HC Deb 16 December 1999 vol 341 cc111-46WH

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned. —[Mr. McNulty.]

2.30 pm
The Minister for School Standards (Ms Estelle Morris)

First, I apologise to those who will speak in the debate and to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I shall leave in about an hour. A cross-party delegation is coming from Cornwall to discuss what it considers to be the area's unfavourable financial circumstances. I need to go and persuade members of the delegation that their circumstances are in fact perfectly fair and perfectly favourable. I apologise for that, but the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge), will listen to the whole debate and respond in due course.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss what I am sure all parties will agree is the important subject of early years and child care. It is important for many reasons. First and foremost, those of us with a brief in education and raising standards know that all the evidence shows that investment in the early years is investment well made. That is especially true for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose parents are unable to give them the support that all parents want to give but some find difficult to provide.

The second reason why the issue is important is that we live in changing times. Parents—both mothers and fathers—want to choose how they live their lives. They want a family and working opportunities; indeed, for some, that is not a choice, but a necessity. There have been changes in social circumstances, and sometimes family members do not live together or close to each other as they did a generation ago. Such changes have, rightly, put child care much higher up the political agenda. I suspect that those words, if not the rest of what I have to say, will find agreement across all parties.

The Government have established child care as a major strand of their school standards agenda, of their family-friendly policy and of economic and competitive policy. To coin a phrase, it requires joined-up thinking more than many other areas of Government activity. Despite that, when we took office two and a half years ago, we inherited a system that was deeply fragmented and that had not made the best use of the resources that had been allocated to it. It was in disarray. In our first few months in government we dismantled the nursery voucher scheme, and we were able to use the money that was made available, in the first instance, to provide nursery places for all four-year-olds.

During the past two decades, under the previous Government, whether one got an early-years place depended on where one lived rather than on whether one needed a place. If we consider the spread of early-years places across the country at that time, we find a good match between Labour-controlled local authorities and areas with a high percentage of three and four-year-olds in nursery places. That political argument apart, it was clear that parents in many areas wanted access to early years and child care, but there were insufficient places.

Our main aims and objectives for early years and child care policies have been to increase the number of places and to ensure that that increase is based on good-quality places. It is no good expanding the number of places if we put more children in settings in which the quality of provision is poor.

We have recognised that many people who work in the early-years sector do a good job and have a good qualification. However, there is not the same semblance of order to qualifications in the early-years sector as in many other vocational areas. Over the past two and a half years, we have sought to bring some semblance of order to early-years qualifications. We want to do that not only for those who work in early years, but for those who use the service. It is especially important to ensure that there are avenues of progression for those with an early-years qualification—it is not a qualification that leads nowhere.

We were keen to bring together early-years education and child care. There is sometimes an academic argument about the difference between the two. However, under-fives probably make no distinction between child care and education. Parents need both and need to fit them in with the rest of their lives.

After two and a half years, how can we judge whether we have made progress on those objectives? We are pleased to say that one of the first pledges that was fully delivered was to provide a part-time place for all four-year-olds who wanted one. I want to pay tribute now and in many other comments to the early-years development and child care partnerships, which brought that about. It was difficult in the first year to move from a system of early-years provision that was based on competition to one that was based on co-operation. The same providers who had been competing for children because children meant money were asked a short time later to work together to plan places across an area. Different partnerships succeeded at different rates and at different levels and some did better than others in the first year. However, I am grateful that all but two produced a partnership plan that we could approve in the first year. That made it possible for our four-year-olds to have places.

We have now set another objective and want to double the number of places for our three-year-olds by 2002. Currently, we are on target to ensure that 50 per cent. of our three-year-olds have access to a free early education place by 2000 and 2001. We are also on target to double the figure for provision from 34 to 66 per cent. by 2002. We have done that in two ways. It was important to target the first tranche of money at areas of significant deprivation and challenge, where the impact would be greatest. However, by next year, every area will have had some money to expand the number of places for three-year-olds. By 2002, a uniform 66 per cent. will not have been achieved across the board in every local authority. Rather, I suspect and hope that some local authorities will make almost universal provision for three-year-olds. However, some will not.

None the less, the pledge is that we shall double provision to 66 per cent. I pay tribute again to the partnerships. In their second year of operation, they were asked to take on planning for three-year-olds in addition to continued planning for four-year-olds.

We have also acted on the qualifications. It is easy for politicians to talk about making sense of early-years qualifications, but it is much more difficult for practitioners, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and all the training boards to do that. I am delighted that we are beginning to make progress in that regard. The process will be on-going and we shall constantly want to examine qualifications.

