HL Deb 24 April 1989 vol 506 cc1053-7

Baroness Cox asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to ensure adequate pre-school and nursery provision for the care of children to enable mothers to return to work should they wish to do so.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government recognise the importance of enabling parents to balance family responsibilities with paid employment. We encourage the provision of child care facilities by providing tax reliefs for employers and by grant-aiding the voluntary sector which provides childcare and which undertakes partnership projects with employers.

Baroness Cox

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply which is most encouraging. It is so important to recruit more women into the workforce and to retain them there, especially in such professions as teaching and nursing where there are acute shortages. However, can my noble friend say what measures the Government are taking to ensure adequate quality of care for the young children concerned?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, local authorities have a duty through registration under the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948 to ensure that reasonable standards are maintained. People who are providing child care on a commercial basis have told the ministerial group on women's issues that they want to ensure that high standards are maintained by means of an expansion of provision. The group recognises the need for a voluntary accreditation scheme which would provide information about availability and which would also guarantee the quality of care.

Lord McNair

My Lords, will the noble Earl agree that the primary importance of such provision is not merely the liberating of a certain number of mums for the labour force, but also the preparation of children, especially those from less educationally-minded homes, for their impending entrance to proper schools? Further, will the Government bear in mind the importance of there being some quasi-educational element in the pre-school provision?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is, I believe, a mixture of both considerations. Certainly it is important to ensure that children are properly looked after; it is also important that when such children reach a reasonable age they should be given some education. That is done by nursery schools, classes or primary schools, as well as ordinary nurseries.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many mothers prefer to put their children in the care of childminders who operate near their homes? Therefore it is important that there should be a good childminder service. Further, can my noble friend say what the Government are doing, in co-operation with local authorities, to ensure that proper regulations—to which my noble friend just referred—are in force and that there is also good training for childminders so that a service of good quality is available both to children and to their parents throughout the country?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, there is a variety of different ways in which children can be looked after. I agree with my noble friend that if one has a childminder who operates in close proximity to the child's home, that can be of great benefit. Not all the people concerned are necessarily qualified, but some are. Local authorities take into account the facilities which a person can offer before that person is officially called a childminder.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, does the Minister recall that when the Government came to power in 1979 one of the first statements made by the Prime Minister was that nursery education would be available to everyone who wished to have it within a period of about six to seven years? As the Government have now been in power for 10 years, when does the noble Earl think that that aim is likely to be achieved?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, in 1979 there were fewer than 430,000 children attending a nursery school, class or primary school. That figure has now increased to 533,000, which is an increase of 25 per cent. I should tell the noble Lord that in 1979–80, the time to which he referred, £177 million was spent on nursery education. In 1989 –90 that figure has risen to £536 million. Therefore a great deal has been done in this respect.

Baroness David

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when the Prime Minister was Secretary of State for Education in 1972 she was aiming, by virtue of A Framework for Expansion, to provide 700,000 places in nursery schools, classes or primary schools within 10 years—that is, by 1982? However, we are still 200,000 places behind that figure. Can the Minister say what will happen about that shortage? Is the Minister further aware that the 24 authorities which produce the most places for children in nursery classes or nursery schools are all Labour authorities?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that was a neat little political point upon which I shall not comment. Of course there are targets which have to be raised and which we try to reach. Time will tell whether such targets can be reached. However, I must tell the noble Baroness that, taking all forms. of education care together, the participation rate for three to four year-olds is over 85 per cent.; indeed, the figure may even be higher. That figure places us near the top of the European league table, and not, as is so often claimed, nearer the bottom.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948 was not mentioned in the Children Bill? Further, can he say what will happen under the provisions of the Children Bill as regards both registration and inspection of nurseries, especially those which will be run by industry and commerce? Such nurseries will need help and advice as well as registration and inspection.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, local authorities already have a duty in respect of children in need. The Children Bill extends that provision. It imposes a duty where appropriate upon local authorities to provide day care services for children in need who are aged under five and who are not at school. It also gives them a power to provide services for children who are not in need. The local authorities will also have power to provide out-of-school and holiday play schemes.

The Government are introducing amendments to update and modernise the regulatory framework which is laid down under the provisions of the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948. The new legislation will ensure that reasonable standards are maintained in both private and voluntary facilities.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the Minister agree—I am sure that he does not—that in view of the high cost of good workplace nurseries (there is no way that they can be provided on the cheap) and the desirability of getting more women back into employment, it is reasonable that the cost should be shared among the Government, the employee and the company, and that the Government's contribution could well be by way of tax relief for women who take advantage of such schemes but who have to pay for them?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the Government do quite a bit in the sphere of tax relief for employers, but not necessarily for employees. Employees are taxed on benefits in kind. That means that those who pay tax pay only about £25 in tax for every £100 of child care that is provided. It would not be right to give a general tax relief for child care expenses. It would cost a great deal of money. At the moment it would cost about £350 million to give relief to parents who go out to work. The figure would be much larger if people were attracted back to work for the reasons that the noble Baroness has in mind.

Lord Seebohm

My Lords, the Minister has just said that under the Children Bill local authorities have a duty to provide pre-school teaching or to make other arrangements for children in need. How does one define need for a four year-old child; and how does one discover it?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, children in need are defined as those whose development will be adversely affected without intervention by the local authority.

Lord Peston

My Lords, will the Minister reconsider his answer on tax relief? Is he aware that until recently there was no suggestion that the provision of crèche facilities should be treated as imputed income for the working woman? The revenue has only recently decided that it is income and therefore taxable. It is therefore obvious that what the revenue has decided is a disincentive to women.

Is the Minister also aware that if support were given to women to enable them to return to work, there might be no cost to the Exchequer because those same women would be paying income tax in the ordinary way? Will the Minister reconsider his answer, because in terms of cost to the Exchequer he is almost certainly mistaken?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I feared that we might get on to the tax position, and I realised that the topic would be complicated. I hesitate further to complicate the issue. Child care facilities are a valuable benefit worth up to about £2,500 a year. It is not right to exempt such a benefit from the rule that income tax is payable on remuneration in kind as well as in cash. Employees are taxed on benefits in kind only when their salaries, including the value of the benefit, exceed £8,500 a year. Basic rate taxpayers pay only £25 for every £100 of child care provided free by their employer. Parents who do not receive that benefit in kind have to pay the whole cost of child care out of taxable income.

I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Peston. If one were to remove any tax charge on a person it would be much better for that person. It has its own form of incentives, but one cannot operate like that throughout the whole of life. One has to have some form of guidelines.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, is the Minister aware that that charge is especially penal for single parent families, in particular those on supplementary benefit, where that notional benefit in kind can take them into the tax bracket for the first time? It is a penal provision.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not believe that it is a penal provision unless one reaches the figure of £8,500 a year. If one has such an income, whether one is a single parent or a member of a two-parent family, it is not unreasonable that one should pay tax the same as everyone else.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, what are the Government doing to encourage employers to follow the example set by banks and provide parental leave to enable children to be looked after for prolonged periods? What are the Government doing about their own employees in that respect?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is up to all organisations to do what they think is appropriate for their employees. I have no doubt that where firms and companies believe that it is desirable to provide such facilities they will do so, and the Government have provided tax incentives for that. With regard to the Government, arrangements are made and they vary between departments and areas.

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