HC Deb 15 January 1993 vol 216 cc1238-44

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

2.33 pm
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

I welcome this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the difficulties that are experienced by tens of thousands of small children throughout the country, their parents, and those who run play groups and nursery schools. It could reasonably be said that I want to talk about kiddie care being clobbered by callous councils.

Since the Government introduced new regulations applying to the Children Act 1989, there has been chaos in many parts of the country in which decent, nice, friendly mums and housewives and others run facilities for young children—particularly those aged between three and five. That is largely a voluntary activity. If done privately, it is often run on a shoestring, with few resources, thanks to the good will and tender loving care of those who take an interest.

There are thousands of private schools, and since the regulations became effective in October 1991 they have driven many of the people who run such schools crazy. Some are being forced to close down because they cannot afford to meet the new regulations. I am not blaming the 1989 Act or even the Government—although they introduced the regulations that qualified that Act to some extent.

The Government introduced guidelines that local authorities were meant to adopt with discretion and common sense, but they provided an opportunity for many social service departments to go absolutely crazy in demanding standards that are completely inappropriate and much too expensive.

When it comes to dealing with young children, one would think that, above all, a delicate touch would be needed. Instead, the typically heavy hand of bureaucracy is swiping them around the head. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister issued a direction to local authorities to lay off and to apply the regulations more sensibly, but the evidence reaching me does not suggest that his advice is being taken.

I want to reinforce the view that my hon. Friend the Minister has already taken—that local authorities must be made to be sensible. The Government would do better to withdraw the regulations, on the ground that there was never any great need for them in the first place. Nowadays, there are no examples of great abuse. Where abuse occurs, unfortunately it is in public sector nurseries and other organisations, in which highly qualified people in regulated premises still manage to run schools badly. Given the size of the semi-voluntary industry, it is extraordinaty how few complaints are made.

All child minders, nurseries, and nursery schools were required to be registered before the regulations were introduced, but the regulations require them to pay a licensing fee of £100. That is a lot of money to three or four mothers who are not doing it for the cash. There is also a fee of £75 payable for an inspection according to a new set of guidelines. That is where the trouble starts.

It is a good example of people being forced to pay for the rope that is used to hang them. As the regulations arrived at town halls, social service department busybodies called on all the little schools—many of them in private homes and village halls—and laid down the law. It gives me no pleasure, although perhaps some pride, to remind the House that I warned of that as a member of the Committee that considered the regulations. To their credit, many women Labour Members, who understood the reality of the situation, joined in my criticisms. Now that the regulations have been introduced, we must do something about them.

There is a huge difference between facilities resourced by the public sector—where money is often regarded as a bottomless pit—and those that are run on a shoestring, on a non-profit making and informal basis, by the private sector.

As I have said, the cost of registration and inspection is enough to cause problems. If I want someone from the gas board to spend an hour in my house inspecting the cooker, I am charged £20; if my premises had to be inspected under these regulations, I would be charged £75. That is only the beginning, because it is almost inevitable that something will be found to be wrong with the average domestic premises used for such purposes.

The guidelines contain standards relating to the space allotted to each child. They also contain regulations concerning sanitary facilities, staff ratios and the fitness or otherwise of the women—they are mostly women—who run such schools. In charge of making the necessary judgments are social workers, many of whom have no relevant experience and, indeed, are not formally qualified themselves. That is wholly inappropriate.

There are howling discrepancies in the staffing ratios. If a school is described as a nursery, it must have a ratio of one member of staff to five children; if it is described as a nursery school, the prescribed ratio is one to 13. Schools given other descriptions are required to have different staff ratios. Yet all the children attending such institutions are in the same age group: they are between three and five years old. That is ridiculous.

Nearly all the women who run the schools are experienced parents. Almost all have no formal qualifications, but they are told that they must acquire such qualifications or pay a qualified person. Paying a qualified person will of course cost money, and the fees will therefore have to rise; hardship cases—parents who can barely afford to pay £5 a morning for their children to attend nursery school—will be worst hit. The schools are not backed by charitable institutions that will find the money for those hardship cases, and mothers who may have to pay for several small children are driven away.

