HC Deb 11 November 1998 vol 319 cc372-4 3.35 pm
Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend local authority registers under the Children Act 1989 to cover nannies who look after children on domestic premises. I want to raise an issue of profound importance to many—indeed, perhaps most — hon. Members: child care. The hours in which the House operates mean that, like many hon. Members, I am constrained in the amount of time that I can spend with my children and I am dependent on good-quality and reliable child care. Every working parent has a right to reliable child care, and that is why I feel that it is imperative that existing legislation be extended to cover not only child minders but nannies and au pairs who look after children in the child's home.

The nanny profession is growing rapidly as the number of families with both parents working increases. A recent estimate puts the number of nannies at 100,000, and a survey has concluded that 60 per cent. of women who have an A-level or higher qualification choose to employ a nanny when they return to work after maternity leave. Nannies are no longer the preserve of an elite few in Britain but are a widespread phenomenon. Indeed, they are central to the whole issue of child care.

I welcome the Government's development of a national child care strategy and pay tribute to the role played by my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Education and Employment and the Department of Social Security. I especially welcome the consultation exercise launched earlier this year, which is due to report at the end of the year.

In the past two weeks, the Government have made some excellent announcements on the family, women and children, furthering the social policy agenda, but I believe that the idea of a child care strategy, and indeed of a policy framework that encourages women to return to work, is incomplete unless provision is made for the universal registration and regulation of all child carers, including nannies.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Taunton (Jackie Ballard), who raised this topic in an Adjournment debate and whose early-day motion gained 176 signatures from hon. Members of all parties. I acknowledge the contributions of my hon. Friends the Members for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) and for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). I want to single out the efforts of organisations such as Playpen, the Pre-school Learning Alliance and the Institute of Childcare and Social Education, all of which have campaigned for a register and made numerous representations in the consultation exercise.

The principal reason for a register is that there is no system for checking the suitability and history of nannies and au pairs. We do not, unfortunately, live in a world where characters like Mary Poppins can appear, as if by magic, with qualities perfectly attuned to the demands of the children under their care.

All the checks must be done by parents themselves, and even then there is no way of checking police records on potential carers. There are no mechanisms for nannies to be regularly inspected at work, to ensure that they are carrying out their duties properly. The onus is completely on the parent and, although that is good for parental choice, parents receive no support in making their choice; nor is there any safeguard against a mistake or oversight by a parent.

The lack of regulation also has implications for the tax credit system. Because nannies are not registered, their employers cannot claim child care tax credit, as do mothers who use other forms of child care. Again, a valuable part of the Government's social policy is undermined by the lack of registration.

It is not just parents and children who stand to gain from registration. The current system provides no safeguards to protect nannies from exploitation or mistreatment by their employers. A properly regulated system would ameliorate the situation.

The necessity for greater regulation has been made clear to all by the recent high-profile cases of harm coming to children while under the care of an unqualified carer. Louise Woodward had no qualifications to be a child carer. Whatever the dispute over the verdict in her case—and her constituency Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), still proclaims her innocence, as she does—the result was that a baby died while in her care and she was convicted. The Australian au pair, Louise Sullivan, is awaiting trial for murder of a baby who died while in her care. If they wished to, both Louise Woodward and Louise Sullivan could start work immediately as nannies in this country. Astonishing as that may sound, there is nothing to stop them doing so.

However, the problem is not confined to high-profile cases. Those of us who need nannies in our homes know the problems. My wife and I have advertised for nannies, interviewed them and taken up references. As with other jobs, the written references—what employers are prepared to put in writing—are completely different from what they are prepared to say verbally. The difference in the case of nannies is that employees are given responsibility for that which is most precious to parents.

Voluntary or private registers, although of benefit in providing some security, cannot be seen as the whole solution. The cost to parents of using such registers, and to nannies of entering themselves, can be preclusive. More importantly, there is no mechanism for such registers to be supervised by the Government or social services or to stop agencies simply operating as a profiteering database containing the names and addresses of nannies. Any sense of security gained from such registers may be false.

The minefield of private and voluntary registers is demonstrated by the experience of the Worldwide Nanny Register. It set up a nanny register with various back-up and support services for nannies and parents on a not-for-profit basis. However, it was forced to cease its operations because there was no compulsion on nannies to join and the register could not survive. The answer must be a properly supervised and publicly run register. The aim of everyone in the campaign is for a national register, managed and supervised by the Government. However, the creation of a national register may take some years and much finance to set up. In the meantime, a simple legislative measure is all that is needed to create registers at local level.

Part X of the Children's Act 1989 requires local authorities to keep registers of child minders and those who provide day care for children, which are open to consultation by the public, and empowers local authorities to make regular inspections of child carers at work. To get on to a register, a child minder must have two personal references, a medical reference, two social work inquiry checks and a police check. However, the Act specifically states that those employed by parents as nannies do not count as child minders and are not covered by the Act. My Bill would strike out the legislative exemption for nannies and extend the Act to cover them.

Last week, I joined other hon. Members and members of the Playpen Campaign in a meeting Baroness Jay, the new Minister for Women. She assured us that she sees quality child care as an issue of crucial importance. I feel confident that the question of regulation will be looked into when the consultation exercise comes to an end. As we were meeting my noble Friend, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health was making a statement in the House outlining the Government's plans for a national register of people considered unsuitable to work with children. That is another positive step forward and a register for nannies would surely be only one small stage further.

Thank you again, Madam Speaker, for allowing me to raise this important issue. I conclude by quoting Tricia Pritchard, chair of the Playpen Campaign, who says: There needs to be greater regulation of nanny agencies, including police checks and a requirement for a minimum standard of relevant qualifications, to make sure that parents can have peace of mind about their children's safety.

We all know how important it is to avoid bureaucratic over-regulation, but there is a crucial balance to be struck between regulation and safety. It is clear that, if security for parents and children and, indeed, nannies and au pairs, is to be guaranteed, the only possible course of action is to set up a national register.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Keith Vaz, Mr. David Taylor, Mr. Martin Salter, Jackie Ballard, Mrs. Helen Brinton, Ms Ruth Kelly, Caroline Flint, Ms Julie Morgan, Jenny Jones, Mr. Andrew Dismore, Mr. David Kidney, Mrs. Anne Campbell.