HC Deb 12 January 1995 vol 252 cc323-45

[Relevant documents: Part of the Minutes of Proceedings of the Administration Committee on 1 March and 26 April 1994 (Extracts from House of Commons Paper No. 374 of Session 1993–94) and the Report on potential demand for child care facilities published by the House of Commons Commission.]

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

6.4 pm

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

The purpose of this debate, which the Leader of the House has arranged at the request of the House of Commons Commission, is to sound out the views of hon. Members on child care provision for hon. Members, their staff and staff of the House. I hope that it will be helpful if I briefly set out the background to what has been a long-running issue, describe the options for a child care policy, and then leave it to other hon. Members to express their views.

Under the system introduced following the Ibbs report, the usual way in which new or extended services are provided to the House is for the relevant domestic Committee to make a recommendation. The Finance and Services Committee and the Commission then consider the merits and costs of the proposal. As I said during oral questions on 24 October, that route has not been followed in this case because the relevant Committee—the Administration Committee—did not agree to support the provision of such a service.

That decision occurred after the Committee had supervised a survey of demand at the request of the Commission. The survey, by RSL Ltd., has now been made available to the House on our authority and it provides some useful material for this debate. I shall discuss the results of the survey in a moment, but first I want to identify the different groups of people whom we need to consider in forming any policy on child care provision.

I should say here that the Chairman of the Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin), intended to take part in this debate, but has been prevented from doing so because he has had to return to Scotland for the funeral of a close relative.

Under the 1978 Act, the Commission is the employer of House staff, currently some 1,300 in number. The Commission's financial responsibilities in employment matters are limited to the provision of facilities for that group of people. However, it is well aware that the issue of child care is of equal concern to hon. Members and the staff whom they employ—of whom some 1,600 are now paid by the Fees Office. A significant number of Members' staff work not here, but in the constituencies. Although the financial implications of providing any child care service for Members and their staff are not the direct responsibility of the Commission, we feel that it would be better to have an agreed general policy that would include them.

I come now to the options for a child care policy and to the survey of demand. There are three main options—an in-house nursery established on the parliamentary estate or nearby and run by the House itself or on its behalf; the provision of places in an outside nursery, probably run as a joint venture with another body; or direct financial assistance to parents to help them in providing their own child care. The third option, using child care vouchers, is already used in the other place, as well as in the National Audit Office and many other organisations.

The first option of an in-house nursery was the main basis for the original planning in the late 1980s. However, the former Services Committee soon encountered a major difficulty. The Accommodation and Works Committee advised that no space on the parliamentary estate would be available for any nursery until after the completion of the phase 2 building, which is now envisaged for 1999. In theory, existing space could be reallocated, but the location provided would need to be suitable, with sufficient play space, toilets and other accommodation.

The Commission's view is that we must meet the standards which other nursery providers are required by statute to meet, and those are fairly exacting. Those difficulties led the Services Committee and its successor, the Administration Committee, to investigate a second option—that of taking some places in a nursery set up in conjunction with Whitehall Departments. One particular scheme was identified in Vincent square, but was turned down by the Administration Committee last year as inappropriate because of the lack of flexibility—only six places were initially available—despite a considerable requirement of capital and running costs.

I come now to the third option of child care vouchers. Such a scheme would provide a subsidy towards the cost of child care arranged by the parents. The House of Lords uses such a scheme for its staff, although it is not available to Peers and I do not know what the demand would be if it were. As I made clear at the outset, the House of Commons Commission has direct responsibility only for staff of the House. Therefore, if this option were to be chosen, whether it was extended to Members and their staff would depend on whether the House resolved that there should be additional funding for that purpose or whether, in the absence of additional funding, Members were willing to devote part of their existing office costs allowances to providing child care vouchers for their staff. They are, of course, free to do that now, although I recognise that some hon. Members, like me, are finding some difficulty in meeting their existing office costs obligations out of their allowances.

I should add that a claim for a voucher scheme has now been made by the trade unions representing House of Commons staff. In the other place, eligible staff receive a voucher worth £6 per day worked, per family, and the Commons unions are seeking similar treatment. Unlike workplace nursery places, the subsidy is a taxable benefit and it would be worth about £4.50 after tax to most staff. I have moved several amendments to Finance Bills in Committee on behalf of my party to try to widen the tax relief so that it would extend to vouchers and to other forms of child care, but we have not been successful so far.

Those are the three options on which a survey of potential demand was carried out early this year. Questionnaires were sent to 4,220 people, including hon. Members, their staff, staff of the House and others. There was a 28 per cent. response rate, which is not unusual for such studies. The findings show no clear-cut preference between an in-house facility and people making their own child care arrangements using vouchers, although the former was marginally preferred.

The Commission has already made known its view in terms of its responsibility to House staff. It has said that, if a viable scheme for child care help can be devised, it would want it to go ahead. As a good employer, the Commission is aware of the arguments for assistance with child care. I know that many House staff make intricate and often expensive arrangements to have their children cared for, as was shown in evidence taken by the Select Committee on Employment in June 1994, where a number of hon. Members and House staff from various Departments gave detailed and clear evidence about the arrangements that they had to make. Any scheme would undoubtedly help in the recruitment and retention of staff. No less important, the introduction of a child care scheme would also firmly underline the House's commitment to a policy of equal opportunity.

In deciding its policy, the Commission needs to take account of the practical possibilities and the cost. An in-house nursery, assuming that we could find suitable space for it in the near future, would be expensive both to the House and to parents, and might not provide value for money. For example, if parents received a 50 per cent. subsidy, in line with civil service practice, parental contributions could still be as high as £75 per child per week. A joint venture scheme would involve similar costs per child. It would also be hard to predict the number of places needed. Finding a suitable location will undoubtedly be a problem, as the Commission's discussions with the relevant Committee have illustrated.

There are other drawbacks to an in-house or joint venture scheme. Opening hours would have to be either very long, adding to the cost, or unsuitable for parents who work late hours. In some cases, young children would have to be brought to Westminster by public transport in the rush hour. The demand in recesses would be difficult to predict. On-site facilities, however, would benefit some staff and could be opened to other groups who work in the building and are covered by the survey. such as the police, postal staff and press. There is also value in the House setting an example to employers in the provision of a workplace nursery. We might, however, be able to help more people at lower cost through a voucher scheme, which could also cover hon. Members' staff who work in the constituencies. We have received representations on that point.

