HC Deb 22 April 1998 vol 310 cc830-2

4.5 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Children Act 1989 to improve the registration and inspection procedures in nurseries by introducing stricter safety guidelines for registration and more frequent and unannounced inspections. I am grateful to the House for giving me the opportunity to highlight the issue of child care in pre-school nurseries. An increasing number of pre-school children are attending day nurseries as the Government provide more places. It is estimated that there are currently 5,700 such establishments.

I was elected to improve education and increase access to nursery care and education. The advantages of nursery provision in terms of improved education and in allowing parents to return to work have been well documented, and I welcome the Green Paper proposals. However, parents must feel confident about the care that their children will receive, especially when it is often the first time that parent and child are separated.

There is growing concern that, with the rapid expansion of early-days care, safety is being compromised in the rush to provide places. A recent BBC "Panorama" documentary entitled "Nursery Care on the Cheap" demonstrated some of the worst cases of failure of care. Inadequate supervision and poor facilities are putting children's lives in danger. My constituent Catriona Rae experienced the greatest of tragedies when on 8 July 1997 her 20-month-old son Alex drowned in a 20 ft by 10 ft ornamental fish pond at the Hilltop Bunnies nursery in Belmont, Lancashire. On the day that her son died, only one qualified member of staff was present instead of the legally required three, and one of the staff who was registered with social services had never worked at the nursery.

While the other children were playing, Alex wandered into an area of the nursery that was neither licensed nor fenced off and he was found dead in 8 in of water in the tarpaulin that covered the pond. He had gone unnoticed for at least 10 minutes. I have learned of other examples of nurseries throughout the country in which the standard of care and supervision has been shockingly deficient.

Part X of the Children Act 1989 sets out the framework for the registration and inspection of day nurseries and entrusts local authorities with carrying out those procedures. Guidance is offered to authorities in Department of Health circulars. That Department was responsible for administering the Children Act, but that responsibility was recently transferred to the Department for Education and Employment, as day nurseries are now being considered within the remit of early-years education.

In Department of Health circular LAC (93), the previous Government, in an attempt to increase the number of places in day nurseries, suggested that the guidelines governing registration should be relaxed. The circular acknowledges:

Guidance issued by the Department does not prescribe legally required standards for registration … registration should be granted unless a local authority is satisfied that the applicant is not fit to look after children. The circular permits nurseries to open after an initial inspection and sets a time limit for them to make any necessary changes before further action is taken, even if those nurseries are unsafe when they first accept children.

The circular was dated January 1993, and Alex Rae died in July 1997. It is evident from that that the current legislation is insufficient. Local authorities may choose to interpret the guidelines as they see fit, and the issuing of a circular can alter the entire interpretation of the Act.

The Bill would change the situation. I should like to see a system of national registration and qualification that is administered uniformly throughout all local authorities. Surely there should be national standards, with inspectors trained by the Health and Safety Executive.

Social services departments should have to follow legally binding procedures, with an initial inspection containing specific safety checks. All that must be adhered to before a nursery is allowed to open. Records should be published of all initial inspections, and registration should be granted only if the local authority is completely satisfied that every guideline has been followed.

The penalties for breach of the regulations should be increased. The Hilltop Bunnies nursery was fined just £4,000 for a breach of regulations. If the penalties were increased, it would encourage nurseries to adhere to safety regulations.

The Bill seeks to amend the system of inspection for nurseries. Surprisingly, day nurseries are not subject to the same number of inspections each year as facilities for other vulnerable people such as the mentally handicapped or the elderly. Social services departments are required to inspect nurseries only annually, and notice must be given beforehand. That gives nurseries time to prepare for the inspection which, inevitably, results in an inaccurate picture of the everyday running of the nursery. Nurseries have been known to draft in extra staff for those occasions, to meet the minimum staff-child ratios, and specific care is often taken to remove hazardous objects that might otherwise remain.

The Bill proposes to increase the minimum number of inspections to two in order to bring it into line with other caring establishments. After all, why should the safety of a child be less valued than that of a vulnerable adult? Social services departments should be required to visit the nurseries without prior warning, which would increase the incentive for nurseries to follow guidelines and to maintain the highest standards throughout the year.

The Bill proposes to make a few minor changes to the existing legislation, yet it would immediately ensure that children were safer in day care. I am grateful to the 112 hon. Members who have offered their support to early-day motion 848, which recognises the need for a fundamental review of the legislation in the light of the needless death of Alex Rae.

Since I tabled the Bill, the Government have announced the publication of a consultation document entitled, "Early Education and Day Care", which looks at the whole issue of child care in pre-school settings. I welcome that initiative and will be looking carefully at the proposals. I hope that my Bill will pave the way to improving safety in children's nurseries and will ensure that at least something positive comes from the tragic and needless death of my constituent, Alex Rae.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Lindsay Hoyle, Mr. Bill Olner, Mr. Frank Cook, Mrs. Llin Golding, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mrs. Helen Brinton, Ms Christine Russell, Ms Candy Atherton, Mrs. Linda Gilroy, Mr. Laurence Robertson, Mr. David Amess and Mr. David Chaytor.