HC Deb 11 January 2001 vol 360 cc1231-3
10. Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

How many child care places have been provided in rural areas since May 1997. [143468]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge)

Statistics are not split between urban and rural areas. However, some 295,000 new places for 540,000 children have been created in England since May 1997, which, taking turnover into account, still adds new places for 350,000 children. A number of initiatives will particularly benefit children in rural areas; for instance, our expansion of nursery education, our new neighbourhood nursery scheme and our start-up funding for child minders.

Mr. Bradley

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and welcome the 1,300 new out-of-school and pre-school places provided last year and this year in Telford and the Wrekin. However, voice my concern at the lack of statistical breakdown between rural and urban communities. There are special difficulties in rural areas: a scarcity of registered child minders; additional difficulties of distance because of travel and transport, and their cost, between home, child minders—where they exist—and employment. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is crucial that those difficulties should not be allowed to undermine the success of the new deal and other Government initiatives? Can she give me some assurance that she will consider special measures to ensure that women, especially in rural communities, receive the same opportunities as women in urban communities?

Ms Hodge

I accept entirely my hon. Friend's comments about the specific problems facing rural communities. That is why we have done two things. We have introduced the start-up grant for child minders, who play an especially important role; by 2004, we hope to have places for 145,000 more children through child minders. Universal nursery education for three and four-year-olds will also have an impact on children in rural areas. However, I shall continue to explore new ways to ensure that we meet the needs of children and families in rural areas.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

As the Minister is a notable former Chairman of the Education Sub-Committee, will she take note of the recommendation in today's report of the Select Committee on Education and Employment that no child minder should be allowed to smack any child or no smoke in the presence of a child in their care? That recommendation received support from both sides of the House.

Instead of deciding the issue on the strength of a private opinion poll—as the hon. Lady, before Christmas, declared that she would do—will she allow the House to debate it and to make a decision on the strength of a free vote?

Ms Hodge

I welcome the full and important contribution made by the Select Committee to the debate on early years education and child care. We shall consider all the recommendations with great care.

On smacking and smoking, the issue is not whether a parent or child minder should be permitted to smack or smoke; it is whether the matter should be determined by the state or by parents in the privacy of their own home in negotiation with the child minder. Parents' rights take precedence over those of other people—including Members of Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman should think about how we would implement a law forbidding smacking and smoking in the privacy of the home. If he were to think about the implications of that in a court, he would realise that it would be wholly unenforceable and impracticable; it would be a denial of parents' rights. The right of parents to influence children is uppermost in our mind.