The Commission wishes the matter to be resolved as it has been under discussion for an unreasonably long time. We look to hon. Members for their views on whether a workplace nursery or a voucher system is preferable, on whether vouchers represent an interim solution until the provision of on-site facilities, and on any other consideration that we should bear in mind before reaching a decision.

6.12 pm
Ms Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

This debate on the provision of child care in the House of Commons and on the provision of such a facility generally has both a symbolic and practical importance. By the mid-1980s, 24 per cent. of women with children under the age of five were working; by 1991, however, 45 per cent. of such women were at work. There is a national child care gap of 400,000 places.

As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, the House of Commons should set an example. Both business and industry increasingly recognise the need for child care provision and its importance to working mothers and fathers—and I stress fathers. I was speaking earlier to a Conservative Member who said that he would have liked to be here for the debate but that he was looking after his little boy and there was no child care provision. Obviously, therefore, some hon. Members need such provision and they are not necessarily women.

Fifteen years ago, long before I came to this House, I raised the issue with an hon. Member and was told that the House of Commons did not need child care facilities because there were not many women Members. He said that most of them were past child-bearing age, so the problem did not exist. I pointed out there and then that hundreds of women worked in the House of Commons as researchers, secretaries, librarians, catering workers, cleaning staff and ancillary workers. He looked very surprised. It is all too easy for hon. Members to think that they are the only people here who have needs. We are talking about many people who make the operation of this Chamber possible.

The Labour party is taking positive steps to encourage more women to come to this place and I understand that the Conservative party has a target of 50 per cent. women candidates for the next election. It is in the interests of the political parties and of democracy that we have more women Members of Parliament.

I and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mrs. Jackson) are the joint chairs of the parliamentary Labour party women's group. Since April 1992, it has considered child care and the attitude to children in the House and it has found some interesting facts. First, there is a family room in the House. When we asked whether it was possible for children to use the family room, we were told that it was for the wives of hon. Members and that children would disturb them.

Secondly, we found that there was a rifle range. I found it extraordinary that it was acceptable for the House to have a rifle range but not a creche. I and my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), who was the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson on women's issues, visited the rifle range and met the officers of the rifle club, who were somewhat alarmed at our asking to see it as they suspected that we were on our child care campaign. They assured us that one woman hon. Member was a member of the rifle club and they were a bit put out when we rightly guessed who it was—the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). We pointed out to the officers that we were not trying to stop their fun but trying to make the point that if it was all right to find room for people to take potshots at targets it should also be all right to find room for children.

My hon. Friends the Members for Peckham (Ms Harman) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) once tried to arrange for their children to visit them during a half-term holiday. They were told that they could not provide their own food and would have to pay for food that was provided. They were also told that there would be a charge for the room. Just trying to arrange to see their own children was a great effort.

I understand that, since 1989, Government Departments have been able to use existing budgets to subsidise child care. That is important in the House, where many staff are paid considerably less than hon. Members. We should think about the way in which costs would impact on people on lower pay. In 1992, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms Primarolo) visited the Ministry of Defence creche. In the culture of the MOD, many military people in their working life rarely have much contact with children. The fact that the MOD has a creche is to its credit. It is interesting to see buggies and wellington boots in the MOD foyer. If a creche can be provided in the MOD, I do not understand why it is impossible for us to have such a facility here. Clearly, the MOD venture is an unqualified success. Parliament should follow that example.

I believe that the report, which has been quoted extensively, shows that a majority support an in-house facility rather than vouchers. Having spoken to people in the House who have parental responsibilities, I suspect that an in-house facility is what they would most prefer. The Parliamentary Nursery Campaign Committee issued a statement today. Its press officer said that the survey showed that there was a clear demand from hon. Members and their staff and House of Commons workers. As has been said, the survey was carried out by an independent research company. The press officer said: A day nursery would be of considerable benefit to mothers and fathers who work in the mother of Parliaments. It would alleviate the isolation of children from their parents who work long hours. But it would also be in the public interest. A day nursery would help to reduce staff absenteeism and unnecessary staff turnover and consequent loss of expertise and experience. Given the growing demand on Members of Parliament this should help to improve their ability to represent the interests of their constituents". We have come a long way since 30 October 1979 when Mr. Patrick Jenkin, then a Secretary of State, said on the "Man Alive" programme on BBC television: If the good Lord had intended us to have equal rights to go out to work, He wouldn't have created man and woman. I am pleased to say that such statements are not heard so often now.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

They are heard on the Conservative side of the House.

Ms Corston

Perhaps the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South should set up a women's group, as we have.

Mrs. Currie

We have tried.

Ms Corston

I suppose it might not get many members.

I commend the House of Commons Commission for carrying out the survey and I pay tribute to hon. Members who have served on the Committee in the past and have made the survey a reality. I hope that we shall have an in-house creche of which we can be proud well before the next general election so that the increasing numbers of women who come here will know that the job is commensurate with a family life and so that women outside this place will be encouraged to think about a parliamentary career because they will see that they will not have to abandon their children.

6.21 pm
Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

I wish to caution the House against the suggestion being mooted that we should set up a creche within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. I am surprised that we are having this brief debate at all, bearing in mind that the Accommodation Committee has addressed this problem on four occasions. On each occasion it reached the decision that there should not be a creche within the Palace of Westminster. What is the time of the Accommodation Committee used for if its decisions are overridden, or attempted to be overridden, again and again by the House?

There are at least five reasons why I agree wholeheartedly with the Accommodation Committee's decisions. I have been in the House for a very long time and, over the years, I have learnt that room here is at a premium. For many years I had only a tiny office, and many hon. Members still have very poor accommodation. We should recognise that, even when the new building in Bridge street is finished, we shall still be in the same position, with enormous competition for the available room.

Our work load gets inexorably heavier and most hon. Members need much more space than ever before for their filing cabinets, computers and papers. When I first came to the House, only a few of us had an office at all. Many of us used to work at a desk in one of the Lobbies. Some hon. Members will remember those days. Now we have more burdens than we had then and we could not possibly manage with a desk in a corridor. Many of us still share rooms which are far too small. It is extraordinary to suggest that there is some wide open space that could be used for a creche or creches—that is what we will need.

