dealing with guidance under this part of the Bill when, arguably, some even more significant areas are subject to guidance under regulations in the normal way.

Let me deal now with new clause 4. Good quality day care is crucial. Clause 69 asks for an annual inspection. That is a duty on local authorities and they have the power to enter the premises in question at any reasonable time and, if appropriate on the evidence then gathered, to cancel registration.

It is only after an institution has been established that it is possible to determine whether it is working appropriately. To give a local authority the powers in new clause 4 at the time of registration would place an invidious burden on local authorities because it would be difficult for them to make an objective judgment about whether the care to be given to an individual child was likely to be seriously inadequate until the institution was running. However, if the person concerned was not regarded as a fit person there is power to exclude such a person under the Bill.

The real meat of this is that, provided the institution is being run by a fit person, there cannot be a fair opportunity to judge standards before an organisation is up and running. Therefore, I regret that I am unable to accept any of the new clauses or amendments that have been proposed in the group.

An important issue in the debate has concerned pre-school play groups registrations and fees. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-East (Mr. Paice) made an important point when he said that an increasing number of commercial organisations are providing child-minding or play group facilities. Many of them are of a high standard and I am glad that they are there. But there is no reason why they should not pay a proper fee for the cost of the registration arrangements under the Bill. After all, the Opposition rightly point out that when we place burdens on local authorities there is a cost attached. There is no reason why those who are registered should not pay a reasonable fee, not one that would involve the making of any profit, but one that would cover the costs involved.

Let me dispose of one serious point that ran throughout the debate. It would be wrong to place any unfair burden on voluntary organisations, such as the Pre-school Playgroups Association, running play group facilities on a shoestring, as I recognise they do. I want to make two points clear. First, if, in order to levy a registration charge on the commercial or semi-commercial organisations, it is necessary to make a charge on Pre-school Playgroups Association play groups, that charge will be purely nominal. I give an undertaking that it would not be more than £10 per annum. There is also power under clause 88(4) for regulations to be made to provide exceptions from the requirement to charge at all. As part of the consultations that will take place, I should like to consider whether it would be possible to ring-fence that category of play groups in order to remove any obligation to make any charge. At worst, there will be a maximum charge of £10; at best, it may be possible, after consultation under the regulations, to find a way to create a ring fence.

I hope that that will meet any legitimate concern about this. Whatever else may divide us in this group of amendments I hope that there will be no more suggestions that we shall put Pre-school Playgroups Association play groups out of business by making any unfair charge.

In conclusion, I hope that the House will not mind me making one other remark. It was a matter of sadness to me that there was an unnecessary Division on new clause 32, the first new clause to be debated tonight. I regret that. The Division was forced by the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh)—for whom I have the highest personal regard—who had not previously played a part in the proceedings on the Bill. I hope that at this late stage such Divisions will not become a trend. We went through 16 sittings in Committee and had only seven Divisions.

I appreciate that there is a genuine division of opinion on new clause 2 and I fully accept that the Opposition will want to divide on that. However, I hope that, in view of my undertakings on charging in relation to pre-school play groups and other matters, it will not be necessary to force a Division. The proceedings on the Bill have been a happy experience for all of us and I wholly exempt the Opposition Front Bench from any suggestion that there is an attempt to go back on any arrangements into which we entered. It has been a happy experience to take the Bill through with give and take and with a genuine alliance with Opposition views, as those who served in Committee know, which have been incorporated in the Bill as far as possible.

I hope that the Bill will not now be hijacked by hon. Members who have other intentions, and who may force unnecessary Divisions and prevent progress on a Bill that is important to the welfare of children. I hope that it will be possible to do what we have always intended to do, which is to continue to debate the Bill fairly and properly, having Divisions only when they reveal real differences of principle between the Opposition and the Government, so that we can make a fair attempt to complete progress on the Bill this evening. I hope, therefore, that common sense will prevail, as it has done otherwise throughout the Bill.