We shall also want to do some work on the next stage of our agenda. The Green Paper on the reform of the teaching profession made it clear that my aim is for people to be able to go into early-years education and to gain any qualification and then to have the opportunity to be a fully qualified teacher if they so wish. The skills, attributes and experience that people gain from working in early-years settings mean that they would make good teachers. Although we need the most skilled people where their skills are most important, in the early years we currently have a range of people with perhaps lower-level skills and qualifications than we would want.

Hon. Members will welcome the fact that we shall introduce legislation next week in the House of Lords to ensure that we have a coherent inspection framework. Fragmentation in provision was mirrored in the inspection framework. We cannot really tell providers, "Work together in the interests of all the children in your area. By the way, we are going to inspect you using different standards." That approach has put extra pressure on those who work in the early-years service, and our proposals have been welcomed.

I suppose that the same is true in early years as in every other area of education: there is already excellent provision. Good practice and first-class practitioners exist across the country in urban and rural areas, cities and towns and in authorities that are controlled by the Labour party, the Conservative party or even the Liberal Democrats. As always, the challenge is to ensure that we raise the standards of those who are poor to the level of the best. We have tried in early years, as we have across the school agenda, to enable those who are good to share their good practice with others.

The early excellence centres are one important initiative. They are examples of good quality; they are beacons, which show what can be done. It would have been easy for them to keep that extra resource to themselves, but the first tranche of early excellence centres, which have been designated for 18 months to two years, have done outward-looking work, sharing their good practice with others. We could put everything on paper and write documents about raising standards. However, I suspect that it is better to allow those practitioners needing support to look at centres that work well and learn from them. Networks have been built up by good practitioners sharing their practice with others, and I hope that that model will spread in future.

We pledged to designate 25 early-excellence centres by 2002. If memory serves me right—if not, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will doubtless correct me— we have designated 20 already. That is huge progress in two and a half years: we have ensured that centres of excellence exist and serve others.

Finally, it is difficult to bring together early-years provision and child care. It is even more of a challenge to bring together early-years provision, child care, health, special needs provision, support for parents and other essential early-years elements so that we support families bringing up children. One of our proudest achievements in relation to that is sure start, which is one of the best examples of Government and Whitehall interdepartmental work. Departments began by asking: "What do families and children aged nought to three need? How can we organise ourselves to best deliver that?" I very much hope—as does the Secretary of State—that evaluation of sure start will result in a model to be taken elsewhere.

We are anxious that support such as early-years provision does not stop when children reach the age of five because the needs of parents and children continue until the latter reach eight, 14, or become independent. In that age range, we have achieved extra child care places in after-school provision and provided more out-of-school learning opportunities. In two and a half years, we have got rid of competition, introduced cooperation, raised core standards and improved quality in early-years provision. We have also begun to make nought to eight provision coherent, meeting a range of needs for young people and their parents.

We acknowledge that young people's needs go beyond that; indeed, the ideal is a seamless service. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I are reporting on progress so far, which has been good and has been noted by many working in the sector, parents and children—the latter being those who will benefit.

I have paid tribute to the work done by early-years partnerships, who were groups of people making decisions. I also want to pay tribute to a wide range of early-years providers in the maintained, private and voluntary sectors, along with those who care for children—whether singly or in large groups. That is a diverse group and long may that continue. The differences between those people are important, so our challenge is to use all their skills, experience and anything else that they may offer. We must send them a clear message that they are part of an overall policy to provide high-quality child care—from early years until education—for an important group of people to whom we have a great obligation: youngsters aged nought to five.

2.44 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I join the Minister in welcoming this opportunity to debate an important matter. I, too, recognise how important this subject is to many people, including working families. Indeed, I shall declare common ground, as the Opposition share the objective of offering high-quality child care provision. The Minister spoke about the importance of such provision; indeed, she described it as a major strand of Government policy. I am therefore mildly curious—no more than that—about why the Government chose to debate the matter in Westminster Hall.

Having joined the Minister on common ground, recognising the significance of the matter and sharing objectives, I shall look at the whole child care picture and raise issues of concern to many in the field. We should look not only at certain projects—however good—but at what is happening in all parts of the country and throughout child care provision.

