HL Deb 08 November 1989 vol 512 cc812-9

212AZ Line 7, leave out ("eight") and insert ("eleven").

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I am glad to come to the assistance of the noble and learned Lord. I beg to move Amendment No. 212AZ. If it is convenient to the House, I shall speak at the same time to Amendments Nos. 212BZ to 212HZ, 371A, 371 C and 371 D. In general we welcome Amendment No. 212, but there is concern about the fixing at eight years the age at which the legislation is to be applied. There is also concern about the fees that are charged for registration and inspection.

Many of us have heard from organisations at local and national level. They are worried at the prospect of registration of care facilities only for children up to the age of eight years. Ideally they would wish to see the registration of all forms of child care up to the age of 16. As a second best, they consider that the minimum necessary to safeguard the well being of children is for the regulations to apply up to the age of 11 years.

At a meeting with some of the voluntary organisations I was told that there is no logic for attaching importance to the age of eight. It seems of more importance than logic, because logic is not the life of the law. It is fair to say that there are no good reasons for the eight-year barrier. Children between the ages of eight and 11 years have as great a need for care as children between the ages of five and seven. The point is well made that the eight-year barrier does not correspond to any division at school. The school is important; indeed, in many localities the daycare and the after-school facilities are provided by parents of children at a particular primary school in relation to that school.

In addition, a case can be made out on many grounds for opposing the deregulation of childcare for children over the age of eight years. Children in the age group of from eight to 11 years are often vulnerable. They are exposed to abuse and to the risk of accidents and crime. Our attention has been drawn to statistics for 1988 issued by the Department of Transport which show that 196 child pedestrians aged between five and 14 years were killed in that year, while almost 4,500 children were seriously injured. The concern is reinforced by the health and safety statistics which draw attention to the higher rate of accidents during school holidays.

It is also well known that industry wants more and more women to return to paid employment. I am told that a recent opinion poll showed that 80 per cent. of mothers not in paid employment would consider returning to work if satisfactory childcare could be arranged for their children. Deregulated childcare for children over the age of seven years is unlikely to be satisfactory for such children and their mothers.

Therefore at a time when expansion of childcare facilities of high quality is called for, this is not the time to reduce quality control. Then there is another side to the case. By imposing an age barrier of eight years, this could encourage some operators to offer low quality childcare exclusively for children over the age of eight years.

I have tried to summarise the main arguments canvassed by many local and national organisations in support of the block of amendments which I have tabled. I should stress that they are supported not just by the national organisations; they are also supported by local organisations up and down the country. The central message we have received is that the age limit regarding registration of daycare facilities should be raised to the age of eleven.

I turn now to Amendment No. 317D. This amendment, and those grouped with it, are really aimed at the charges in respect of registration and inspection. Most of the childcare groups are self-help groups; indeed, only about 30 per cent. receive grants from the local authorities. It is really a cost-effective service. A case could be made out for increased support from local government resources.

The charges will make it much more difficult for many of these self-help groups simply to balance the books. Parents spend a great deal of time in fundraising so that the group is viable. The fear must surely be that other childminders will seek a route around the charging provision by reducing the hours at which they operate. This could happen at a time when all the evidence shows that one ought to be extending the activities of such groups.

I hope that I have done justice to the arguments which we have received.

Moved, That Amendment No. 212AZ, as an amendment to Commons Amendment No. 212, be agreed to. —(Lord Prys-Davies.)

8.45 p.m.

Lord Meston

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies mentioned the fact that there has been an argument put forward —which I think he dismissed —that there was no room for quality control. He will know, having, I suspect, received much the same literature as I have, that there are two matters of particular concern. First, there is the absence of any criteria regarding the fitness of people who are concerned with childminding and daycare. There is also an absence of any specific requirement for the training of such people, while at the same time the Bill provides for the local authority to refuse registration if it considers that such people are not in fact fit to look after children or to be, in the proximity of children". The absence of any criteria as regards fitness seems to me to be a weakness in the Bill and in the Commons amendment.

The second matter of concern is that which is specifically touched upon by Amendment No. 371B, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone; namely, the absence of any specific requirement for any adequate public liability insurance. I suspect that the answer may be that this will be provided for by regulations which are foreshadowed by subsection (3) of Amendment No. 212AZ and subsection (4) of Amendment No. 212BZ. If that is the position, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will indicate that the requirement for adequate public liability insurance will feature in those regulations.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I should hike to ask the noble and learned Lord to consider once again the' point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, about the upper-age limit. The suggestion in the amendment is that it should be raised to the age of 11. I am sorry that it has not been proposed that the age limit should go even higher.

Such work as I have done in connection with women returning to work has underlined the fact that one of the biggest problems is the care of children during school holidays. This means children way above the age of eight years. It can be a cause of great anxiety for working women if they do not know what will happen to their 11 or 12 year-olds who may be bouncing around during the school holidays with no proper supervision. In the interests of children and also in the interests of getting responsible women back into employment, I feel that setting the limit in this provision at the age of eight years is far too early.