Mrs. Currie

The same arguments were used about the establishment of the House of Commons gymnasium. It now has 600 members, including 60 hon. Members. It is an extremely useful and invaluable service for the entire community that works here. Is my hon. Friend recommending that it should be shut because we do not have enough space?

Dame Jill Knight

Of course not. What a stupid suggestion. There is a great deal of difference between the need of hon. Members who work long hours in this place to have exercise, and the extra-curricular activity of bringing in all their children. It is a totally different matter.

In spite of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), I shall develop my argument and point out that this is not only an issue for Members of Parliament. Library staff are constantly asking for more space, which they need, as do our secretaries and many other staff here. We do not have enough room for good working conditions now, and it is useless for my hon. Friend to suggest that we have so much room that space can be made available for many other purposes. I do not know where an extra room for a creche or creches would come from.

I love children, but I do not think that their place is here. We are talking not about older children but about babies and toddlers who would need many nurses and minders. Their presence here would be noisy, costly and continuous. Hon. Members must understand that we could not close the creche for the summer or Easter holidays. If we opened a creche, it would have to be open all the time that children need to be cared for.

The number of children who would have to be catered for would be far bigger than anyone has so far recognised. We are talking not only about the children of hon. Members. I am happy to see far more women Members than we have ever had before—

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East)


Dame Jill Knight

Well, there have never been as many women in the House as there are today. That is a good thing, and I hope that there will be more.

We are talking about the children of secretaries, Library staff, attendants, cleaners, kitchen staff and Post Office staff. There are many other offices, such as the Rediffusion office, the cook's office and many more. This morning I took the precaution of finding out how many female staff work in this place.

Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)

The hon. Lady mentioned the large number of staff, other than hon. Members, who work in the House and might wish to make use of this facility. Does she accept that many of those staff work during the recesses as well?

Dame Jill Knight

That is exactly my point. The hon. Lady must understand that the recesses are used for intensive work in the Palace of Westminster. It would not be possible to close a creche during the summer months, so when would there be an opportunity to carry out all the necessary building work and refurbishment? To judge from what she said, the hon. Lady seems to recognise that, once open, a creche could not be closed simply because the House was not sitting.

Does the hon. Lady wish to come back on that point? Does she contest it? We are talking not about a creche for the days, weeks and months when the House sits, but about a permanent creche all year round.

Ms Anderson

I agree that we are talking about a permanent facility. My point was that there would be no need to close it during the recess, because plenty of people would still be using it. I do not see why a creche would have to be closed in order for building and refurbishment to be carried out in the rest of the Palace.

Dame Jill Knight

With the greatest respect, the hon. Lady has not been here very long, and probably has no idea how much work is done during the recess. I am making a perfectly relevant point.

Ms Anderson

The hon. Lady said that I am relatively inexperienced in respect of the House. She may not be aware that I worked in the House for almost 20 years as a secretary before I became a Member of Parliament, and therefore have a great deal of experience of its workings.

Dame Jill Knight

There is all the difference in the world between working as a secretary and working as a Member of Parliament.

Mrs. Currie

There is not a scrap of difference.

Dame Jill Knight

If my hon. Friend thinks that there is not a scrap of difference, why is she not a secretary rather than a Member of Parliament?

Mrs. Currie

Without my staff, who are absolutely marvellous and work very long hours, I could not be a Member of Parliament.

Dame Jill Knight

There have been times when my hon. Friend has wished to be a Member of another Parliament; perhaps she will eventually leave us to attain that goal.

My point, which I am sure that many hon. Members understand, is that we are talking not about a short-term facility which is open only when the House sits. We are talking about an extension of the House that would have to be available the whole year round.

I took the precaution of finding out how many female members of staff would be eligible to use creche facilities. I found that there are 1,395. Even if only half of them—it might be more, but I was unable to find out the exact number this morning—are of child-bearing age, there could be nearly 1,000 children to be cared for.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dame Jill Knight

I will always give way to the hon. Lady.

Mrs. Dunwoody

The hon. Lady has been extremely generous in giving way, and I apologise to her. As she knows, I have been here a long time. It has always struck me that, when the House wants to find accommodation, it will hire suitable buildings and go to considerable expense, as it has at Millbank and elsewhere, in order to provide suitable accommodation. The provision of a creche is long overdue, but it could be done. We face the hazard of wasting the assets of many women here because we do not provide something—the right to a creche for their children—that is regarded as absolutely elementary in most industrial units. We are being wasteful and fairly short-sighted.

Dame Jill Knight

In all fairness, if those women had not found it possible to make arrangements for their children, they would not be working here.

The House should carefully consider the number of children eligible for a place in a creche here. We should remember that we could have 1,000 children, babies and toddlers in this place.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

It would be pandemonium.

Dame Jill Knight

My hon. Friend said that it would be pandemonium, and he is probably absolutely right.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dame Jill Knight

This is the last time.

Dr. Jones

I take the hon. Lady's point that there might be a large number of children involved, but surely the purpose of having an independently conducted survey was to establish the demand. There is a demand, and it is one for which we should be able to cater.

Dame Jill Knight

I remind the hon. Lady that the Accommodation Committee, which knows far more about the matter than people outside, has examined the position at least three or four times, and decided that it will not back the idea of a creche in this place.

We are not talking only about the children of women Members of Parliament. We must recognise that there is such a thing as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, and there is no reason why male Members of Parliament could not claim to use the creche, which could mean 2,000 or more children here. I am making a serious point, and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) should not regard it as funny. Coping with 1,000 or 1,500 children in this place is a more serious matter—

Mrs. Currie


Dame Jill Knight

I am not giving way, even to my hon. Friend. I am making a serious point—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I do not allow private conversations. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) has the Floor, and if she does not want to allow interventions, other hon. Members must keep quiet.

Dame Jill Knight

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am cautioning the House— [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. My comment applies to all parties, including Front Benchers.

Dame Jill Knight

It is not a question of accommodating only a handful of children. We would be committed to making places available for about 1,500 toddlers and babies, which is a very serious matter.