Ms. Armstrong

The Minister was right in his remarks about the new clauses. His understanding of our motives in tabling new clause 2 is exactly right. We think that there is a public responsibility for the care and protection of all children under the age of five and for children involved in child care up to the age of 14. We shall come later to the debate about the age level. I know that hon. Members of all parties are worried because the Minister has set the level at eight. We make it clear in the new clause that our age limit would be 14. We think that the local authority has a duty to review and regulate the child care opportunities and nursery education opportunities for all children.

When the Prime Minister was Secretary of State for Education, she made a commitment that nursery education would be available for all children who wanted it. We want to ensure that it is available for all children who want it and that it is included in the review of day care and education, so we shall divide the House on new clause 2. I hope that the House will see the Division on new clause 2 as symbolising the Opposition's concern about the manner in which the Government have dealt with the provisions that we have been discussing. We make it clear by omission that charges would be no part of our plans and I shall return to that in a moment.

New clause 3 concerns the area that local authorities have made clear in their representations that they feel is necessary. As a result of their experiences with the existing legislation, they believe that there should be a statutory code of practice. The essential element of new clause 3 is that it would ensure that, whatever the code of practice, it would come to the House and would be subject to a resolution of the House. We must monitor the code of practice, especially as we know that there will be expansion in the private sector. It is necessary that we have a view on that and that we are able to regulate and to know what is happening.

On new clause 4, we have had numerous representations from local authority associations and the voluntary sector because they do not feel that the Bill deals adequately with the question of who is a fit person. New clause 4 makes minimal additions to the definition. I am not able to accept the Minister's assurances.

1.15 am

We have clearly and consistently said throughout the Bill's passage that registration is a public responsibility. Therefore, the issues are not charges on the market mechanism. I do not believe that people are motivated by the cash nexus. This may be the difference between the two sides of the House.

It is as important to have public responsibility for regulating the private sector as to have it for regulating the voluntary sector. The National Childminding Association, for example, has told the Minister that it would be worried if differential charges were introduced. It believes that some hard-pressed local authorities would feel that they had to take account of the views of the people from whom they got their income first. Some authorities already have great waiting lists for registration of child minders. Part of our aim was to ensure that those lists were reduced. Some authorities have argued strongly with the Government that differential charges would bring problems into the processes of registration and inspection.

The Government have failed to address this issue. In any case, if independent schools are not to be charged, how does one justify charging even private nurseries? I have yet to meet representatives of any such nurseries who claim to deliver quality care with trained workers and can make a profit. I have visited a private nursery which employ's only five qualified workers. Its minimum charge, operating on a non-profit basis, is £105 per week. Anyone who is making a profit can be doing so only at the expense of quality, and we want to ensure that that does not happen.

Registration is a public issue which affects all of us. No matter where a child is placed—in the public, the private or the voluntary domain—I want to be able to say to the parent, "The regulations are such that we are confident about the quality of the service on offer in this establishment."

I am sorry that I cannot respond to the Minister's entreaties——

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)


Ms. Armstrong

—and I will not accept his blandishments.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 49, Noes 126.

