HC Deb 10 February 1998 vol 306 cc278-84

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

11.44 pm
Mrs. Jackie Ballard (Taunton)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter. I understand that the Government are committed to a national child care strategy, and I applaud that end. They have also said many times that the provision of child care is crucial to their welfare-to-work strategy. However, there is an urgent need to ensure that there are adequate resources to regulate and monitor child care standards and that parents can have access to information about the people to whom they are entrusting their precious children.

Many working parents juggle with a variety of child care providers, including friends and relatives, live-in nannies—who are no longer only the province of the very rich, but often the resource of the moderately well-off—after-school clubs, child minders, holiday play schemes, creches and nurseries. With that in mind, I hope that the Government will be persuaded to introduce a system of national registration for all child care workers regardless of the setting in which they work.

As I am sure the House knows, a reasonably thorough system for the registration of child minders is carried out by local authorities. However, child minders can move to other local authority areas and seek registration there without revealing any problems that may have occurred in their original local authority area. There is no way of checking unless they admit to having been registered elsewhere.

There are no registration procedures, even locally, for people who work as nannies in the child's home. That is to the detriment of all the parties concerned: the child, the parent and the person providing the child care. The child is being cared for by someone who will not have been subject to any police checks and who may not even have had any relevant training. Parents have no way of checking a prospective nanny's background, such as by contacting previous employers—unless the nanny divulges their names—or by checking for relevant criminal convictions. They can get no independent view of whether the person whom they are considering for looking after their child would be suitable. They have only the references that the nanny chooses to supply.

Nannies are left to negotiate whatever terms and conditions they can with prospective employers. There is often no limit to the hours of work or time on call expected. They are often exploited by employers because there is no legal framework or registration system that could help to protect their employment conditions or rights. Last year, the case of Louise Woodward showed the potential risks of asking a young, inexperienced woman to work long hours looking after two demanding young children. Surely that is a case—and there are many others—which shows that a fairly simple change in the law could significantly reduce the risk of further incidents of harm to young children.

A national registration system for child care workers would also help prevent unsuitable people from being able to move from one local authority area to another. If someone works at a children's home in one area and leaves after complaints, but is not convicted of any offence, there is often no way in which another local authority can be aware of it when considering whether to offer that person employment. A national registration scheme would allow people to be struck off in a manner similar to doctors if found guilty of professional misconduct.

Such a scheme could also help to increase the status of child care workers and give them recognition for the valuable role that they perform. On gaining a recognised qualification, people would apply to a national body for registration. The registration system could have a requirement for the individual to notify the body of any changes in his or her circumstances. There could also be a requirement for the individual to keep updated and take part in regular training. As the Secretary of State for Social Security said recently: Childcare is a fundamental part of Britain's infrastructure, on a par with transport or communications. The Professional Association of Nursery Nurses is totally in support of the registration of child care workers and so is the Playpen Nanny Registration campaign, which was launched last July in the wake of the Louise Woodward case. It tells me that, in opposition, the Labour party was also very supportive of the idea of a national child care registration scheme, so I hope that the Government will consider a scheme for national registration as it would significantly increase the protection offered to children cared for in a variety of settings and to the workers providing that care.

11.50 pm
Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

I must acknowledge the sincere concern of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard) about these matters. However, I wonder whether she is being a little too narrow in concentrating so much on nannies. As she acknowledges, we already have registration for child minders and nurseries, under the auspices of local authority licensing. Tragically, as we saw recently in the case of Alex Rae in Bolton, that form of registration affords little protection if the child minder and nursery owner do not choose to follow the local authority recommendations.

I also wonder exactly how nannies would be registered under the hon. Lady's proposals. It seems to be a complex issue. About 150,000 people are engaged in all sorts of child care, some in their own homes and some in local authority, voluntary and private settings. We also know that about 70 per cent. of those engaged in residential child care have no qualifications.

The hon. Lady said that she wanted a register to which people would apply on receipt of qualifications. If we had that sort of register, we would exclude hundreds of thousands of people who are already engaged in child care. I wonder whether that is the way forward.

