HC Deb 07 May 1998 vol 311 cc849-50
4. Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South)

What plans he has to involve employers in the development of the national child care strategy. [40036]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

We very much agree that contributions from employers can make a substantial difference to the provision of child care. In two or three weeks' time we shall issue a Green Paper, which will be mirrored in Scotland, setting out the detail of our proposals, building on the announcements that have been made on expenditure over the next five years in respect of the British Isles and underpinning our commitment to a collaborative approach to providing affordable, high-quality child care in every neighbourhood in the United Kingdom.

Miss Begg

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Last month, I visited a nursery in my constituency. As it is situated on the outskirts of a large industrial estate in Aberdeen, it depends for its clientele on the workers on that estate, particularly those who work for the oil companies. The people running the nursery felt that if only they could tap into the employers' good will and get some support from them, they could offer the child care that is so desperately needed by the work force at a much more affordable rate. I hope that my right hon. Friend will ensure that employers are aware that affordable child care not only benefits parents in that it allows them to return to work, but is good business as a vibrant business requires a happy work force in which employees feel that their children are being well cared for.

Mr. Blunkett

I agree entirely. Helping to balance family and work life contributes to our economy and the well-being of companies. The work that has been done by the Bank of Ireland, for example, has illustrated graphically the increased productivity, the retention of staff and the improvement in morale that can be achieved. I congratulate that company and public service organisations such as the Thanet healthcare NHS trust, which has made a specific effort to provide flexible, out-of-hours and daytime child care covering holidays and evenings in a way that shows great imagination and has helped to improve the quality and delivery of the service that it provides to the public.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

May I welcome the Government's commitment to integrating education and child care? I welcome many of their new initiatives, such as out-of-school clubs, summer schools and improvements in the child care disregard. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that the Government will never be considered to be a green Government just by the constant recycling of initiatives, claiming each time that they are new? In particular, does he accept that his announcement yesterday, which he claimed was a new one, of an additional £600 million, was nothing of the sort? The local education authorities already knew about the money and had already bid for it. More importantly, does he accept that the Under-Secretary of State made an identical announcement on 8 April?

Mr. Blunkett

I thought that Liberal Democrats welcoming all our policies was too good to be true on local election day. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is for or against the £6 million. It is £6 million, not £600 million. I wish it were £600 million; I would have announced it three times rather than twice. The £500,000 specifically to save the Pre-School Learning Alliance from closures was entirely new money, extremely welcomed by it and will enable it to continue its excellent work at local level.

Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's trail-blazing child care policies? Will he confirm that his departmental research shows that 90 per cent. of employers make no provision whatever for child care assistance? Are we sure that Departments and agencies are that good in this respect? Will he make certain that Departments and agencies become model employers and give a lead in policies on child care?

Mr. Blunkett

The analysis to which my right hon. Friend refers is correct. There is clearly a long way to go. Part of the development of the consultation on the proposed Green Paper will be in engaging all stakeholders and partners in ensuring that they make their contribution. I agree that Departments and agencies have a key role to play. From discussion with Cabinet colleagues, I know that forthcoming announcements will illustrate very positive departmental moves in just that direction.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Is the Secretary of State aware that many people who are employed in pre-school care of young children are now required to gain qualifications in order to be so employed? Very great financial burdens will be placed on pre-school groups, which can just about manage to pay for staff, if they have to fund from their own resources courses to enable staff to become qualified. Will he look at that difficulty and endeavour to grant aid for qualifications?

Mr. Blunkett

I am certainly very happy to look at that and to talk to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about the costs of establishing a framework in which training is a crucial part of ensuring that resources—available through, for instance, the working families tax credit from next year—can be applied to high-quality child care, and that the £1.2 million, for example, that my Department gives to the Pre-School Learning Alliance specifically for training enables it to provide accreditation and a foothold on what is becoming known as a climbing frame of qualifications, on which those who begin as volunteers develop child care provision and facilities that allow them to progress to more formalised training.

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