HC Deb 23 March 1998 vol 309 cc7-9
7. Mr. Fitzpatrick

If she will make a statement on measures relating to child care in the Government's new deal for lone parents. [34048]

Ms Harman

The new deal for lone parents is, for the first time, offering lone parents an opportunity to work. It is already available in eight areas of the country and it will be rolled out nationally to new claimants of income support next month. The new deal is backed by our national child care strategy, which includes substantial help with the cost of child care through the new child care tax credit that was announced in the Budget last week.

Mr. Fitzpatrick

I thank my right hon. Friend for that positive response. I recently had the opportunity to visit the Alpha Grove lone parents association on the Isle of Dogs in my constituency. It was very enthusiastic about the opportunities being offered under the new deal. Will she ensure maximum co-ordination between her Department and the Department for Education and Employment in introducing the new child care provisions so that lone parents can access them as soon as possible?

Ms Harman

I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment to ensure that we develop a national child care strategy that meets the needs of women for affordable, high-quality and accessible child care in all neighbourhoods. That is important not only for children's development, but particularly in helping lone parents into work. I know that the Benefits Agency—and the jobcentres—will work closely with voluntary organisations such as the Alpha Grove project to ensure that the new deal for lone parents serves the community.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Last week there seemed to be a bit of a dispute between the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Department of Social Security and the Treasury about the cost of child care credits. The Red Book allowed for £1 billion for the programme, but the IFS estimated that it could cost £4 billion, assuming that take-up rates are in line with present take-up rates for general benefits. The family credit take-up rate of 70 per cent., which is sometimes criticised by the Government, would not seem out of line with the cost of £4 billion What take-up rates have the Government allowed for in the child care credit assumptions? If their estimate is wrong and take-up is higher, will they guarantee that they have no intention of capping the amount that can be paid out?

Ms Harman

With new proposals such as this, we cannot simply refer to the take-up rates of existing benefits. The previous Government got into all sorts of problems when they grossly overestimated the take-up for child care allowance under the old family credit rules. Indeed, that is one of the reasons we have had to make a change and get rid of the child care allowance under family credit, introducing a proper new child care tax credit.

We do not think that the IFS figures are right. We think that the Treasury assumptions are right. The estimated cost of £250 million a year is based on expectations of demand and of the ability of the registered child care base to respond to that demand.

Ms Hewitt

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a comprehensive strategy must include time for parents to care for their children themselves, as well as nurseries and child minders? Does she further agree that the opportunities for part-time, as well as full-time, work under the new deal will enable many lone parents who so choose to combine earning a living and taking advantage of the working families tax credit with looking after their own school-age children?

Ms Harman

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those who have received the new deal for lone parents have warmly welcomed the fact that, so long as they can work 16 hours, which many can manage during a school week if their children are at school full time, they will get the top-up on their pay. Just as we will help people whose pay is depressed by ill health or disability, we will help those who can work only 16 hours or so to have decent take-home pay. What is more, we will help them with the costs of child care so they can be in work and make work pay.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

I want to reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Leicester, West (Ms Hewitt). Is the Secretary of State aware that a growing number of mothers feel insulted by the Government's apparent denigration of the contribution of women who choose to care for their children at home? She needs to emphasise strongly the point that she made in reply to the hon. Lady.

Will the Secretary of State repeat her assurance of co-ordination with the Department for Education and Employment? She might care to meet the group of women, working part time for a well-known national company, who have been told that, as a result of the Government signing the social chapter and other measures, it is no longer in the company's interest to employ them part time so they have the choice of being full-time mothers or full-time employees: a choice that they were not forced to face under a Conservative Government.

Ms Harman

I do not know what company the right hon. Lady is talking about, but if she wants to suggest a meeting, I shall be more than happy to consider it. I take exception to her suggestion that we appear to denigrate mothers who stay at home to look after their young children. Our proposals are simply a recognition of the fact that women are voting with their feet and going out to work. Nearly half the people in the work force are women and more than half the women with children under five—let alone those with children over school age—are working. The previous Government took no notice of that and did not support women in their choices.

We simply say that when women go out to work, instead of leaving them to struggle on their own to balance home and work responsibilities, we will help them with a flexible benefit system, advice and help regarding work, and proper child care. Mothers who stay at home will also receive the extra child benefit that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget last week.