Division No. 336] [1.18 am
Armstrong, Hilary Cousins, Jim
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Cryer, Bob
Battle, John Cummings, John
Beckett, Margaret Cunliffe, Lawrence
Beith, A. J. Dixon, Don
Bell, Stuart Fearn, Ronald
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Flynn, Paul
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Foster, Derek
Buckley, George J. Gordon, Mildred
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Hardy, Peter
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W) Hinchliffe, David
Clay, Bob Home Robertson, John
Clelland, David Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Cohen, Harry Illsley, Eric
Corbyn, Jeremy Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Môn)
Kirkwood, Archy Turner, Dennis
Leadbitter, Ted Vaz, Keith
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Wall, Pat
McCartney, Ian Wareing, Robert N.
Madden, Max Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Meale, Alan Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley) Wise, Mrs Audrey
Pike, Peter L.
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Tellers for the Ayes:
Skinner, Dennis Mr. Frank Haynes, and Mrs. Llin Golding.
Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Alexander, Richard Irvine, Michael
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Jack, Michael
Amess, David Janman, Tim
Amos, Alan Jessel, Toby
Arbuthnot, James Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Ashby, David Knapman, Roger
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Lyell, Sir Nicholas
Baldry, Tony Mellor, David
Batiste, Spencer Morris, M (N'hampton S)
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Morrison, Sir Charles
Blackburn, Dr John G. Moss, Malcolm
Boswell, Tim Neubert, Michael
Brazier, Julian Norris, Steve
Burns, Simon Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley
Burt, Alistair Oppenheim, Phillip
Butler, Chris Paice, James
Carlisle, John, (Luton N) Patnick, Irvine
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Carrington, Matthew Pawsey, James
Carttiss, Michael Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda Porter, David (Waveney)
Chapman, Sydney Riddick, Graham
Chope, Christopher Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)
Colvin, Michael Rowe, Andrew
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Rumbold, Mrs Angela
Cran, James Sackville, Hon Tom
Currie, Mrs Edwina Shaw, David (Dover)
Curry, David Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Dorrell, Stephen Shersby, Michael
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Sims, Roger
Dover, Den Soames, Hon Nicholas
Durant, Tony Speed, Keith
Fallon, Michael Speller, Tony
Favell, Tony Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Fenner, Dame Peggy Stern, Michael
Fishburn, John Dudley Stevens, Lewis
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Forth, Eric Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Freeman, Roger Summerson, Hugo
French, Douglas Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Gale, Roger Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Garel-Jones, Tristan Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Gill, Christopher Thornton, Malcolm
Glyn, Dr Alan Thurnham, Peter
Goodlad, Alastair Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles Tracey, Richard
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Twinn, Dr Ian
Gow, Ian Waddington, Rt Hon David
Greenway, John (Ryedale) Walden, George
Gregory, Conal Waller, Gary
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N) Ward, John
Ground, Patrick Warren, Kenneth
Hague, William Watts, John
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton) Wheeler, John
Hanley, Jeremy Widdecombe, Ann
Harris, David Winterton, Mrs Ann
Haselhurst, Alan Winterton, Nicholas
Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney Wood, Timothy
Hayward, Robert Yeo, Tim
Heddle, John
Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd) Tellers for the Noes:
Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory and Mr. Greg Knight.
Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Hunter, Andrew

Question accordingly negatived.

1.30 am
Mr. Mellor

I beg to move, That further consideration of the Bill be now adjourned.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

It is important that I put on record and reaffirm the view of the official Opposition on this Bill. The Opposition have attempted to co-operate with the progress of the Bill—[Interruption.] I shall not attempt to respond to the ill-informed interventions of Conservative Back Benchers, whose views I am sure are not reflected on the Government Front Bench. The fact is—I am delighted and not surprised that the Minister has agreed with this—that the Front Benches have endeavoured to co-operate to ensure that the Bill reaches the statute book. That remains our position. I hope, of course, that time will be found in which to continue the Bill's remaining stages. I repeat that our position is that we shall not seek to oppose the Bill. We want to see it on the statute book.

That said, however—I say this especially in the presence of the Leader of the House, the Deputy Prime Minister, who is, of course, a reasonable man—when other reasonable hon. Members representing mining areas feel it necessary to demonstrate, as they have done, because they genuinely feel that they have a grievance about Associated British Ports——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. The hon. Gentleman should resume his seat. We cannot discuss those matters now.

Mr. Clarke

I conclude by saying that I am sure that an honourable man, such as the Leader of the House, will take on board the sincere and genuine views that have been expressed.

Mr. Sims

Although I am encouraged by what we have just heard, I find myself, as a Back Bencher who has been closely involved with the Bill, somewhat perplexed by the turn of events this evening. I have been given to understand that there was a clear understanding in all parts of the House that we would seek to complete the Bill's passage this evening. As it was, our proceedings were delayed by accommodating the Opposition in the special debate on the economy for which they asked.