If a woman is forced to take a training course, she may have to travel some distance from home one day a week. She may have children of her own whom she cannot leave; if she manages to attend such a course, she will be instructed by some young person who will give her a formal description of common-sense practices that are second nature to a mother who regularly deals with small children. Telling such women about toilet training and tying shoelaces is almost an insult. A wholly inappropriate set of qualifications are being applied where they are not needed—and gaining such qualifications costs money.

The number of staff can vary enormously; so can the sanitary facilities. Most of the schools are in private homes, which will have a normal-sized loo and washbasin and a towel on the wall. Many others are in church halls, which are designed largely for adult use: the same conditions will apply there. Then along comes an inspector from the social services department, demanding that mini-loos be installed. Mini-loos cost a fortune—about £150—while an ordinary toilet can be picked up for £25. Mini-loos must be specially plumbed; they must be accompanied by mini-handbasins, mini-clothes pegs and mini-hand dryers—the children are not allowed to share a hand towel. No such conditions apply when the children are in their own homes, and, indeed, it is surely sensible to train them to climb onto a box step to use the toilet. After all, that is what they do at home.

Those requirements are not obligatory. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell me that the authorities are being over-zealous, but the women who run the schools do not know that; they feel that such action is demanded of them, and it is often for that reason, if for no other, that they decide to stop running schools in the premises that they have been using.

Some schools are being told that their outside play areas are unsatisfactory. The regulations call for soft surfaces such as grass and for areas to be fenced and gated. It is absurd to say that all these measures must be enforced. Sometimes a village hall will be surrounded by tarmac, which is perfectly all right for childen to play on if they are supervised, but schools are being told that they must have a soft play area or the children cannot go outside. In the summer, they must remain indoors. Any sane and normal person would think that that is another ridiculous requirement.

Most of the schools are run by women who have plenty of common sense and will not subject the children to danger. Schools are often held in an old village hall and those who run them are being told to install double glazing with shatter-proof glass, extra double ceilings, special curtains and more exits. People say that these schools should be safe, but they have not been unsafe for 25 or 30 years and will not suddenly become unsafe overnight. There have been examples of the fire inspector declaring a hall to be perfectly adequate but the social services officer saying that it is not. The many regulations mean that little schools can no longer afford to charge a price that parents can afford.

I agree with the Minister that quality is important, but that does not necessarily mean qualifications. It might mean common sense, experience and tender loving care —those are the qualities necessary in education, particularly for small children. Someone who has diplomas and certificates can be a complete idiot. Ten qualified people looking after a dozen children can create more chaos than three or four experienced mothers who know how to handle children and have been doing so for a long time. I do not deny that we want quality, but it cannot necessarily be qualified formally.

I discussed the problem with the Child Care Association, a voluntary body to which many private sector schools belong. The southern counties directory of day nurseries runs to 500 pages, which shows the size of this voluntary industry: it is big business. The association's secretary, Susan Hays, has had meetings with Baroness Seear in the Lords, who takes an interest, and with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health who takes an interest and is a mother herself. The association wants to do all the right things. It is not asking to be let off the hook but to have the regulations withdrawn.

My complaint is about not the Children Act but about the additional regulations that are being handled so badly. Heather Armstrong has been running a school in Orsett in my constituency for about 20 years. It is held in a typical old church hall building about half the size of the Chamber. It has three exits and 25 children attend four mornings a week. Heather Armstrong has three helpers who have been there 12 years or more. Those four experienced women have no paper qualifications. Along comes the woman from social services, who tells them that all the door handles must be raised to a point where the children cannot possibly open the door and run out. She tells them to install minature loos for boys and girls, basins, hand driers and little pegs. The village hall will not put up the money, and if the school is to do so it will have to raise £3,000 or £4,000. It charges £5 a session and the women draw £10 a day. It is charged £9 a day for the use of the village hall. That is the financial level with which we are dealing. It allows people in the village who are not well off and who have many children to use those much-loved, much-respected and much-needed facilities.