A lot of work has been done on the subject. Roy Parker's report in 1990, "Safeguarding Standards", made a number of recommendations and the 1997 report of the General Social Care Council's information group also made a number of recommendations. What the reports have in common is that they both imply a register with different levels of registration because they recognise that there has to be a procedure for registering those with qualifications, but that there also has to be a process for ensuring that those already engaged in work obtain qualifications. The reports both recommend a multi-level register, where people could be registered when in employment, but where there would be a target for obtaining qualifications, so that registration was not only a safeguard, but was aimed at consciously driving up standards.

My one point of issue with the hon. Lady is that I believe that we need a comprehensive framework both to safeguard children and to drive up standards among those who work with children. To take action largely in respect of nannies, without having regard for the variety of all those who work in other settings, could be a short-term measure which was of limited value and ignored a considerable body of work carried out in this country. Although I support the concept of registration, my plea is that we should not rush in. We should go for a comprehensive framework and aim to drive up standards among those who do not have qualifications as well as to register those who already have qualifications.

11.54 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Paul Boateng)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard) on what I believe is her first Adjournment debate.

Mrs. Ballard


Mr. Boateng

She has indeed been fortunate to have secured two Adjournment debates in her short time in the House. I congratulate her on choosing, for her second Adjournment debate, a topic of importance. The question of how we train and support child care workers is one that raises issues that go to the heart of the nurturing of children and young people and the circumstances in which they are brought up.

The hon. Lady concentrated specifically on nursery nurses and nannies, which is an important matter, not least because it touches on people's own homes and the personal arrangements that they choose to make in respect of the upbringing of their children. I would submit that such factors put nannies in particular in a different category from the generality of child care workers, so the response is necessarily a different one.

The debate gives us the opportunity to highlight the considerable success of the Children Act 1989 in providing a proper regulatory mechanism for those who provide services for, or work with, babies and often with vulnerable young children. It also gives me an opportunity to signal to the House the way in which my hon. Friends in the Department for Education and Employment and I are taking forward the issue of rationalising and streamlining the regulation, inspection and enforcement of early-years provision. We have an opportunity to make a real difference through the interventions we make in lives of children and, in so doing, to add enormous value in terms of their capacity to benefit from education in later life. The child development and education aspects of this issue are obviously important.

About 100,000 child minders, 5,700 day nurseries, 16,500 playgroups, 2,500 out-of-school child care projects and 4,800 holiday play schemes are registered under part X of the 1989 Act. Regulation ensures that acceptable standards are in place for the safety of our youngest children and for the reassurance of their parents. The range of standards in the Act and its guidance are important when children are cared for on the premises of others, be those day nurseries, kindergartens, playgroups, pre-school or the homes of child minders. They ensure that children in such care are looked after by suitable people in suitable premises.

The legislation was not intended to cover those who care for babies and small children in the children's homes. There is a balance to be struck, as I suggested at the beginning of my remarks, between the rights of parents to make arrangements for the care of their children in their homes and the safety needs of those children. To most parents, who often wish to call on informal care arrangements provided by members of their families, formal regulation would be an unacceptable intrusion. When parents ask the teenage child of a friend to help with babysitting, they do not expect the state to interfere in such arrangements.

The Act does not regulate carers such as nannies and au pairs. In such circumstances, it is vital for parents to check carefully all those whom they employ in their homes to care for their children. As parents, they must take on the responsibility of ensuring that the person employed to look after their children is fit and proper to undertake that most important of roles. No registration or regulation system can be a substitute for the care that a parent should take in making such decisions. However, we welcome the efforts of those, such as nanny agencies, who provide information so that parents can make an informed choice when they take the decisions that can be of such crucial importance to their children.

It is also important that parents should inform themselves of the qualities that they should seek in those who care for their children. The hon. Member for Taunton mentioned some of the agencies that make such information available to parents. We shall also consider how training opportunities for those acting as nannies and au pairs can be made more accessible. It is clearly desirable that such opportunities should be made available to people who choose to do such work so that they are better able to add value to the lives of the children for whom they care.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) referred to the practicalities of registration, and the hon. Member for Taunton will, I am sure, recognise that we must take those into account. It is not practical to register every type of child care of short duration. Indeed, creches run for less than two hours a day or supervised activities provided on fewer than six occasions a year are not currently required to be registered and it would not be practical to require the registration of such facilities.

However, that does not abrogate the parental responsibility to check that children are properly cared for in such facilities. If parents leave their child at a creche at a fete or a similar event, they have a duty to ensure that the arrangements for caring for their child are satisfactory. It is not the role of the state to intervene in parents' lives in such a way.