The Government are not short of promises in that area, especially on making provision for child care for those aged nought to eight. Indeed, the Minister recognised the importance of that for working families. In "Meeting the Childcare Challenge", published in May 1998, the Prime Minister said that the Government wanted to improve provision and create

more than 50,000 childcare places this year". The Government's annual report for 1998–99 promises the first ever national childcare strategy and up to a million new childcare places". In the context of those promises, the expectations that they create and the projects mentioned by the Minister, we want to know how well those pledges have been delivered in 1999, the Government's year of delivery.

I noted the pretty picture painted by the Minister. However, the most recent statistics from the Department for Education and Employment by no means paint so rosy a picture. Child care provision for children under eight is divided into several sectors, and a distinction is made between provisions for children under eight and for children aged five to seven, who are, of course, of school age. On provision for the undereights—to which the Minister referred—statistics for child care provision in Britain show that the number of places in day nurseries has increased by 24,000. However, Sir Alan, they also show that the number of places in playgroups has decreased by 36,000 or so, and that the number of places provided by child minders has gone down. Therefore, the whole picture shows an overall reduction in the number of child care places of about 45,000. That is far from the increase of 50,000 places promised by the Government. That matter has been debated before, and was dealt with by one of the Minister's colleagues.

The figures that I gave do not take account of the number of places in nursery schools and classes, which went down slightly last year, apparently for the first time since 1992. Should the Ministers disagree with any of those statistics, I would be happy to give way or listen once they have further information. However, there is an important case to answer.

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

We are used to many hon. Members abusing statistics, but the hon. Gentleman takes the biscuit. The expansion of child care places is about places for children. The hon. Gentleman referred to settings in which there will always be a variation. The number of places in playgroups, for example, always goes up and down—I shall return to that later. Using the overall statistics for 1998–99, which I have before me, I calculated that the number of places available to children increased by almost 12 per cent. Places for children count.

Mr. Clappison


Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) allow the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) to complete his response? When he does so, he may allow another intervention.

Mr. Clappison

I have been accused of abusing statistics and talking about settings rather than places, Sir Alan, but I was using the statistics prepared by the Under-Secretary's Department. The hon. Lady waves her paper. If she looks at the right-hand column, she will see that the statistics I have given are described as places. Places for day nurseries are up from 223,000 to 247,000—[Interruption.] Yes, the hon. Lady is with me. Places in playgroups are down from 383,800 to 347,200 and places—not settings—with child minders are down from 370,000 to 336,000. If one takes into account the places in day nurseries and day schools, which do not appear here—[Interruption.] I see that the hon. Lady nods. I do not want to labour this, but which of those statistics from her Department's press release is wrong?

Ms Hodge

I am sure that we do not want to spend the whole afternoon exchanging statistics. The hon. Gentleman has been selective. He has not referred to the expansion of places in out-of-school clubs or on holiday schemes. The massive expansion in nursery places for three and four-year-olds is not included in the statistics. Honestly, this is an abuse of the figures and it does not reflect the reality.

Mr. Clappison

That, Sir Alan—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but he has now thrice made the same small error. The form of address to the Chair in this place is Deputy Speaker; we are not in Committee.

Mr. Clappison

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The Under-Secretary criticises me for presenting statistics in that form, but that is the form in which they appear in her Department's press release. It makes the distinction, which I made at the outset and which the hon. Lady would have heard had she been listening, between the provision for children aged under eight and that for those aged from five to seven. There has been an increase. The largest part of that increase is due to holiday schemes, which are rather different from the provision for children under eight—the sort of provision that the Minister for School Standards spoke about. If the Under-Secretary adds up the figures in the way that the Government collect them, there is a reduction of about 45,000. I am trying to be fair as I am taking into account and making allowance for what the Government said earlier about this. The Member for

Pontypridd, when he was an Education Minister, wrote to one of my colleagues to try to explain the reduction when it was first drawn to the Government's attention.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clappison

I will when I have completed this point.

What the then Minister said is completely different from what the Under-Secretary has said now. He did not quibble about the statistics, but sought to give an explanation. I am about to move on to that, so I think that the Minister was a bit early with her intervention. I shall give way to her hon. Friend unless she wants to hear my point first.

Caroline Flint

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have contributed to a huge expansion in opportunities for parents to use child care in its many forms? In the unlikely event of there being a general election tomorrow and the Conservative party winning it, how many more places on top of the Government's already expanded services to parents would his party provide?