Lady Kinloss

My Lords, I should like to express my support for the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, and his amendments. I also think that the age limit should be raised to 11 years. Is there something magical about the age of eight?

I should have thought that it would be more appropriate to set the limit at the age of 11 when the children leave primary school. At that age children are much more able to complain if something is wrong with their care and to explain why than they would be at the age of eight years. There is also the very real danger that the cut-off age will encourage the establishment of after-school and holiday-care schemes which only deal with children over the age of eight, thus avoiding inspection and monitoring by the local authority.

To turn to Amendment No. 371D, can the noble Lord say whether the registration fee of £10 includes the inspection charge, or whether these are considered to be two separate items?

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, it is a difficult amendment to discuss. The organisations that work in this field have been concerned from the beginning that the Bill did not include anything about day care. The Government responded splendidly to that concern, but because they responded so late and because of what went on in another place, which was outwith the control of the Bill, there has been no opportunity properly to discuss the clause and all that goes with it in the way that it normally would be discussed through each stage in both Houses. Big gaps in the clause are being exposed.

I sympathise with all that is being said about the age limit. There can be arguments about it. Someone whom I know well and who works in a children's hospital suggested that a better age would be nine or 10 because children are frightfully proud of the fact that they have reached double figures and are therefore more responsible. I can remember that when I am reminded of it, but most of us dealing with the Bill have not been children for a long time.

There can be arguments about the age, but the terrible thing is that we have not been able to argue the issue through. The criteria for determining who is a "fit person" are important and they have not been properly dealt with. I, like the noble Lord, Lord Meston, hope that the regulations to be made under Amendments Nos. 212A, 212B and 371 will do more than outline the point saying merely that they cover this sort of area.

I turn now to my Amendment No. 371B, which seeks to include a provision for proper insurance in the regulations to be introduced by Amendment No. 371. This is clearly not the type of amendment that one would fight to the last, even if there were enough people in the house to fight things to the last, but such matters need to be included.

Rather than go through all the points, most of which have been covered by the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Meston, I suggest that I send my noble and learned friend my brief in the hope that the key factors within it will be included in the regulations when they were laid. I can do no better than that. If I were to give the House my entire brief, your Lordships would be here much longer than you want to be.

It is unfortunate that the provision was introduced so late and that we have been unable to argue it. On the other hand, I should like to suggest to everyone, including those who were distressed by the fact that there was nothing about day care in the Bill, that what we have is much better than nothing, even if the detail is inadequate. To that extent, we must congratulate the Government, and hope that they will be able to write regulations which make the provision workable.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, I shall make just two comments. The first is about the registration fee which the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, has already mentioned. The president of the Pre-school Playgroup Association is worried that the pre-school playgroups will be unable to pay the registration fee and the fee for being inspected once a year, if that is what is intended.

My second comment —there cannot be an answer to it —is that there is confusion worse confounded in the whole area of the under-fives; as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said, women are being enjoined to go out to work. An enormous number of organisations are starting up creches, notably the Midland Bank, which is establishing 300. A voluntary organisation is starting which wants an accreditation system for voluntary organisations, banks and commercial enterprises. We should get clear who will accredit the vast numbers of places there will be for the under-fives. Will there be an accreditation system for the banks, commercial enterprises, civil servants and so forth? Unless we clarify that point, it will be worrying and confusing. However, my noble and learned friend cannot possibly comment on that point because I have not written to him about it. I only learned about the confusion this morning.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, perhaps I may just say a word or two about the general structure before I come to the details that have been raised on the amendments. The new clause, which is the subject of the first amendment, and the eight which follow have long been awaited in the House. On Report on 6th February I told your Lordships that the clauses designed to introduce up-dated and modernised legislation to regulate independently provided day care services for young children would not be ready before the Bill transferred to the other place. They were put down in Committee in the other place and I understand that they were fully debated there.

The improvements to the present legislation contained in the Nurseries and Child-Minders Regulation Act 1948 are designed to make it easier for local authorities to regulate and enforce those services and for the law to make it clear who should be registered and who should not. It is also important that the services provided by independent people and organisations are of acceptable standards and that they know what those standards are. If they fall short, the registration authority must have the power to deal effectively with the problem.

The proposal contained in this and the later clauses is that the age limit should be eight. Originally we proposed that it should be five, the theory being that it was the care of young children that should be the subject of regulation; but, having listened carefully to the many representations that have been made, we concluded that it was right to go up to eight.

As the noble Lady, Lady Kinloss, said, there is no particular magic about eight. One could argue for seven or nine with almost equal conviction, but one must fix some limit and we concluded that eight is a satisfactory age. It involves statutory regulations requiring the local authority to make annual inspections, having registered the person who is providing the service. The registered person will also be required to observe the conditions imposed on him or her by the local authority.

