HC Deb 12 July 2000 vol 353 cc1026-32
Mr. Hammond

I beg to move amendment No. 45, in page 40, line 1, leave out subsection (8).

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 13, in page 40, line 6, leave out from "is" to end of line 9 and insert— 'any person, authority or agency (referred to in this Part as the Registrar) prescribed by the Secretary of State, and reference to the Registrar's area are references to England.'. No. 4, in page 40, line 20, leave out "regular contact with" and insert "proximity to".

Government amendment No. 68.

No. 5, in page 40, line 37, leave out "regular contact with" and insert "proximity to".

No. 7, in page 40, line 48, leave out from beginning to end of line 5 on page 41.

No. 14, in page 41, line 20, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 6, in page 41, line 31, leave out "regular contact with" and insert "proximity to".

No. 15, in page 41, line 44, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 16, in page 42, line 2, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 17, in page 42, line 25, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

Government amendments Nos. 69 to 71.

No. 18, in page 46, line 36, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 19, in page 46, line 41, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 20, in page 47, line 1, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 21, in page 47, line 6, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 22, in page 47, line 9, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 23, in page 47, line 12, leave out "the Chief Inspector" and insert— 'Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools in England'. No. 24, in page 47, line 15, leave out "Chief Inspector's" and insert "Registrar's".

No. 25, in page 47, line 21, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 26, in page 48, line 7, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 27, in page 48, line 13, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 28, in page 48, line 16, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 29, in page 48, line 35, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

No. 30, in page 48, line 37, leave out "Chief Inspector" and insert "Registrar".

Government amendment No. 72.

Mr. Hammond

I hope that all the Welsh Members present will not leave the Chamber, because the regulations that we are debating apply in both England and Wales, and there are some important issues to be addressed.

I should like, first, to deal with the Government amendments in this group—amendments Nos. 68, 69, 70 and 71—which were tabled to address issues raised by the Opposition in Committee. My notes say that I should express gratitude to the Government for doing that. However, as I have already done that several times today, I am beginning to wonder whether the Government should not be expressing gratitude to us for tidying up the sloppy drafting of their legislation for them. Either way, we have worked together to ensure that the Bill is tidier, more explicit and, we hope, better than when we started.

Amendment No. 45 seeks to delete clause 78(8). Clause 78 is a long and complex clause introducing a number of new sections into the Children Act 1989. The amendment would remove subsection (8) of the proposed new section 79A to the 1989 Act.

The proposed new section provides for the registration of child minders, who are defined by the Bill as people who look after children in their own homes—that is, the home of the person minding the children. It specifically excludes people who come to the parents' home to look after their children—in other words, nannies, babysitters and so on. So far so good—but on the basis that it is the intention not to interfere with what the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), described as certain informal arrangements, subsection (8) excludes any child minding between the hours of 6 pm and 2 am. Those hours are disregarded in determining whether or not a person is required to be registered as a child minder under the Bill.

I probed the matter in Committee and the Under-Secretary replied to the points that I raised. I am sorry that she is not here this evening. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who seems to be a multi-purpose Minister, practising joined-up government by dealing with child minding as well as Welsh affairs, will be well briefed on what the hon. Lady said in Committee.

I have just noticed what appears to be a misprint in the Bill, which refers to any time between 2 am and 6 pm I am pretty certain that the Bill should refer to any time between 6 pm and 2 am; even at this hour we still have our wits about us. The only reasoning that the hon. Lady was able to adduce in support of the decision to exclude child minding between the hours of 6 pm and 2 am was that she used to leave her children with a neighbour and pay her neighbour some pocket money as a reward. That is the informal arrangement that the Under-Secretary did not want to include within the scope of the Bill. How informal that arrangement was in terms of whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer benefited from the reward that was given is a subject for discussion on another day.

If a child is looked after between 9 am and 5 pm, that must be regulated child minding. The person who looks after the child has to be registered; the premises in which they do the looking after have to be inspected and they have to meet requirements governing the suitability of the premises and anyone who may be there—husbands, boy friends, lodgers or whoever. If a child is looked after in the same place between 6 pm and 2 am, however, the person doing the looking after is not required to be registered. The premises are not required to be inspected and there are no requirements as to the suitability of other people who may be on the premises.

I am not an expert on child abuse, but it is pretty much common sense that a child being looked after in someone else's home is likely to be at more risk during the evening than during the day. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but the evidence points to alcohol being a factor in the physical abuse of children. I would guess that the sort of people who might be undesirable to have around when young children are being looked after by a child minder are more likely to be present in the evening than during the day. I can see no justification beyond expediency for the exclusion that the Bill proposes.