I am also worried about the cost. It is all very well to say that we have made money available for this and that, but we must remember that it is taxpayers' money. People outside are paying for the things that we demand.

Mrs. Currie

This is a taxable benefit.

Dame Jill Knight

My hon. Friend says that we can tax but, whether or not people are taxed, the cost of providing facilities for so many children would be very great. First, there would be the of renting a prime site in the most prestigious area of the city of London. The creche or creches would have to be kept in excellent decorative order. I can just imagine the scandal if the media were to discover a crack in a wall or that the paint was not in good condition.

There would have to be an enormous amount of equipment such as sand pits, chairs, tables, potties, paddling pools, climbing frames, swings, seesaws, paints, toys, picture books and wendy houses. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) may think that that is funny. Perhaps she has not had the advantage of having children, as I have had. I know what it costs to have children catered for.

Dr. Jones

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dame Jill Knight

I was not referring to the hon. Lady.

Dr. Jones

I should like to answer that point.

Dame Jill Knight

I said that I would not give way again, and I meant it.

The facilities that would have to be made available here are not cheap. Facilities would also have to be made available for cooking food and for serving it. There would have to be beds, cots, high chairs and staff.

I do not know whether any of the hon. Members who have backed this proposition have made the slightest effort to work out the cost. I reckon that it is only fair, when we are spending taxpayers' money, to consider carefully the cost we are imposing. One thing for sure is that employees in this place would demand subsidised child care and would be neither able nor willing to pay the extremely high cost that would be demanded for it.

There are plenty of ways in which children can be cared for when one is a working mother. I strongly believe in systems whereby women who need to work, perhaps because they are lone parents, are given every help in having their children cared for in a nursery—but not in the House.

6.41 pm
Mrs. Diana Maddock (Christchurch)

I understand that we have had discussion, debate and campaigning on child care facilities in the House for about 25 years. In that time, there have been many good intentions, as well as quite a lot of opposition. I had not expected to see quite so much opposition today. A number of surveys and studies have been commissioned on how we might move forward on the issue. As far as I can see, in those 25 years we have hardly moved a step forward.

I had hoped that there would be consensus across the House on the issue. The past year has been the United Nations Year of the Family. There has been much discussion about how we can help and support families. There has been much cross-party consensus that good child care is part of that support, so I am especially disappointed to have heard comments today that seem to hark back to the old way of thinking—that we do not need to support families through child care.

We are talking about recreation facilities. I find that being able to be with my family is a bit of recreation, as other people go to the gym for recreation; it is not somewhere I go for recreation. Listening to the debate, I am reminded of the time some years ago when I was a councillor. I was branded as being of the loony left because I thought that it was important to have child care facilities, or at least to discuss them. Memories of that time came back to me today.

I hope that some of my points will answer criticisms made today. Child care is important for women to be able to fulfil their potential. It is important to families, and it is important that men and women are able to share in the responsibilities of looking after children. Outside this place, there is an increasing awareness among British companies that child care provision is good for business as well. Companies have realised that it is in their interests to keep their women employees once they have had children and to hold on to the skills of those employees.

A couple of years ago, the Institute of Personnel Management studied a company with about 2,000 employees. It discovered that it was giving away about £500,000 a year without even realising it. It was losing about 50 women a year who were leaving the company—solely, probably, because they were not getting child care at work. It was a problem. Further calculations showed the company that that was costing it about £10,000 a head. The position is not quite the same in the House.

There are various estimates of how many people work in the House. If we use the figure of 3,000, that makes the House a fair-sized business. It is not unreasonable to assume that we have here a similar loss of trained and experienced women who leave when they have children. There are women who work for Members of Parliament, in the Library service, in catering, in finance and in other parts of the House, who have valuable skills.

I know just how skilled many people here are. This week—the people involved were men—I have had to deal with the Public Bill Office. We could lose just as much as any company in the loss of women who work here. There is no doubt that it makes economic sense for us to provide child care assistance for people working in the House. I have not done the sums, but I cannot imagine that this place is so different from other businesses.

When I arrived here, I was somewhat surprised to find a gym and a shooting range, but no nursery or creche. To a certain extent, we have got our priorities wrong. I know that space is at a premium. We have heard a great deal again today about just what a premium it is. I know that things have improved, but I also realise that we all work in difficult conditions. There are four people in my office, and I am sure that that is true for other people here. More offices are being built and planned. Surely we should at least be planning space for creches and nurseries in those buildings.

We have a family room, which has also been mentioned this evening. I have not had the opportunity to use it, but I have been to have a look at it. I understand that children are allowed to use it at the moment. I am not sure whether, if there was a health and safety check on it, it would be considered absolutely suitable.

There are some sofas and a number of small tables which have extremely sharp corners. There are some books and one or two toys, which are not complete. There is a small room where the children can wash and perhaps hang clothes, but there is no lavatory and there is no nappy-changing facility. Perhaps we could start with some nappy-changing facilities, a playpen for small children and some more suitable games and toys, not only for young children, but for older children who are here as well.

Mrs. Currie

When I arrived in the House 12 years ago, there was no family room. I for one am very grateful that we got it. It is, however, worth pointing out to the hon. Lady that it is available only for Members of Parliament; members of staff cannot use it.

Mrs. Maddock

I am grateful for that intervention. I understand that point. However, we could improve the family room facilities fairly quickly.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

While the hon. Lady is busy sneering at the toys and other facilities available in the family room, she might bear in mind that it was the families of Members of Parliament who organised it, got it together and provided it. She might bear that in mind when she is so contemptuous.

Mrs. Maddock

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman thought that I was sneering; I was not. I was merely pointing out that I would like to see better facilities there. Perhaps we could help the people who have provided the family room to get facilities rather better than those at present. We have had quite a lot of surveys in the House. Perhaps we should ask people what else they would like to see in the family room.

The latest survey published in the long saga of trying to do something about child care facilities shows that more people would prefer to have in-house facilities than a child care voucher scheme. Despite that, because of the long history of inaction, we should do two things. We should try to set up a child care voucher scheme, such as the one operating in the other place, and we should allocate some space in our future plans for a nursery or creche on site. A lot of building is going on, especially around Westminster tube station, and we should do everything we can to say, "Here is the space; we will use it."