Mr. Clappison

The hon. Lady was a bit late with the first part of her intervention as I had anticipated that, and she was a bit early with the second. It is early in the political cycle to hear that point—[Interruption.] I can understand the hon. Lady not wanting to hear the statistics, but I shall give the explanation that was given by her colleague. An important point about the position of playgroups in all of this was completely omitted by the Minister for School Standards in her opening speech. The explanation given by her hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd when he was Education Minister was rather different. He conceded that there was a decline in the number of child-minding places, with a fall from 370,700 in 1998 to 337,000 in 1999. Incidentally, I hope that the Under-Secretary will now abandon her point about the statistics being bogus, as her colleague did not accept it.

He said that the decline in child-minding places was due to a number of factors. In particular we know that in the past lists of childminders maintained by local authorities have not always been up to date. The first ever audit of local childcare provision carried out by the Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships has led local authorities to update their databases. This meant that some childminders who were still registered but had ceased to operate were removed from the register. He added:

This is good news for parents. They can now access accurate lists of local childminders which helps speed up the process of finding suitable childcare. It is difficult for me to say at this point whether that explanation is right. I understand from Hertfordshire county council that its latest figures will show a continuing fall in the number of child minder places available, which would rather undermine the assertion that the child minding decline was a once-and-for-all phenomenon caused by an updating of the database. Even if we accept the Minister's explanation that the child minder places were all lost because of a revision of the register, there is still a reduction in the number of child care places in the last year for which figures are available, albeit a slight one. It certainly contrasts with the Prime Minister's assertion that 50,000 more places were being created over the same period.

That brings us to the important point about the position of playgroups and pre-school learning in that setting. That reduction is one of the most striking features of the whole picture of child care provision and those involved in child care will follow the debate with great interest. They will want to hear Ministers say a little more about playgroups, other than applauding them for the undoubted hard work that they do and have done in the context of partnerships. They will want to know more about what is going on in that sector. Ministers themselves accept that people in that sector are facing particular problems. I know that they accept that because they set up a review to study the sector, which recently published the report "Tomorrow's Children".

So that I am not accused of abusing statistics again, I shall quote what that report says about the change in the pattern of provision for playgroups and the period in which it has taken place. It says: The number of pre-schools/playgroups has fallen steadily in the 1990s: official figures show that the number peaked in 1991 when there were 18,000 sessional playgroups offering over 420,000 places. The number fell below 17,000 in 1995 and below 16,000 two years later. The most recent figures for 1998 show 15,700 playgroups offering 384,000 places. That independent review also states: Our consultants concluded that the rate of closure is currently higher than in recent years although there were variations between regions. That is worrying, because as the review acknowledges, not only are playgroups an important source of child care provision in this sector, but they bring wider benefits to families and communities. When playgroups and pre-schools close for reasons other than the quality of their provision, opportunities for community life, lifelong learning and family support may be lost. The parents of young children may no longer have the opportunities that the playgroups can provide to develop skills that may offer them their best chance of returning to work.

Mr. Willis

The hon. Gentleman should stop taking the milk of amnesia tablets. Does he agree that the figures that he has just quoted—I am glad that they are now on the record—are the most damning indictment of his Government's policy, particularly the introduction of nursery vouchers? Those vouchers drove more playgroups to the wall than any other policy. The setting up of a system under which ever more children went into reception classes at age four made it inevitable not only that playgroups would close but that the trend would be hard to dismantle, as the Government are discovering.

Mr. Clappison

The hon. Gentleman promised me that he would come to my assistance—well, it was pretty well-disguised assistance. Uncharacteristically, the hon. Gentleman, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, came to the Government's assistance instead. His assertion about nursery vouchers flies in the face of the conclusions of the independent report to which I referred, which stated that the problems of pre-school playgroups began much earlier—in the earlier 1990s, long before nursery vouchers were ever thought of, let alone introduced—and that the problems continue now, long after their abolition. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is familiar with the report, which goes into some detail about the factors responsible for the closure of pre-school playgroups.

Drawing upon the report once more, let me make another point that will be of interest to the hon. Gentleman because his constitutency covers some rural areas and is adjacent to others. Pre-school playgroups can play a particularly important role in rural communities. The report makes this point: In small rural communities which cannot support a school or nursery or where transport links are poor, a pre school or playgroup may be the only form of early years provision that is viable, and therefore can be an important contributor to the life of the community. It follows that in these circumstances rural communities—once again—may be particularly hard hit if pre-school playgroups close.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point inasmuch as pre-school playgroups are vital to rural areas. Does he agree that demographic trends are part of the difficulty? These groups are closing because there are not sufficient children for them. That is why we must consider not only the quantity but the quality of provision. I hoped that we would get on to that, rather than stick on the statistics.