2.15 am

I am not sure that I am entirely comfortable with the Bill's regime for regulating child minding. The question of exclusion of care in the parents' home strikes me as an anomaly, but I accept that practical difficulties mean that the line has to be drawn somewhere. However, regulations require some consistency, and proposed new section 79(8) must go. The message that it sends out is that places where middle-class parents who work conventional nine-to-five hours leave their children must be regulated, to reassure those parents. In contrast, parents who work evening shifts and who have to leave their children with child minders between 6 and 10 pm—

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

That is us.

Mr. Hammond

No, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. It is now 2.16 am. Under the Bill, we would fall within the regulated period of time. However, if the hon. Gentleman were to collect his child at 1.58 am, the person looking after the child would not be required to register as a child minder. That is absurd. Parents working shifts need people to look after their children in the evenings. They will find that those people are not required, under the Bill, to be registered and regulated.

That is a clear anomaly. It is based on nothing more substantial than the personal experience of the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment, who told the Committee that she used to leave her children with a neighbour—a revelation that made hon. Members in the Committee feel uncomfortable, regardless of party. The hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) had something to say about the proposal on behalf of parents working shifts.

The distinction is absurd and unacceptable. It rests on expediency alone and creates an unacceptably uneven playing field between children cared for at different times of day. It would mean that arrangements for children cared for by child minders at the times of most risk would be unregulated, whereas those governing children cared for in the mornings and afternoons would be regulated.

That would be highly unsatisfactory, and even the Under-Secretary was hard put it to defend it in Committee. I hope that the Minister has considered the matter and that he has some good news for us.

Finally, I assume that the Minister will correct the erroneous transposition of 2 am and 6 pm in the Bill before it proceeds to the Lords. I should be grateful if he would confirm that.

Dr. Brand

First, I wish to indicate the support of my party for the comments of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). The specific importance of treating child minding performed later in the day in the same way as that performed in daylight hours stems from the benefit payments and tax credits that may be available to working families. It seems iniquitous that registered child-minding facilities should be available during the day but not at night, when there is no requirement for child minders to be registered. The resulting unfairness will be hard on shift workers and those who work irregular hours.

I shall not speak to every one of our amendments, because there are rather a lot of them. The Minister will recognise our main amendment because it mirrors exactly a Government amendment that was brought forward in Committee in relation to the registration function in Wales. The initial amendment specified an education inspector for this part of the Bill. After a lot more discussion and consultation in the Principality, it was decided that it would be safer to have the flexibility of having a registrar or a registering authority rather than specifying a particular agency other than the Assembly.

It is too late in the day for us to rehearse a lot of the arguments. Many of my colleagues think that Ofsted is not the right agency for the regulation of child minding and day care—and not only because its track record as an agency suggests that it is not supportive of vulnerable establishments. Given the fear that Ofsted manages to engender in quite large schools, I wonder what effect it will have on vulnerable child minders. However, I will leave that aside.

There is an important philosophical issue here. I see child care and day care as a social care rather than an educational issue. One must be careful not to allow the educational umbrella to spread too wide. Having said that, we clearly lost that argument in the turf wars between the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment. One must accept that the Government are intent that Ofsted will carry out this very important work.

I accept that the Government have every right to do that. However, I have some problem as to whether they are wise to put that in the Bill. There is a very interesting example in amendment No. 72. In the past three weeks, the Government have felt it necessary to change in the Bill the title of the person carrying out a particular piece of work, presumably because the job title has changed in those three weeks. Does that now mean that that individual's job can never be retitled because primary legislation might be needed for him or her to carry on with the same work? If so, it is ridiculous.

I invite the Government to think again about whether it is sensible to tie themselves, in primary legislation, to one particular organisation and, indeed, one particular post. It would be extremely difficult. The only sanction that the Government would have if they did not get on with their chief inspector of schools—who may be excellent at inspecting schools but useless at regulating child minding and day care—is to sack the individual, rather than saying, "If we don't get it right, we will transfer your service over to another agency."

At times, we ask the Government to be too prescriptive in their Bills. Their response is that we should not tie their hands but give them the flexibility so that another round of primary legislation is not necessary if they need to change things by regulation. I invite the Government to give themselves the opportunity to revisit a decision that they have made today. I hope, for the sake of the children about whom we are talking, that they do not have to revisit their decision, but it would be a tremendous shame if that could not be done because of a lack of legislative time or parliamentary procedure.

Mr. Hanson

As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) acknowledged, the Government amendments were tabled in response to representations made to us in the Standing Committee. I hope that shows that we are a listening Government and that co-operation in Committee can serve a valuable and interesting function.