Now, the school has been told that the village hall authorities cannot implement all the regulations—there are others involving heating, play facilities out of doors and so on—so it will have to leave. After 20 odd years of being there, the school is being thrown out. The only other village hall has windows that are floor to ceiling and if the school uses that hall, the windows will have to be replaced with "shatter-proof" glass or the children must be corralled inside a fence in the hall so that they are nowhere near the windows. The whole thing is absurd.

Here we have a village with a much-loved little school, supported by the local people, having to raise £30,000 or more to build a facility. That is nonsense. It is not good enough and I am sure that the Minister did not intend it, but those women are now being told that they are running the school illegally and are liable to prosecution. What kind of a country do we have when silly regulations turn decent people, doing a sensible and useful job, into criminals?

That is one example, but there are others. Another woman who runs a nice nursery school has been told that all her ceilings must be double plasterboarded. Again, the school is run in a little hall and she has been told that she must have new emergency lighting, which will require the rewiring of the whole building. She must have additional fire doors put in, although there are more than adequate exits already. She has to have more partitions put up between toilets and she has to put in extra toilets. All those requirements and more are being demanded before she can get her school approved under the new regulations and she says that she has had in the authorities, including the fire inspector, who says that the facilities are not required. In the end, she has put the matter in the hands of a solicitor.

A woman in Wallsend has applied for registration under the new regulations. She recently borrowed money from the bank to expand the facilities and to take in more children, but she now faces bankruptcy because she car not do so. I could go on giving names and examples from all around the country of people being driven mad for trying to perform a useful service to our community.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has expressed his concern about regulations and his determination that unnecessary regulations should be done away with because of their effects. He says that he will not put up with it and I believe him. I understand that he is having a meeting at Chequers next weekend. He might like to invite me down there so that I can give him good examples of regulations going mad. That example will be top of my list. I know that I can rely on my hon. Friend the Minister to put the case for me, and to do something to rescue those admirable activities from the dead weight of the state. The effects will not stop unless he intervenes.

It is no good hoping that the councils will take a more lenient view—they will not. Give a bureaucrat a regulation and he will stick to it like a leech. He will keep applying that leech to that little body of people doing a useful job until it sucks them dry. I know that the Government want to expand such facilities, to get rid of unnecessary obstructions and to reduce the effect of regulations. Here is an excellent opportunity for them to make a start. By and large, the problem will be solved not by qualifications but by common sense. We must support those who are prepared to give their time to do a useful job and who should be supported all along the way.

2.53 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Tim Yeo)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) on securing this debate on such an important subject in the very week the Department of Health published its further guidance on the Children Act 1989 and day care services. I greatly appreciate my hon. Friend's characteristically colourful approach to the subject and her descriptions of the problem. Although with perhaps just the occasional hint of over-statement, she made a very powerful case.

My hon. Friend's application for this Adjournment debate was made before we issued our circular, which includes many important messages including some relating directly to the concerns expressed so eloquently by my hon. Friend. Although the circular contains many important messages, I am not sure whether my hon. Friend has had a chance yet to read it from cover to cover. I can assure her that there are no references to such things as the need for soft furnishings or soft floor coverings in play areas. I am not sure where my hon. Friend obtained her information about that.

I am happy to follow up specific cases where it appears that local authorities have taken decisions that clearly contravene our guidance. Where schemes have been refused registration, I hope that they have exercised their opportunity under the legislation to appeal against the imposition of unreasonable requirements on registration.

It is true that we have become more concerned about the rigid and unhelpful way in which some local authorities have applied the Children Act 1989. As my hon. Friend has said, we are very proud of the enormous and vital contribution that the private and voluntary sectors make in providing child care. We are also very proud of the huge army of child minders. We want those services to flourish and grow. Everyone, including parents with working commitments, must see that they can take advantage of the growth in services.

We also want acceptable standards in the facilities, and that must involve some form of statutory regulation. However, as we have made clear, it must be regulation with a light touch. There must be a framework which encourages people to set up services. We are afraid that some local authorities are creating too many bureaucratic hurdles which hinder expansion and may even reduce provision. We certainly do not want that to happen.