Mr. Clappison

I am coming to why the independent report thought that playgroups may be in difficulty. I know that the hon. Gentleman has an interest in rural areas, but I do not think that he paints the full picture. The report looked at the factors that may be causing the closure of pre-school playgroups, and noted:

Many groups struggle under what is perceived to be an excessive administrative burden. This is reflected in the evidence collected by our consultants and was widely reported in response to our consultation. Playgroups are saying that they face an excessive administrative burden. It is possible that recent policies and developments have increased the burden and the cost of regulation that playgroups face.

Much attention has been focused on the admissions policies of primary schools. The review states that they could have an enormous impact on local provision". I note that, in their response to "Tomorrow's Children", the Government did not accept significant parts of the recommendations in their own report relating to admissions, which they said were a very important factor. Perhaps the Minister will say a little about that later. I know that the Government are trying to help, but whether they have done enough is another matter. The public sector would like to know how confident Ministers are that this decline in the number of preschool playgroups will be arrested. The Government talk about the extra places that have been created, but if at the same time other places are being lost, this must be taken into account in evaluating claims and promises about creating extra places. We have to look at the whole picture. I want Ministers to say what they think the trend in pre-school playgroups will be, and whether they acknowledge both the special benefits of playgroups, in particular to rural areas, and—this is most important—the resulting loss of diversity in child care. Do they value the special benefits of these groups? Are they confident about the future of pre-school playgroups? We need to hear a little more than the Minister for School Standards said in her opening remarks.

We would appreciate hearing a little more about nursery classes in the maintained sector and about the ratio of learning assistants to teachers and the size of the nursery classes for which they are responsible. What has happened to them since the Government came to power? We hear much from Ministers about class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds, but rather less about classes for eight, nine and 10-year-olds and secondary school pupils. Nor do we hear much from them about the size of nursery classes. The latest figures from January this year show that more than one fifth of nursery classes taught by one teacher had more than 30 pupils. There has been a significant increase since 1997, when 18.5 per cent. of nursery classes had more than 30 children. This year, there has been an increase to 20.7 per cent., with classes of more than 36 children. I realise that other people besides teachers are involved in caring for nursery classes, but the Government must tell us a little about this and about the size of those classes. How easy do Ministers think it will be for teachers in nursery classes to maintain the close interest in children that is required? How will the Government set that against their objectives of early learning goals.

We want high-quality provision and educational achievement, but a balance must be struck because we are dealing with children of such a tender age. We must not make premature decisions that might put them off formal learning later. Ministers must acknowledge that, as well as the fact that learning through playing is important. We need to know more about how they think a balance should be struck.

I want Ministers to acknowledge the part played by parents who do not go to work, preferring to stay at home to look after their children. We share the objective of expanding high-class, high-quality provision, but it is important for the Government to examine the genuine concerns in the sector and look at the whole picture, rather then gloss over those concerns. We want a more balanced and objective view from the Government, with attention being paid to the problems, rather than letting them fester and merely telling us more about their promises and claims. A more balanced approach would deal with many concerns undoubtedly felt by people in this sector.

3.8 p.m

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

Mr Deputy Speaker, this is the first opportunity that I have had to congratulate you on your well-deserved elevation to your new post.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), who is a kind, courteous and gentle member of the Government. [Laughter.] My apologies, that was a Freudian slip. My note said "the Minister".

No doubt the hon. Gentleman would agree that many of us, especially those from the professonal or middle classes, have long taken early-years education for granted. When my first child was born in Cleveland over 20 years ago—a Labour authority which switched to the Conservatives, so I give both parties credit—there was a quality place for all five-year-olds for five mornings or five afternoons a week. That showed the authority's tremendous commitment. Our daughter went to an early-years class, which stood her in good stead. When we moved to Rufforth in North Yorkshire, where we now live, it was a small village and there was no equivalent provision. In fact, North Yokshire—starved of resources over many years—had a paucity of early—years provision. It was not expected that a small village school for only 34 children would have full nursery provision, but there was a playgroup. Parents clubbed together to provide a quality, professionally qualified, leader and our son had an excellent start there before he entered school.