The hon. Gentleman was concerned about a possible misprint. My reading is correct. There is an explanation, and to save time, I shall write to him about the matter. I assure him that the Bill is correct, but, for clarity, I shall write to him.

The main thrust of the hon. Gentleman's amendment is that there should be regulation for child care at all hours, whether at home or elsewhere. The issue is simple; it boils down to whether the Government should deal with such matters, or whether parents should decide which of their friends or neighbours they leave their children with for the evening. Should that be a judgment for the Government or for parents?

As we made clear in Committee, the purpose of the exemption is to avoid the regulation of informal care arrangements. The Government understand that such care is most likely to be provided during the specified hours. Any reduction would only cause more informal arrangements to be caught within the remit of the regulations. I am sure that the Conservatives do not want more opportunities for regulation on matters such as child care. An important principle is involved.

The proposal to lift the exemption would bring within the scope of registration anyone who babysits in their own home in the evening for reward. We held significant discussions of that matter in Committee. It was emphasised that informal arrangements are outside regulation and the Government believe that parents should be responsible for them. Although we accept that there may be some concerns, it would be difficult to regulate such child care—we would be intruding on parents' private arrangements. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge may disagree with that. In essence, I reiterate the points made in Committee.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Dr. Brand) raised several important issues. There are differences between the arrangements in England and Wales.

Dr. Brand

Before the Minister deals with my amendment, will he address the issue of benefit payments to working parents for child care? Will he discuss that matter with his colleagues in other Departments? If he is saying that child care does not have to be provided by a registered child carer during the specified hours, is it possible for parents to claim tax benefits for unregistered child care? It is vital that we treat workers equally, irrespective of the time of day at which they work.

Mr. Hanson

I shall look into that matter and discuss it with my colleagues. The question is about parental choice at that time of the evening and whether we should intrude by introducing regulation to cover that time. The Government judged that we needed to draw a line and we have done so, as we explained in Committee. However, I shall respond to the hon. Gentleman when I have discussed the matter with the appropriate ministerial colleagues.

As the hon. Gentleman is aware there are differences between England and Wales on these matters; they were well rehearsed in detailed discussions in Committee. The amendment would certainly offer the possibility of removing responsibilities from Ofsted in England. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that, given Ofsted's track record on taking on new work, he need not be quite so anxious as he appears to be. It is appropriate that such a fundamental decision should be taken through secondary legislation. The matter is important; it is for the House to consider. That is why the provision is in the Bill. We have discussed the arrangements in detail.

Dr. Brand

Will the Minister give way?

2.30 am
Mr. Hanson

No, because I want to finish my point. We had considerable discussion in many sittings in Committee on the roles and responsibilities of Ofsted and on the position in Wales. The Government have made it clear that the Bill will give Ofsted the responsibility for the sector that we are discussing. The matter has been discussed and the changes to be made are a matter for secondary legislation in due course. I urge the hon. Gentleman to reflect on that and to take the opportunity to see how the provision operates. At some point, we can return to it in future.

Mr. Hammond

I was not sure to which amendment the Minister was speaking, but it was not to amendment No. 45.

I have now recovered my wits and the Minister has no need to write to me about the times. I see that the provision is framed in the negative, and I understand that the excluded hours are between 6 pm and 2 am.

I am disappointed that the Minister has not taken the opportunity to remove an illogicality from the Bill. My amendment offered one more lifeline to the Government to try to remove a banana skin and a provision that is likely to rebound on them in the not too distant future. He said that a line has to be drawn somewhere and that the Government were anxious not to impose additional regulation in respect of early-evening arrangements undertaken by child minders. Equally logically, however, he could have said that the Government had therefore decided that it was not appropriate for exactly the same child-minding arrangement to be regulated if it took place in the afternoon or in the morning.

The amendment was an attempt to resolve an obvious anomaly in the Bill, which had been identified and commented on by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee. It is clear that the Government do not wish to take the opportunity to resolve it, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 68, in page 40, line 34, leave out "and every prescribed person".

No. 69, in page 44, line 36, leave out "The regulations may make" and insert— 'Any regulations made under this section shall include'. No. 70, in page 44, line 36, leave out "for".

No. 71, in page 45, line 35, at end insert— '( ) Where an order has been so made, the registration authority shall, as soon as is reasonably practicable after the making of the order, notify the local authority in whose area the person concerned acts or acted as a child minder, or provides or provided day care, of the making of the order.'. No. 72, in page 52, line 26, leave out— 'the Chief Inspector of Schools' and insert— 'Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Education and Training'.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]

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