Vouchers are often a better option for many people, because they provide a bit more flexibility. I have a personal view about the best way in which to look after young children. I spent some time living in Sweden many years ago, where I was very conscious of the fact that children could become institutionalised from an early age. The provision of child care vouchers gives people the opportunity to have their children looked after in a family-type environment.

The scheme operating in the other place has been reasonably successful. I say to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) that in fact an enormous number of people have not been rushing to take up the vouchers. I tried to get the most recent figures. There are about 310 staff in the other place, and so far 17 have taken up the voucher scheme. If there are between four and five times that number of staff here, to start with, perhaps 100 people would try to take up the child care voucher scheme. Obviously, as Liberal Democrats, we would like the scheme to be even better value for money and child care vouchers to be tax free, but that is not part of the debate today.

Labour Members have talked about what their party was doing to get women into Parliament. I think that all the parties have discussed that with their women members. We certainly have. We discovered that one of the reasons why women found difficulty in becoming a Member of Parliament or even in getting involved in politics was that often they were the carers, not only of children but of older people. We are obviously discussing an important point if we are serious about wanting more hon. Members in the House.

Dame Jill Knight

I am following what the hon. Lady is saying. Is she saying that we want not only a creche but some facilities for older people as well?

Mrs. Maddock

When I made the point about older children, I was talking about our family room.

Dame Jill Knight

Just a moment ago, the hon. Lady mentioned that women looked after young people and were carers for elderly people as well. I am trying to get clear what she is asking for.

Mrs. Maddock

Sorry: it did not occur to me that the hon. Lady was referring to that. I was merely pointing out that women care for other people too, but it is irrelevant to the argument today.

Providing child care facilities for employees of the House is very important. It is important that we set an example to other people by being good employers. However, many people outside the House are ahead of the game. Even if we do not think that the provision of child care facilities is a good idea, when considering it from a purely self-interested economic point of view, it would be worth our while. That has been proved by studies in the business world. We are a business here, whether we like it or not.

We have procrastinated for far too long. I hope that, after today's debate, we will take some action, rather than having to come back again in another year to ask if we have conducted another survey and what we are to do about it. It is time we did something, and took some action.

6.52 pm
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

In this debate, we should differentiate clearly between the idea of an in-house creche and that of providing vouchers. What seems to have been debated tonight is the provision of an in-house creche, which, in my view, would be mere feminist tokenism. I have listened carefully to the hon. Members for Bristol, East (Ms Corston), for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) and for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson). All of them are talking about the wonderful tokenism. Is it really sensible to expect women to drag very young children and infants across London, through the rush hour, to central London to a creche or child care facility here? It is wildly inappropriate to think of any such thing.

Then, take that argument—

Ms Corston

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Arnold

No, not for the moment. Take that argument a little further and listen to what the hon. Member for Christchurch said about the creches that she saw in Sweden and her concerns about institutionalisation of the children concerned. I know that it is not the Liberal Democrats' practice to carry forward their own logic. They did not with the carbon tax as they then opposed VAT on fuel. I ask the hon. Lady to take forward her logic. The place to bring up young people, especially infants, is in the home with their mothers.

Mrs. Maddock

If the hon. Gentleman had listened carefully, he would have heard me propose two things—that we had a creche here and that we provided child care vouchers. It was precisely because I agreed with many of the points that the hon. Gentleman has made that I was talking of my experience in Sweden. Providing both gives the parent a choice. Parents can decide where they want their child to be and what is most convenient for them.

Mr. Arnold

The hon. Lady outlined the disadvantages of bringing up very young children throughout the day in creches. So, let us not be under any illusion. Let us consider where that creche would be in Westminster. Let us look at our facilities. Mention was made of the rifle range. I wonder whether hon. Members have been down to the rifle range and seen it in the cellars of this place without natural light. Should youngsters be brought up in such Dickensian surroundings without natural light? That is a fatuous suggestion.

Let us look further into the proposal to consider whether the facilities would be provided in the outbuildings or even outside the parliamentary estate. Committees of the House considered precisely that and came up with a cost liability of £234,000 to the taxpayer if we were to advance down that line. That was for only six children—admittedly, over a five-year period. Hon. Ladies on the Opposition Benches are talking not about children, but about many hundreds of children. Have they begun to address not only the impact on the development of the children concerned, but the cost to the British taxpayer of their proposals?

One of the hon. Ladies on the Opposition Benches said that she had been a councillor and had been involved in such matters. I should have thought that the hon. Ladies coming here from the weird and wonderful Labour councils would have looked at some of the weird and wonderful projects that they had carried out at vast expense to the council tax payer. The talk of an in-house creche in this ancient building in Westminster has more to do with posturing and posing for photo opportunities than much else. I can think only of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman), who seems to have made that kind of photo opportunity into an art form.

Ms Corston

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Ministry of Defence creche in Northumberland avenue is extremely successful and well supported? Clearly, staff in the Ministry of Defence—both men and women—feel that it is perfectly possible to take their children to that creche without it creating any problem whatever. Is he also aware that although nobody has ever suggested that the rifle range be turned into a creche, that range is surely symbolic of the priorities of the House of Commons?

Mr. Arnold

The hon. Lady refers to a creche in the Ministry of Defence. If I believed that some of the hon. Ladies of the Labour party would submit their children to the proper, disciplined instruction that is to be found in the armed services, I might even favour the idea. But that is not what they are suggesting. They would bring in their weird and wonderful approach to child rearing, with all its disastrous consequences.

What about the demand for child care? We should look at it properly. Indeed, it was looked at properly. The Administration Committee and the House of Commons Commission commissioned a report to go into that matter, and we have been able to consider that report in quite some detail tonight. Incidentally, what was the expense of that report? I asked the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)—who, as a leading member of the Liberal Democrats, believes in open government—the cost of that report. His answer was that it was confidential and that he could not give that information to an hon. Member in this House. I must say that, when it comes to cost, there seems to be an extraordinary approach to matters such as the one before us.

What did that report show? If the cost to parents were £150 per week, out of all the Members of Parliament, Members' staff and staff of the House, 38 only would take up the use of such provision and only 18 of them would do so immediately. Even if the price were only £75 a week to those people, the take-up would be 69 only.