All hon. Members should recognise that many organisations outside the House are following the Bill's passage closely and are concerned that it should come to a successful conclusion. They will be extremely worried when they hear that we have apparently adjourned proceedings when we all know that the amount of parliamentary time available for completing such legislation is extremely limited. If we are to adjourn proceedings on the Bill this evening, I hope that time can be found as soon as possible so that, on a proper normal parliamentary basis, the Bill can be brought to its conclusion.

Mr. McCartney

Although I am a Back-Bench Member who was not directly involved in the Bill's Committee stage, I was involved in details relating to it for much of its Committee stage and spent all yesterday—and all our three and a half hours this evening—participating positively in the debate. Indeed, I agreed to submit in writing to the Minister my detailed positive suggestions on the amendments that we discussed yesterday in our personal time. My hon. Friends and I therefore greatly resent the accusation made by some Conservative Members that some Opposition Back-bench Members have attempted to disrupt the business this evening. We have had less than three hours of debate on legislation which, if the debate had started in the afternoon, would have continued for at least six and a half hours.

Of their own volition, the Government have tabled more than 400 amendments but at this hour have chosen not to deal with important provisions on grandparents' rights, which were due to be considered next. I hope, therefore, that the Government will allow appropriate time for Back Benchers to participate positively in fashioning the Bill before it becomes an Act.

Mr. Cryer

The Bill has run into difficulties simply because the Government have overloaded the timetable. They have produced the most mammoth Bills on record, dealing with issues such as water privatisation, in such a way that it has been difficult for the House to deal with them. The Clerks have been inundated with work and now, in the spill-over period, we are considering a Bill which, by and large, has a fair measure of cross-party support, as was demonstrated tonight by the wealth of detailed knowledge that hon. Members have exhibited. The debate on the clauses that we have considered tonight demonstrates that our debates have not been excessive.

If anyone is to be blamed, it is the Government—not for this Bill, but for occupying so much parliamentary time. Everyone knows that they have presented massive Bills, some of which are highly controversial, such as that on water privatisation, which is not wanted outside. They have been so incompetent that they have often had to come back with two or three money resolutions because they have not been able to draft the first one sufficiently comprehensively to deal with the legislation. That is a measure of their incompetence, and it is entirely their responsibility.

Mr. Mellor

A number of hon. Members have spent a great deal of time on a measure vital for the welfare of children, which is not party-political. I am distressed that, after arrangements were entered into which should have enabled the Bill to complete its passage through the House tonight, that is no longer possible.

I entirely acquit the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) of any blame. I believe that he sincerely wanted, as I did, to finish consideration of the Bill tonight but, as he said in all candour and honesty, a group of hon. Members who are aggrieved about other matters have chosen to use this debate as a vehicle to express their dissatisfaction on other matters. In effect, they have tried to hold the rest of the House and the Bill to ransom by pressing a wholly unnecessary Division.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is worth recording the fact that not one member of the miners parliamentary group has attempted to speak in the debate on the Children Bill tonight. One, or perhaps two at most, hon. Members who are members of that group have been present throughout the debate. We did not force a Division. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes, you did."] Not one member of the group has spoken. It is wholly inappropriate——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman will realise that he has raised a highly dubious matter. He has made his point. The Minister was very unwise to open up this type of discussion as the Chair must inevitably allow hon. Members an opportunity to defend themselves if they have been charged. It is unwise to pursue this argument.

Mr. Mellor

I am obliged merely to state the facts. A Division on clause 32 was forced by the hon. Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh) but no hon. Member entered the Division Lobby. It is an open secret around the Palace of Westminster that that tactic was to be pursued on this entirely innocent Bill because of grievances about a private Bill which is to be considered next week.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have told the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) that this is a matter on which we should not open a discussion. The Minister is inviting a much wider debate than is appropriate on matters which are totally unrelated to the issue before the House.