At the time, I thought that that was the norm. I thought nothing more about it. It was not until I was working in east Leeds some years later that I began to recognise how vital early-years education was, particularly for youngsters in deprived urban settings—or, indeed, deprived settings anywhere. There was a lack of co-ordinated and quality provision in east Leeds. There was competition between the education day nurseries and the social service nurseries. Unqualified child minders offered much provision of dubious quality: there was some high-quality provision, but there was no control over standards. Overall, it smacked of everything epitomised by the previous Conservative Government. In other words, the system looked after a small handful of the wealthy, but the vast majority of young people had an unacceptably poor start in life.

The Rumbold report of 1990 dealt with the effectiveness of early-years education. It is a condemnation of the previous Government that they failed to build on that report and failed to recognise that the economic—as well as the social—well-being of the country depended on giving young people the best possible start.

The hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and I recently visited America. We attended a dinner to hear about a book, "The Nation at Risk", which was written for President Reagan and dealt with the health of the nation. We were both struck by it. It stressed that the country's economic future depended on possessing a high-quality, well-educated work force. It was not so much that a high-quality, well-educated work force was wanted in itself as that those would be the people to buy products when they were older. It was a hard-nosed approach to the problem. One piece of American research has become famous. Its conclusion was that one dollar invested before a child was seven repaid itself at least seven times over later on—an important statement.

The Liberal Democrats welcome much of what the Government have done and we compliment them on it. But we would say that, wouldn't we? Our "Foundations for Excellence" document, produced some time ago, highlighted many similar issues. It stated:

An education service designed to develop the potential of every child must begin with the early years… We are committed to developing a strategic framework… through Early Years Partnerships, initial and in-service education… We would encourage Early Years Development Partnerships… We would establish partnerships with parents from the beginning. We aim to ensure that high quality education is available… We would establish a Foundation Key Stage for children aged 3-5-plus at once… We would review initial teacher training for teachers intending to work in early years education". When the Minister ably reviewed the Government's achievements, she was reading out a series of in effect Liberal Democrat objectives achieved by a Labour Government—constructive opposition at its very best.

We unreservedly recognise the commitment of the Minister and her colleagues and we should also recognise that they had an enormous mess to clear up. The Government took a bad idea—the nursery voucher scheme—and tried to make it better. Despite the protestations of the Tory Front-Bench spokesman, the reality is that throughout the country—even in Norfolk, where it was piloted—there was wholesale condemnation of that scheme. The hon. Member for Hertsmere cited rural areas, but I do not have a rural constitutency. Harrogate and Knaresborough is a purely urban constituency: would that I could represent more people, but I can deal with only one constituency at a time.

North Yorkshire provides a classic example of a large rural area, in which the nursery voucher scheme wrecked a whole range of provisions. It drove playgroups out of business and drove younger children into schools. The playgroups collapsed—that was the reality. I accept what the hon. Member for Hertsmere said about the value of playgroups. It takes me back to the playgroup in Rufforth—a place for parents to meet and for social groups to develop. People worked so well together. On millennium night, many of us intend to meet again after 20 years.

Instead of parents shopping around with their voucher, we now have an early-years development and child care partnership where parents can access provision without involving the shopping element. The key improvement is that partnerships have greater control over provision and can work within settings to improve quality.

In the Minister's opening remarks today, she failed to congratulate local education authorities—a slip, I am sure—for the enormous contribution that they made. It was not just the partnerships themselves, but the way in which LEAs worked hand-in-glove with them to ensure that they were successful.

Ms Morris

I accept that rebuke entirely and put that on the record. I apologise for missing local education authorities from the list. Of course they played a vital role in making the partnerships work. I am grateful to them.

Mr. Willis

I thought that I would give the Minister an opportunity to make that point before she retires to Cornwall.

The partnerships have also been important because they have included all the players in the field. These were not exclusive organisations, but an inclusive way of getting people together. It was the first time ever, in my experience, that we had tried to bring different people together to form a partnership. In my county, it has been tremendous to see good ideas and practices cascade from one partnership to another.

The problem is that the money follows solely the child. We condemn the nursery voucher scheme, but an element of the same principle is being applied now—as the money still follows the child. That can cause difficulties in small settings. A group that is only just financially viable, with eight funded children bringing in £1,130 each, can only just manage. However, if one or two children leave, it suddenly becomes extremely difficult to cope. That is why so many pre-school playgroups are going out of business and why the Pre-School Learning Alliance is so concerned. It is not only a rural issue. The hon. Member for Hertsmere should be disabused of that. It is an urban issue too.

Mr. Clappison

I am sorry that I misdescribed the hon. Gentleman's constituency. However, I was not overlooking urban areas—only highlighting the special importance of pre-school playgroups where they exist in rural areas.