A case was recently put before the House by the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton) concerning a problem faced by the social services in Doncaster. As a result, the local social services department has developed a good practice guide for short-term facilities to ensure that they are safe and proper places in which to leave children. The hon. Member for Taunton has helped us with tonight's debate. We shall consider how such material might be disseminated and adopted more widely on the voluntary, good practice basis.

Similarly, it is a matter for the Department of Health and the Department of Trade and Industry how agencies that provide nannies for use in a domestic situation might best be helped to ensure that such nannies are the sort of people that we would want to work in our homes, looking after our children.

There are also important issues regarding the position of independent schools, the fact that they are taking care of progressively younger children, the role of social services departments in that regard, and the interface between social services departments and the Office for Standards in Education.

Obviously, we want closer co-operation between social services departments and education departments in relation to the early years. As a national child care strategy develops, we want arrangements to be made throughout Government that will protect and nurture the interests of children and their development while respecting the privacy of people's homes and the peculiarly personal relationship that will always exist between the employers of a nanny, an au pair or someone brought into the home to provide such services, and the child and parent.

I shall say one or two words in response to points raised by the hon. Member for Taunton and my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green about the future regulation of the social care sector. We have committed ourselves to the establishment of a general social care council. That is an important step forward, not least because it assumes responsibility for the development of professional standards in social care, and the link between the development of those standards and training.

Inevitably, there will be an impact on the regulation and discipline of workers in child care. However, it is important to understand that the way forward will not necessarily involve nannies or those working in that type of private domestic capacity. The arguments as to the appropriateness of registration will continue, even after the council is established.

Undoubtedly, the surest way of ensuring that we promote an agenda that is about standards—about using every opportunity to improve the quality of child care available to our children in a number of ***settings—is to recognise the vital role in that regard of education and relevant training. Training should be geared to meeting the vocational needs of people seeking to enter this area of work. It should be firmly rooted in common sense and good practice and recognise the balances that must be achieved. We must ensure that a range of provision is available and that parents take informed choices.

The hon. Member for Taunton raises an important issue, to which the House will undoubtedly return from time to time. It is right that we should. I hope that the hon. Lady appreciates that, while we are not able to go as far as she wants regarding the registration of nannies, we recognise that it is an important issue. It must be monitored carefully and viewed within the wider context of child care provision.

It is important that, as we take this agenda forward, we ensure that the consultation process is open to a wider debate and a wide cross-section of views. It is also important that all those who have a stake in good-quality education and child care feel that they are in a position to influence the development of a regulatory system that meets the needs of the times in which we live—times in which people will increasingly look to order their lives by utilising a range of provision in this area.

Dr. Peter Brand (Isle of Wight)

Will the Minister also consider another group of vulnerable children who are not currently protected either by the Children Act 1989 or education legislation? The parents of those children are not in a position to exercise the judgment to which the Minister referred. Such children come to this country to learn about the British way of life and the English language and, at present, have no protection. I am very worried about some of the domestic placements that are made for those children.

Mr. Boateng

The question of au pairs should be considered.

Dr. Brand

With respect, I obviously did not make myself clear. I am talking about foreign schoolchildren who attend language schools in this country and are placed with host families who are not vetted by any authority.

Mr. Boateng

That is another issue. There are signs that some people are seeking to exploit such children and their parents. However, that burden should not fall first and foremost on the British taxpayer and the state. It is important for any parent who seeks to make decisions about their children's education in a foreign country to take great care before launching their children into that country's education system. I do not believe that it is the primary responsibility of the state to take up the cudgels on behalf of such parents.

The state must ensure that there is transparency, accountability and proper regulation of a range of establishments in this country. We must also ensure that in this field—or, indeed, in any other—we do not abrogate the proper parental responsibility to take care and make sure that they are informed about the arrangements that they make for their children. If the hon. Gentleman suggests that we must assume responsibility for that area—[Interruption.] I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I am not persuaded.

We have an existing responsibility to will fulfil in terms of the development of our national child care policy. We must ensure that we have the appropriate range of safeguards in place. We shall meet that responsibility. The hon. Lady's debate tonight has opened the matter for discussion on the Floor of the House in a way that contributes towards an objective that I know we all share.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve midnight.