The matter has been considered very carefully by the Administration Committee under the genial chairmanship of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin). It is no coincidence that, after many years of consideration of the matter, the Committee turned down the proposal not once, but twice. It was turned down unanimously by the Labour members of the Committee and by the lady members of that Committee. They turned down the proposal because they looked into the matter, used their judgment and then decided against it. The House should accept the judgment of that Committee and of those hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen.

Mr. Beith

I explained earlier that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) is attending a funeral in Scotland today. He would want me to point out that he moved a motion from the Chair, which was defeated by the Committee. As Chairman, he did not cast a vote on either of the occasions to which the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) referred.

Mr. Arnold

Therefore, we cannot know the hon. Gentleman's view of the matter. However, that does not alter the fact that no members of the Committee were in favour of the proposal. That point is worth bearing in mind.

The answer to the question whether we should give Members of Parliament vouchers for child care is a categorical no. The public already think that we are gravy-train merchants. If hon. Members had such vouchers, the public would think that we were once again helping ourselves.

It has been asked whether vouchers should be provided to the staff of Members of Parliament. They can already be provided as part of the office allowance, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said. I wonder how many hon. Ladies on the Opposition Benches can stand up, put their allowances where their mouths are, and say that they have already made that provision for their staff.

With regard to the staff of the Palace of Westminster, in respect of their other pursuits and duties in this place, there is plenty of merit in a child care voucher system. However, that should be considered within the global employment package of the staff concerned. We should consider who are the most relevant and who are the least relevant. Any enlightened employer would make that consideration.

We should be under no illusions: with widespread eligibility, many hundreds and possibly thousands—as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) said—would apply for vouchers. As usual, the poor infantryman—the taxpayer—would have to pick up the bill for the wild enthusiasms of the feminists in this place.

7.2 pm

Mr. George Mudie (Leeds, East)

I thank the Leader of the House for finding time for this debate. It has been long awaited and very gratefully received. It is about time that the issues were aired.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight). Although I did not agree with a word she said, I admired her courage and honesty. I sit on the Accommodation and Works Committee with her—at least, I have had that pleasure for the past year or so; the membership keeps changing and I am not sure whether she is still a member of that Committee. At least she is honest and open enough to come to the Chamber to tell us what persuaded her to support the decision of that Committee. I point out to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that the decision was not taken unanimously. However, at least the hon. Member for Edgbaston expressed the honesty of her convictions.

The House sometimes surprises us. Sometimes its generosity catches one's breath, but sometimes its meanness does the same. This is one of the latter occasions. When we discuss this issue, hon. Members may say in self-defence, "Well, I have survived for 20 years in this place, so I don't see that it's necessary." That view may be a reflection of the fact that there are so few women in this place.

One can recount all sorts of reasons why the provision is unnecessary. However, I simply cannot understand why so many bars, a shooting range, a gentleman's hairdresser or a gym are necessary, but child care provision for the children of the staff—and for Members' children, if we wish—is not.

In response to the questionnaire, only 12 per cent. of hon. Members—52—showed an interest in the proposal. Hon. Members are not pressing for the proposal. They do not seem to be anxious about it. There is not a majority in favour of it. However, the staff have expressed a very serious interest in the proposal.

It is not simply a question of, "I want". More than 200 members of staff who replied to the questionnaire said that they were willing to contribute up to £50 a week for child care. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) said that they would not be so keen to contribute if they had to pay £150. He should wander along the Corridor into the Tea Room and have a nice intimate talk with the Tea Room staff. He should find out how much money—

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mudie

No, I will not give way. Many hon. Members wish to participate and the debate has a fixed time limit.

The hon. Member for Gravesham should find out how much those dedicated staff earn. That is the approach that we should take. We are not talking about a perk for Members. Members of Parliament are not pressing for it. The proposal should be the response of an enlightened modern employer.

From the moment hon. Members walk through the front door of this building, we are cosseted by first-class staff—the catering staff, the messengers, the cleaning staff and the Library staff. Wherever we go, we receive first-class treatment from the staff. However, we never step back and see them as individuals raising families, with all the problems that children create. So long as they are there and at our beck and call, fine; we do not care what they are paid and we do not care about their problems. That is what it is all about.

More than 800 members of staff responded to the questionnaire and said that they were interested in the proposal as they had a need. What is so offensive about the Administration Committee's report is that it was aware of those details, but the Committee voted four-nil to pay no attention to that request.

While all that was happening, the hon. Member for Gravesham may be aware that the Government sent out a document entitled, "The Best of Both Worlds". The views in that document are not those of loony left councils. The Government made space in that publication to say what Leicester county council is doing in respect of day care nurseries. The document referred to the experience of the Midland bank and American Express, and said that there should be more of it and that that was best practice. However, when it comes to the staff of this building, we do not care. They are here simply for our convenience.

Mrs. Currie

I wish to associate myself with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the excellent staff in this place. I invite him to ponder the fact that almost the first action of the new Republican House of Representatives in the United States was to decide to remove from itself all the special privileges that exempted it from employment laws in the rest of the country. In doing that, it asserted that it was a normal place of employment.

Mr. Mudie

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention as it gave me time to calm down. I would urge the approach described by the hon. Lady on the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed ended by asking us for our views. He wanted to know what we thought should be done. The first thing that the Commission should do is to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and his colleagues that one priority is not enough when one is doing a job: more than one priority can be handled. It is not good enough for the Accommodation and Works Committee to say that its priority is that every hon. Member should have an office to himself or herself and, until that is settled, it will not do anything else.

The sting is in the tail if we listen closely to the hon. Member for Edgbaston. The Accommodation and Works Committee's priority takes us to the end of the century. Once that objective is reached, we know what will happen. Members' allowances will mean that there will be more staff in the House. It is no longer sufficient to have one secretary's desk; one needs one or, possibly, two researchers' desks as well.

The dinosaurs in this building always have an excuse. It would be better, if the dinosaurs will not give way, to consider the capital works programme on the Floor of the House. All the money is not being spent on Members and their secretaries—far from it. Some very interesting money is being spent. I shall spare some blushes in the Chamber and in the building by not going into detail. Details would be—[Interruption.] I shall give one example.