Mr. Willis

Obviously, I am grateful for that.

I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the fact that there are often pockets of deprivation in affluent urban areas. I will return to an issue affecting my own constituency later. In some playgroups, the opportunity to gain top-up fees in order to meet the requisite standards and bring in qualified staff simply does not exist. We are driving some good providers out of business, simply because present funding arrangements are not flexible enough for them to survive.

The evidence shows that more than 1,500 playgroups have closed and that a further 400 will close this year, which is devastating. During a recent education debate, the Government implied that, in essence, the question is one of parental choice. I hope that she did not mean that, because the matter is more serious than that. We must examine the underlying reasons, which is what the report to which the hon. Member for Hertsmere referred does.

Funding is certainly more generous than it was, but it will not allow for small provision, or for staff development and other support expenditure. I shall return to the issue of staff development, because I hope that the Minister has something positive to say about qualifications in early-years settings. It is true that, through the Pre-School Learning Alliance and partnerships, the Government have set aside some £750,000 to provide help for settings. That has been welcomed by organisations in my constituency, but the money is available for only a short time and in limited amounts. What will happen when it runs out? Will the Minister consider incorporating it in larger core funding for such groups? Without such funding, many provisions will close as soon as the money runs out. Does the Minister agree that it might be better to find a different funding method? If we want to encourage a quality setting, why cannot a particular setting be given a fixed resource for core funding, an amount for capital funding, and an additional amount for each young person who enters? Funding must not become a lottery. If we want to encourage quality early-years provision within the partnerships, there must be an incentive to invest in and maintain that provision. That applies equally to small settings and large urban settings.

I hope that the Minister accepts that placing four-year-olds in reception classes is problematic. Increasingly, LEAs and voluntary-aided schools are moving to a system of one-point entry. That can have serious implications for summer-born children, who may be placed in a reception class when they are just four years old. As the hon. Member for Hertsmere has said, in some cases, such children are placed in settings where there is only one teacher for 30 plus children. That cannot be right. We cannot allow regulations to state that early-years placement classes must have a ratio of one teacher to 15 children, but reception classes can have a ratio of one teacher to 30 children. The Minister, who has already commented on this issue, will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that experimental work is being undertaken in 40 LEAs, where reception class staffing ratios are being reduced to one teacher to 15 pupils. However, that is happening in only the most deprived areas. If the Minister accepts that we must have consistent, quality early-years provision, does she also agree that it must be extended to four-year-olds, whether they are in an early-years placement or a reception class?

We have made no bones about our disquiet at the placement of four-year-olds in reception classes. It is unrealistic for schools, particularly small primary schools, to recruit specialists in early-years education. Younger children often miss out on the extremely important elements of play and personal and social development that are to be gained from learning with older children. Many nursery schools and classes, and many private and voluntary settings, are populated largely by three-year-olds. It is well documented that, in terms of the learning process, it is important for three-year-olds to have contact with four-year-olds, and I am sure that the Minister supports that.

Despite the Government's claims, financial pressure on LEAs resulting from the nursery voucher scheme carry-over has not eased significantly. There is an incentive for LEAs to place as many young children as possible into reception classes. I know that that is not Government policy. The Minister and her predecessor made it clear that reception classes should leave places open, but no head teacher that I have ever met would leave places open and thereby forgo that budget, simply to satisfy what are Government hopes, rather than legislation or regulation. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

The issue of independent schools worries Liberal Democrats, and we are confused by the Government's response to it. With regard to registration under the Children Act 1989, we see no reason why independent schools should be treated differently from private and voluntary settings, but they are. The Minister has said that this is a complex and delicate issue, but we cannot understand why, because it appears to be simple. The Care Standards Bill, which is currently before the House, could regulate everything under one system. The hon. Member for Hertsmere may think that I am attacking the private sector, but I am not. Nor am I accusing the private sector and private schools of

necessarily doing a bad job. I am simply saying that everyone should do the same job, and the same regulations and standards should apply. The Private Day Nurseries Association is rightly angered that the matter has not been addressed, and we hope to table an appropriate amendment or new clause to the Care Standards Bill, although it would be far better if the Government did the job themselves.

Why do private day care providers and early-years providers have to pay the extra charge of business rates when LEA providers do not? I have written to the Secretary of State on the matter, and the Minister will doubtless be informed in due course. In high-rated areas—again, my constituency is a good example—that can prove a significant on-cost. There should be a level playing field in respect of business rates.