Mr. Mellor

Of course I accept your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall say only this. It is a matter of deep regret that this Bill should not be able to make progress because of matters quite beyond the control of those who care about it and because some have been determined not to permit progress in the normal way. I regret that.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

I do not want to incur your ire, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but we who have been involved with the Bill for several months have worked in close co-operation in the interests of children.

I have a little phrase here which runs, children have been the great unsung losers in the change in social attitudes and morality. Children have always lost out. I have a short quotation: These crowds and crowds of little children are strangely absent from the the written record. We have spent much time on the Bill. We are writing children into the record. We are doing something to help children.

My hon. Friends and I agreed to be here and were prepared to stay here until the Bill had completed its proceedings tonight through to Third Reading. We are still willing, regardless of any outside events, to stay here to complete the remaining stages of the Bill.

I urge two courses of action upon the Minister. First, that we stay here tonight and continue until the Bill is finished. If we are unable to do so, however, for reasons that are without our control we should have a clear commitment from the Government that the Bill will come back immediately so that we can complete its remaining stages.

We are all aware of the pressure of time on the other place as well as on the House and the risks that are incumbent upon the proceedings tonight and that, therefore, the Bill may not complete all its stages by the time the House prorogues.

I urge the Minister and his Front-Bench colleagues to reflect seriously, before we put the motion to a vote, that we may, because it is the wish of the House, stay here until we complete the Bill.

Mr. Paice

I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) said. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) also made some pertinent points about the importance of the Bill for all children and about the amicable way in which all the debates have taken place.

Earlier the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) suggested that it was the Government's fault that we had not made sufficient progress because they had tabled so many amendments. If he had followed the entire proceedings of the Committee, he would know that the Government approached the Bill in an open manner. They were prepared to listen to the debate and to introduce amendments following the results of those Committee debates. A substantial number of amendments have already been passed without any dissent from the Opposition. The hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) has been outstanding in his support of many of the amendments tabled by the Government as part of their bipartisan policy.

Sadly, the hon. Member for Monklands, West blew the gaffe. given the manner in which you intervened, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as to the true cause of our dilemma tonight. I am sure that many hon. Members would happily sit here with me for the rest of the night if we believed that we would make progress on the Bill. Rumours throughout the House, however, as well as the comments of the hon. Member for Monklands, West have led us to believe that that is not possible. I am afraid that the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) was missing when his hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh) intervened at great length in the speech of his hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central therefore missed the speech of a Member representing mining interests.

We now understand clearly why it is necessary to adjourn the debate tonight. It has nothing to do with the Bill, or with what has happended in the past; it is to do what is likely to happen. That delay is a matter of regret, but we cannot do anything else but adjourn the debate. It would be tragic if the Bill were guillotined at this late stage.

The only answer is for the Opposition to ensure that their colleagues do not impede the sensible debate on the Bill and that we proceed with the amendments in a manner befitting the future of our children.

1.45 am
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I had no intention of speaking in this debate until the Minister made his second speech. His comments were outrageous.

I have not taken part in any of the proceedings on the Bill, but I have stayed here, deliberately, to vote for certain proposals debated tonight—first, new clause 2. I also intended to vote on the next group of amendments relating to the rights of grandparents, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) has campaigned strongly for many years.

It was wrong for the Minister to speak as he did as it was the Government who chose to adjourn further consideration. If they want to make progreess, these issues could be concluded tonight and the Bill could get its Third Reading. It is outrageous. The Minister referred to a Bill which he believed some Opposition Members might try to influence next week. The Government could withdraw a nonsensical Bill which is down for debate next Monday, the Football Spectators Bill. They could return in the next Session of Parliament with a more sensible proposal to deal with the football problems.

I regret the trend of Government Members who seem, like the Prime Minister, to believe that the only people who know what is right for this country are the Prime Minister and Government Members. They want to stifle democracy and debate. We have a right to debate and divide on issues in the House, and I regret that the Government have chosen to try to stop discussion of this issue tonight.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

I do not know why Tory Members are getting themselves in a tizzy. They put themselves up as candidates to fight an election and it is the Government who have given us the problem we face tonight.