Why do we intend to spend a vast amount of public money moving the gentlemen's hairdresser from one side of the corridor to the other? Have hon. Members ever seen a queue in that barber's shop? If they have, they are at the wrong end of the building. The man is feared. I have parliamentary privilege, I hope. He is feared. I shall never go to him for a haircut—I have not gone to him for a haircut. We are going to spend that money when we say that we cannot find money for a nursery. We are going to build a plush new hairdressing salon—it is not even going to be unisex; it will be a gentlemen's salon—on the other side of the corridor.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Is that in the building programme?

Mr. Mudie

Yes, it is in the building programme.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed should look quietly at the building programme. He will find, as I have found, that there is sufficient brass in the budget to build more than one day nursery. I should like the right hon. Gentleman also to tell the Accommodation and Works Committee that it is not good enough to wait until the end of the century for the new building to be completed.

We want, either in the parliamentary estate or reasonably close to the building, suitable day care facilities such as those which we are urging private employers to provide. We should end the intolerable situation in which a girl in our Tea Room receives no child care vouchers, whereas a girl along the corridor in the other House receives child care vouchers. It is intolerable that staff in the Palace should be treated differently. The hon. Member for Edgbaston fears that 2,000 people will come out of the woodwork and demand such facilities. Child care vouchers would meet that demand without the need to find another building.

As a modern employer approaching the 21st century, we need day care facilities on the premises, that is, on the estate or nearby. If that would take more than 18 months, the Commission should consider awarding vouchers to staff and Members. I would even settle for staff being awarded vouchers. If great cost were involved, the staff should have precedence. Staff should be paid child care vouchers equal to if not more than what is offered along the corridor. I would even shame the other place into raising the value of its vouchers, because the level is too low now. That would immediately assist the first-class staff who look after us. We should reciprocate.

7.13 pm
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Time is precious. I know that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) wishes to respond to this good-natured debate. I fear that I might incur the wrath of Opposition ladies by saying what I am about to say—it might be a high-risk strategy—but I hope that what I say will be reasonable. I have just a few observations which lead me to believe that setting up a creche would be not an enlightened move, as the hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) suggests, but a regressive step.

The hon. Member for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) said that the House should set an example. Indeed it should. It should set an example by not having a creche within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster or immediately nearby, as hon. Members have suggested. The position from which I start is not the jibe which some might level at me that a woman's place is in the home. That is not my view at all. I want as many women as possible to be active in the labour market and at work.

By and large, it should principally be up to the individual family unit to decide how to afford the care of children, what arrangements should be made and how it should be provided. In essence, behind this matter is the principle that the state should pay and that the state should subsidise women in work for the care of children. I find that philosophically objectionable, by and large, except in respect of women Members of Parliament, to whom I shall return in a moment. This matter, in effect, is a plea for a job subsidy.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Why is it so terrible for the state to subsidise families but well and fine for the state to subsidise the hon. Gentleman's house in Westminster?

Mr. Duncan

One might have expected such a comment from the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). I am sorry that it is not in the spirit of the debate from which she has largely been absent.

The argument about the House of Commons not having space is not significant. If space is needed, it can always be found. The point about which I feel strongly is that it would be in the wrong place. The place where one needs child care is near one's residence, not one's place of work. It would be inappropriate to have a large creche in or near the Palace of Westminster, to which mothers—or fathers—have to bring their children, perhaps across London, at very peculiar hours because of the nature of the work patterns of this place. It is far better to have child care premises close to where the mother, father or parents live.

Mrs. Currie

Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Mr. Duncan

I can probably predict what the hon. Lady is going to say, but I will take the risk of giving way to her.

Mrs. Currie

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his courtesy. As both he and I passionately believe in parental choice, is not the matter of where children may be looked after a matter for the parents? Some of us would take different decisions. At the moment, the problem which faces many such parents is that there is a lack of such provision, and the proposal that we are discussing tonight would improve it.

Mr. Duncan

I am grateful for what the hon. Lady says, but I do not think that it is right—

Mrs. Currie

I am an hon. Friend.

Mr. Duncan

My hon. Friend, yes—even now. It is inappropriate for such a body to provide those facilities, although I have no objection to individuals being given the means to find such facilities for themselves. What I principally object to is the collectivisation of child care around the place of work. It would turn us into an Orwellian body of which I do not approve.

There might be a good case for vouchers as part of a package of remuneration for those who work peculiar hours to care for their children and to assist the care of their children because they have to work peculiar hours. There is a good case for that for women Members of Parliament. The force of biology, whereby they are mothers and have the principal care of children, is a severe block on their ability to be Members of Parliament. I should like to remove as many barriers as possible to women being Members of Parliament simply because they are the ones who bear children. However, the way to do that is not to provide a central facility in or around the House of Commons or the Palace of Westminster; it is to give them, because of their peculiar circumstances, an allowance, much as hon. Members who live outside London are given one within our package of remuneration as Members of Parliament, for a second home or for travel to our constituencies.

It is the institutionalisation around the place of work for child care to which I philosophically object. It is far better for parents to be given the means and the opportunity to choose for themselves the way in which they care for their children. In the words of someone who brought up twins with no help from the state, I say to the proposal, "No, no, no."

7.19 pm
Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

When I hear the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) talk about the collectivisation of child care and the institutionalisation of work I wonder how many workplace nurseries he has visited.

It is important that we have had this debate, although Thursday evening may not have been the ideal time for it. Nevertheless, it has been a long time coming and it is good that the House has had the opportunity to debate the issue, which is important to Members of the House and even more so to the staff of the House and the staff whom Members employ. It is also right that people outside the House should see that we as Members of Parliament recognise the importance of child care provision in general.

The contributions to the debate—most of them from Opposition Members, regrettably—have been constructive in terms of the improvements in child care that not only the House of Commons, but women and men in the country as a whole, need. I have recently been appointed to the House of Commons Commission, so tonight I wanted mainly to listen to what others said. However, I shall make a few comments of my own, although after the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) I thought that other contributions might be superfluous. My hon. Friend said forcefully what many Opposition Members believe. I hope that Conservative Members realise that there are male Members of Parliament who advocate child care facilities too. It is not only what the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) abusively called the token feminists who are in favour of such improvements.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

As a male Member of Parliament, I strongly endorse what other Opposition Members have said. As the father of four children under eight, I would gladly swap one day in my life—a day of trying to look after them on a partnership basis with my wife, finding care for them and doing my job as a Member of Parliament—with any of the Conservative Members who have spoken against the proposals. If either the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) or the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) cares to take up my offer I shall meet him outside in the Lobby.