The legislation provides a sound basis for regulating day care services and it is possible for them to flourish against that background. However, the law perhaps enables some local authorities to be over-rigid and unhelpful. Although we do not believe that the law itself is unhelpful, we have revised the guidance that we issued only a year after the Children Act came into force.

The law requires local authorities to decide whether someone applying for registration is fit to look after children aged under eight and that their premises and equipment are also fit. That concept demands a flexible approach. It most emphatically does not prescribe qualifications or conditions that an applicant must meet before being registered. The Act does not prescribe standards for particular services.

We recommend that the staff-child ratios which are often quoted in connection with representations on such matters are the same for nursery schools as for maintained schools and classes. As my hon. Friend said, they are lower than those for day care facilities. They allow larger groupings than those recommended for day care settings because the hours of operation are shorter in a school than in a nursery, which may operate from 8 am to 6 pm.

The problem is that some—though not all—local authorities have been applying the Department's guidance too rigidly. That is clear from my correspondence. I have met people who run playgroups and day nurseries. I have also met child minders, and I have received representations from parents concerned about the possibility that their children might not have a service to attend. Some providers and child minders are apparently being told that they must spend a lot of money on new furniture or equipment, which might put them out of business. In some cases, the registration officer has not appeared to give proper recognition to the skill and experience of the person who has, sometimes for many years, offered a good service to children and a service with which parents were wholly satisfied.

We did not believe that the situation could be left to settle on its own because there was a risk that some services would close altogether—it was not merely a case of the teething problems that one would expect with new legislation. That is why we issued the circular.

The circular has five main messages. First, the Government wish to encourage an expansion of day care services of an acceptable standard. Secondly, the wording of the legislation presupposes that applicants will be granted registration unless the local authority has one or more positive reasons for refusing it. Thirdly, our guidance does not prescribe legally required standards for registration. Fourthly, the guidance draws attention to factors that local authorities need to consider when deciding about registration. Fifthly, local authorities should use their own perception of local need in addition to our guidance when deciding whether to register a particular facility. Finally, the circular states that the guidance has been applied over-strictly by some authorities, which have insisted on even higher standards than those suggested but without any justification for such a demand.

The key message in the circular is that the particular standards recommended in the Children Act guidance are not prescriptive. They are common factors which we think are relevant to deciding that someone is fit to look after young children. They should be used as points of reference, but not applied rigidly. We have reminded local authorities that registration should not be refused merely because, for example, there are not enough lavatories or because the facility does not comply in every respect with recommended space standards. Facilities that fail to meet those two requirements may in other respects be perfectly capable of providing an acceptable quality of care. I cannot stress to my hon. Friend too strongly that all local authorities must examine each case separately on its merits and must base decisions on an overall assessment of each application for registration.

As for private nursery schools, we have just issued a circular that tells local authorities to adopt a lighter touch to registration generally. It is fair for us now to wait and see how it works in practice before we rush to make further judgments about what may be needed.

The current problems with the registration of day care services was not caused, therefore, by the Children Act itself. What was wrong—I think that my hon. Friend was making the same point—was the way some local authorities applied the legislation and the use that they made of the guidance issued jointly by the Departments of Health and Education. The standards recommended in that guidance seem to have been treated as having a prescriptive force and to have been applied sometimes in an unhelpfully rigid manner. That does not help the expansion of day care services, which is what we want to achieve—with the voluntary and private sectors in the vanguard of that process—and it is especially unhelpful to the private day care sector, which we expected to be leading the expansion process.

The circular that we published on Monday this week will remove many of the difficulties experienced by my hon. Friend and her constituents and by people elsewhere in the country. Nevertheless, I undertake to keep a close watch on the issue, and we shall not hesitate to take further action against local authorities that continue to work in a rigid and unhelpful way.

On the narrower subject of private nursery schools and the Children Act, I will ensure that the House is kept informed about the discussions that we are having with the Department for Education about any appropriate changes that may be needed to the regulation of such schools.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Three o'clock.