One finds that older children use a much wider range of facilities, such as recreational clubs and the like. As my noble friend Lord Mottistone said, as children become older they are more able to articulate their concerns.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, they become naughtier.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, says —no doubt from experience —they also become naughtier. The local authorities' registration and inspection scheme would not necessarily be the best way to cope with the development of that characteristic.

As the range of facilities becomes greater, the greater the difficulty there is regulating them effectively. Whether or not the intending providers were exempt would probably be less clear to them. We want an efficient registration system to operate for services used by children at their most vulnerable ages. As I said, any age limit is arbitrary, but we believe that under eight is about right. It strikes a reasonable balance between ensuring that day care services used by young children are subject to statutory registration and not subjecting the much wider range of services used by older children to what might be seen by many as excessive bureaucracy.

My noble friend Lady Faithfull mentioned the so-called accreditation scheme. This does not detract from the statutory registration scheme that we are proposing for the minding services provided for children up to the age of eight. Beyond that, there is room for accreditation and the like. But, in this situation in the under-eight area, we need statutory registration and inspection. I think that the accreditation scheme will have the effect that a number of people get together and provide a service to a standard which they advertise and which they claim is attained by all those who are members of the scheme and are accredited under it. That is what I have to say about the age situation.

As regards fitness, we have had a lot of representations about the need for the Bill to be more specific about what constitutes a fit person. Having considered these carefully, we do not think it appropriate for the Bill to control the matter in such detail. As the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, said earlier, there is a time to be detailed and a time to be less detailed. We believe that this is a time when it is right that the local authority should have some flexibility in the way in which it operates the registration scheme, having regard to the circumstances in its area. To list the criteria in primary legislation would create a very rigid framework. The matter will be dealt with in the guidance to be issued as part of the process of implementing the Bill. This should help both the local authorities which are to enforce the provisions and the people who are applying for registration.

Perhaps I may come to fees. The situation in that regard is that we propose that there should be a regime of charging two distinct fees —one for registration and one for inspection. This requires one to balance a number of considerations as to whether one should have fees or not. On the one hand, local authorities are being overwhelmed with applications for registration, particularly from people wanting to set up day nurseries as business ventures. On the other hand, many day care services are provided by voluntary groups and we know that they almost always operate with very limited funds. Indeed, some of these praiseworthy organisations have been referred to.

We think that, where a commercial undertaking is concerned, it is only right that the intending provider should meet the cost of the statutory regulation service as part of the setting up cost and should look on the cost of statutory inspection as an integral part of the running cost.

However, we recognise that the financial position of voluntary groups may well be different. Many organisations—including notably the Pre-school Playgroups Association —have campaigned vigorously against the imposition of fees both for registration and for inspection. Government Ministers listened to their views and, as a result, the then Minister of Health, Mr. Mellor, gave an undertaking in another place that the fee for voluntary groups would not be more than about 10 per annum.

We shall also consider whether it will be possible to exempt certain categories altogether. Amendment No. 371D deals only with the fees for inspection. It would not be sensible to have a fee for registration alone: the two seem to go together. The important point is that there is a power to provide different fees in different circumstances and to exempt people from fees altogether. So that matter has to be considered further. All we have at the moment is a power to charge fees.

As regards public liability insurance, the subject of Amendment No. 371 B to the Common:3 amendment which we are considering, I can well see that the question of public liability insurance has to be considered. It would certainly be possible to make such a provision in the regulations and it may well be that my noble friend's brief would be of help in considering whether that should be so. I think that all your Lordships can take it that before these regulations are finalised, we shall consult widely on their content. One would expect the material that has been already been assembled to be taken into account in that consideration.

The amendments that we are considering raise points of substantial principle. Some of them could be dealt with under regulations. The age limit is one that has to be determined in the legislation and it is therefore not in that category. The amendments that deal with this general subject are Amendments Nos. 212, 212A to 212H, 215, 216, 219, 225, 230, 248, 371 and 387.1 shall take it that the discussion which we have just had will cover these amendments.

9 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, perhaps I should have mentioned that the amendments which I moved and which were supported by Members of the House were and are supported by about 20 voluntary organisations which have an interest in this field. So there has been, and continues to be, widespread concern. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Mottistone, said, there is general support for the thrust of the regulations and the updated regulations. Nevertheless this concern remains. We regret that we have been unable to persuade the noble and learned Lord to accept the argument for increasing the age limit to 11.

However, I am gratified that as regards the determination of the charges there will be flexibility. We very much hope that the regulations will provide an exemption for the voluntary bodies which are undertaking positive work in the area in question. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 212AZ, as an amendment to Amendment No. 212, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 212BZ to 212HZ not moved.]