Mrs. Taylor

I have seen my hon. Friend in the morning walking through the streets of Pimlico with his young children, and a touching sight it is. I know that he takes his responsibilities seriously, and I hope that many other hon. Members do so too.

We had hoped that there would be a degree of consensus in the House about the case for making progress following the debate, but the speeches that we have heard have been a mixture of constructive suggestions from most people and staggering comments from a couple of Conservative Members, who do not seem to have taken on board any of the arguments, or the ideas, beliefs and needs that emerged clearly from the survey.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) complained that it might be noisy if children were allowed into the House of Commons, but anyone who has sat through some of our debates must put that objection to one side. But I have one point of agreement with the hon. Lady, in that she proved that there could be a considerable demand for the facilities in question.

The hon. Member for Gravesham wanted to draw attention to the problems that women may have—he said women, but fathers could have the same difficulties—dragging young children across London to a creche. He should consider the difficulties that many people have dragging children across cities to find child care facilities simply because there are not enough of them.

Dame Jill Knight

The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) has always been immensely careful in all the jobs that she has had. Has she yet had the opportunity to make an estimate of the money that we would have to find if large numbers of parents applied for places for their children?

Mrs. Taylor

I know that the hon. Lady is concerned about such matters, and I suggest that she looks at some of the estimates in the survey that Opposition Members have mentioned. She should also consider the costs that many employers have because of absenteeism when their employees take time off work to look after their children, and because employees have to change their occupations, thereby increasing staff turnover, because there is no adequate child care provision.

When I found out that the debate was to take place I was not sure whether I should declare an interest, because I have two children, one of whom was born while I was a Member of Parliament—although, conveniently, that happened in the summer recess in 1982. For me, as a northern Member who is not based in London, child care facilities in London are not especially pertinent to what I consider to be my needs. Members who suggest that the case for a creche or other facilities has been made on the basis that more women would be attracted to becoming Members of Parliament are short sighted. Such provision might help, but it is certainly not the be all and end all for attracting more women Members. The issue is far more complex, as I am sure that my right hon. and hon. Friends know.

The decisions that have to be taken are important. Some hon. Members have suggested that there has been progress; others have doubted that. The family room in the House of Commons, which has existed since I entered the House in 1974, is sometimes used by children, but it is simply not suitable for young children; indeed, most of the facilities of the House are not suitable for them, as most Members realise.

The provision of child care facilities is important to Members, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East said, it is probably far more important to the staff of the House and the people whom we employ. We should do all that we can to ensure that provision is made, and made as effectively and as usefully as possible.

During business questions earlier today the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) said something in sweeping language that has been repeated by the hon. Members for Gravesham and for Rutland and Melton—that any child care facility should be near the parents' home, and that that should be the primary factor. It strikes me as strange that members of a party that claims to be the party of choice are telling people exactly what child care facilities parents should choose.

Mrs. Currie

It should be clear that there are Conservative Members, too, who feel as strongly as anyone in the House about the need to provide facilities. The figures given to us earlier about the number of women working in this place were inaccurate. It is true that 1,318 salary payments are made to female staff but there are also 596 women known to the personnel office who work for the Departments of the House. Of course there are also 62 women Members of Parliament. So we know of about 1,976, and that is a lot of women—including staff employed by Conservative Members—many of whom must have-small children.

Mrs. Taylor

The hon. Lady probably represents a wider spectrum of opinion within the Conservative party than do the other Conservative Members whom we have heard. Her comments are valid.

Time is running short. We, as employers of our own staff, and the House of Commons Commission which arranges for the employment of people in the House, have a responsibility not just to set an example but to do our best as employers. The points that I have made about absenteeism and staff turnover are economically valid as well as important in respect of acting as good employers. The options of vouchers and direct provision need not be mutually exclusive. Given the timetable difficulties associated with the provision of a creche, more progress could possibly be made in the meantime with vouchers. What suits one family's circumstances may not suit another's—that applies as much to hon. Members as to secretaries and Library staff. It would therefore be wrong to be too restrictive about the kind of help that might be provided.

The one thing that we should all agree is that there must be some change—some movement. No hon. Member has defended the anomalies that prevail now. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East referred to the people who work in the Tea Room of the House of Commons. One of them has a young child who will be four in March. Eighteen months ago, her counterparts in the House of Lords were given child care vouchers. Had she transferred to the House of Lords then she would by now have had 18 months' worth of vouchers. It is ridiculous to treat staff in one part of the building differently from those in another. We cannot allow that to continue.

There are many aspects to this problem. Provision for very young children is required. There is also the real problem of how to provide child care after school and in the school holidays. The hon. Member for Edgbaston proved to us that there is a demand, but her conclusions were quite wrong. Throughout the country there has been a growth in the number of school care clubs and holiday care clubs. I gather than in June hon. Members will have the opportunity to see at first hand what that means. It must represent the way forward.

Figures that I have show that one in five children between the ages of five and 10 are left alone during the school holidays. That is dangerous and it cannot be right. People live further than ever before from their families; grandparents are not always on the doorstep to help with care. There is thus a greater need than ever before for child care facilities.

It is important that any provision that is made be flexible. As I said before, what suits one family does not necessarily suit another. This has been a useful debate even if there has been no clear consensus. Most hon. Members have agreed that there should be some improvement in child care provision—that must be the way forward. It is important that the Commission considers our opinions but keeps matters as flexible as possible so that we can provide the right kind of care, not just for Members' children but for those of the staff of the House and of the staff whom we personally employ.

7.33 pm
Mr. Beith

With the leave of the House, I should like to thank hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. The Commission will want to consider their views carefully. If there was a consensus it may have been centred on the idea that voucher provision has a part to play, either as a step towards something else or by itself.

The figures that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) offered are way out of line with the advice that we have received. Our estimate of the number of those who might take up vouchers was only 82, and the numbers who might use a creche may be even smaller—so we are talking of figures of a very different order.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.