I resent some of the remarks being made by Government Members, particularly the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), the Government's Deputy Chief Whip, who suggested that Scargill had something to do with this. I can tell the Deputy Chief Whip and the Chief Whip, who has a big grin on his face, that Scargill has not contacted me about the Bill.

I have a particular interest in new clause 10 and I and my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) have prepared ourselves for today's debate. I, like my hon. Friend, am a grandad. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are amused but this is a serious matter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have hardly said anything or moved a muscle.

Mr. Haynes

With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, there was a little grin on your face when I talked about being a grandad.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman did not refer to the fact that I am a grandad, too.

Mr. Haynes

I do not know anything about that, but I am proud to be a grandfather and I wanted to participate with my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore on the grandparent clause. We are being denied that opportunity. What sort of guarantee will we have that this Bill will come before the House again? The Government have so much business to get through in the overspill period that they will be in difficulty. They will have to drop something, otherwise we shall have to go through the night to finish the business.

The Government have caused the problem because of the number of amendments they have tabled. I am prepared to go through the night if necessary because I am interested in the Bill. Conservative Members have suggested that they, too, are interested in it. This sort of thing has happened many, many times in years gone by. Some hon. Members had nappies on when it was taking place. Many of them are only young lads and they do not understand the procedure of the House. We are an Opposition. Are Conservative Members trying to tell me that if they were the Opposition they would not do what we are doing tonight, and have done on other nights? Who do they think they are kidding, especially the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) who indicated that he wanted to speak just now. I have not seen him here on nights of this sort. He has been tucked up in bed in Crawley while we have been doing the work. When we have had this sort of difficulty I have seen regularly the same faces among the Conservative Benches, and they are there now. However, on previous occasions, some right hon. and hon. Members have been tucked up in bed. I listened to the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) earlier on. He will be tucked up in bed now. He was not pleased about today's debate and if he were here now he probably would not be pleased about what was happening.

Conservative Members are not really interested in the Bill—[Interruption.] Not in the way in which my hon. Friends are interested in it. We want to continue debating it so that it can reach the statute book because we agree with some of it. We want an opportunity to speak on, for example, new clause 10.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

The hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) said that my hon. Friends and I would be doing the same as Labour Members are doing now if we were on the Opposition Benches. I assure him that we would not be obstructing a Bill which is designed to prevent child abuse simply to promote a different measure that is not the subject of discussion tonight. The Government would be in order in introducing a timetable motion to get this important Bill through as soon as possible.

We have been told that a private Bill is to be debated next week and it seems that several Opposition Members know that. You will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that Bill has not been brought to the attention of the House and that business for next week has not yet been published. May I ask you to inquire how those Members have prior knowledge of that Bill?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That does not arise on the motion that is before the House. Hon. Members speculate about such matters. I assure the House that the Chairman of Ways and Means is well aware of the concern about the Bill which should not be discussed now.

Mr. Vaz

Having been a member of the Standing Committee, I am concerned at the way in which the Bill is likely to end its parliamentary stages—in what appears to be a mess from the point of view of the business of the House. The situation in which we now find ourselves was predictable.

When we met the Minister of State and his officials last Wednesday in the Cathedral room of the Department of Health, we were told that we would not be getting the two full days that we had been promised to discuss this important measure. I agree with the hon. Members who have pointed out that a record number of amendments have been tabled. I am glad of that because it shows that the Minister was true to his word and was prepared to heed the reasonable arguments that were adduced in Committee.

At that stage, several Members, including the hon Members for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) and for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), were as concerned as my hon. Friends lest the amount of time allocated would not be sufficient. It has been said time and again that the Bill is of crucial importance in that it has taken 100 years to reach the position when we can radically reform the law of child care.

We are prepared to go on debating it through the night—[Interruption.] The deputy Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), seems to be indicating dissent at that. Because hon. Members who were members of the Standing Committee spent many hours debating these issues, we are prepared to go on discussing the Bill through the night to reach a conclusion on it. Many organisations in the voluntary sector are looking to us to reach that conclusion.

If the Minister is not minded to proceed with it tonight, the Leader of the House, who is in his place, must give an assurance that he will provide a full day in which to discuss the important issues involved. It is not sufficient to begin the resumed debate at 10 o'clock at night and continue into the early hours without reaching a conclusion.

Let us have a full day in which to discuss the Bill. Let us not discuss simply the amendments that have been tabled by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and others concerning grandparents' rights. After all, in clause 91 we shall be considering the abolition of the ancient jurisdiction of wardship that has been part of our legal system since the 15th century. Adequate time must be provided to discuss such issues. Will the Leader of the House give us that assurance? If he will, I am sure that some Opposition Members will support the motion.

Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

Many of us who sat for many hours on the Committee considering the Bill are worried that we have degenerated into this shambles. When we met the Minister of State last week, we were disappointed to find that we were not to have two full days of debate on the Bill. It is quite wrong for Opposition Members to try to make capital out of that, because it was their debate on the economy today which prevented the start of the business earlier.

After the long hours of consensus discussion on the Bill, steps should now be taken to ensure that time is provided for the Bill to finish its passage through the House and to go to the other place in time to arrive on the statute book. We would be failing in our duty to all the children who need this Bill if that did not happen. We should now try to resolve the problem and avoid this shambles.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 110. Noes 20.

Division No. 337] [1.55 am
Alexander, Richard Fishburn, John Dudley
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)
Amess, David Forth, Eric
Amos, Alan Freeman, Roger
Arbuthnot, James French, Douglas
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Gale, Roger
Ashby, David Garel-Jones, Tristan
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Gill, Christopher
Baldry, Tony Glyn, Dr Alan
Batiste, Spencer Goodlad, Alastair
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke) Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Blackburn, Dr John G. Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Boswell, Tim Gow, Ian
Brazier, Julian Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Burns, Simon Gregory, Conal
Burt, Alistair Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Butler, Chris Ground, Patrick
Carlisle, John, (Luton N) Hague, William
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Carrington, Matthew Hanley, Jeremy
Carttiss, Michael Harris, David
Chapman, Sydney Haselhurst, Alan
Chope, Christopher Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Hayward, Robert
Currie, Mrs Edwina Heathcoat-Amory, David
Curry, David Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Dorrell, Stephen Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Dover, Den Hunter, Andrew
Durant, Tony Irvine, Michael
Fallon, Michael Jack, Michael
Janman, Tim Stevens, Lewis
Jessel, Toby Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N) Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Knapman, Roger Summerson, Hugo
Lyell, Sir Nicholas Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Mellor, David Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Morrison, Sir Charles Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Moss, Malcolm Thurnham, Peter
Neubert, Michael Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Norris, Steve Tracey, Richard
Oppenheim, Phillip Twinn, Dr Ian
Paice, James Waddington, Rt Hon David
Patnick, Irvine Walden, George
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Waller, Gary
Pawsey, James Ward, John
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Warren, Kenneth
Porter, David (Waveney) Watts, John
Riddick, Graham Wheeler, John
Roberts, Wyn (Conwy) Widdecombe, Ann
Rowe, Andrew Winterton, Mrs Ann
Shaw, David (Dover) Winterton, Nicholas
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Wood, Timothy
Shersby, Michael
Sims, Roger Tellers for the Ayes:
Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W) Mr. Tom Sackville and Mr. Greg Knight.
Stern, Michael
Clay, Bob Meale, Alan
Clelland, David Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Cohen, Harry Skinner, Dennis
Corbyn, Jeremy Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Cousins, Jim Turner, Dennis
Cryer, Bob Vaz, Keith
Cummings, John Wall, Pat
Cunliffe, Lawrence Wise, Mrs Audrey
Dixon, Don
Fearn, Ronald Tellers for the Noes:
Hughes, John (Coventry NE) Mr. Ian McCartney and Mr. Harry Barnes.
Madden, Max

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill (as amended in the Standing Committee), to be further considered this day.

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