Liberal Democrats accept the need for inspection. Quality must continually be driven up in all educational establishments, but particularly in early-years settings. Section 10 inspections will continue to be applied to under-fives, and the Minister for School Standards has said that regulation will bring everything together. Does she mean that there will be regulation only for under-fives who are in non-school settings? We would welcome that, but why cannot regulation be extended to under-fives in school settings? According to Ofsted, its inspections are comparable to section 122 and ex-section 5 inspections of pre-school education provision, which is currently regulated under the Children Act 1989. As the Minister knows, that is manifestly incorrect: those forms of inspection are completely different. I hope that she can offer some comfort to early-years providers by saying that there will be a single framework, irrespective of where the four-year-old in question is placed. Will the Minister also confirm that, when the new branch of Ofsted is established, the person heading the new section will be an early-years specialist? It would arouse some suspicion if the new senior officer heading the early-years inspections were not a specialist in that field.

After-school clubs have been a success for the Government, and they are a significant achievement. As a direct result of the national child care strategy and the new opportunities fund, after-school clubs now encompass 3,100 providers and 114,000 places. The Liberal Democrats recognise that that is a terrific achievement. However, there is a potential problem in that the money so far allocated from the new opportunities fund is for start-up. Many providers in my constituency have asked what will happen when the start-up funds are finished. The answer is that the new working families tax credit will click into place, and that parents in receipt of that credit will simply transfer those funds into the after-school club provision.

There is a logic to that, and if one examines the costings on which the proposals were based, the model being presented balances out in the final analysis. However, we are not convinced that that will be the case. We know that, unless there is good publicity, simply presented, about how the scheme is to operate, it will not happen. With every other type of benefit arrangement, the way in which it is publicised makes a great difference.

The Department for Education and Employment is saying that it is the job of the early-years development and child care partnership to advertise that facility. That is unrealistic, because the partnership was never intended to do that kind of administrative and advertising work. That is a job for Government, and I hope that the Minister will mount a major campaign to get the working families tax credit into sync with the proposals for after-school clubs. Otherwise there will be the risk of a decline, and of the dissipation of the good work already carried out.

The Minister mentioned sure start, a project that the Liberal Democrats welcome. During a visit to North Carolina, my colleagues were most impressed by a similar project there, although I did not see the provision myself. [Interruption.] That project was called smart start, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) reminds me. I remember meeting my colleagues on the coach after their visit, and they were as excited as they would be if they had won the lottery. It was pretty impressive.

Every report that we receive about sure start is giving similar feedback. It is a very good initiative. I believe that it was initiated by the Treasury rather than the DFEE, but we will let that pass. The great advantage of the plan is that it is an integrated provision, and the Minister was right to say that it is a concrete example of joined-up government. It is the one project that Members of all political parties are calling a first-class initiative.

The trouble is that, in constituencies like mine, there is no access to the project. I have two deprived communities in my constituency—believe it or not, there is deprivation in Harrogate and Knaresborough. There are two major social housing estates in which there has been a real demand for sure start, yet on each occasion that we have asked the DFEE, we have been told that our social deprivation profile does not fit its criteria. We must encourage sure start in all areas in which there is a need for it and a willingness to participate in it. I hope that the Stockwell estate in Knaresborough—where excellent early—years provision is desperately striving to meet the social needs on the estate—and the Knaresborough road estate in Harrogate will be part of the initiative before long.

I could speak on this important issue for the whole three hours, but I shall conclude by saying that we are generally supportive of what the Government are trying to do. We have concerns in certain areas, but they are related to how to achieve the goal rather than to attacking the goal itself. However, the pledge to have 66 per cent. of three-year-olds in quality early-years places by the end of this Parliament is an unadventurous goal.

The Minister asked the hon. Member for Hertsmere what the Conservative party would do about this issue in its common-sense revolution, which is now under consultation, and he could not answer the question. The Liberal Democrats are committed, as we were at the last general election, to having quality early-years provision for all three and four-year-olds. It is nonsense to say that it is only good enough for some. If this is the Government's major education initiative—which we support—and if the foundation of the education system depends on quality early-years education, it must be available for every single child.

We must not have the sort of social engineering that dictates that, in a county such as mine, where 2,000 extra places for three-year-olds are needed, there will be only 160 next year. That is unacceptable, and I hope that the Minister will fight tooth and nail with her Treasury colleagues to get those extra few pennies out of the Chancellor's war chest, so that she will be remembered as the Minister who provided quality early-years education for all three and four-year-olds.

3.37 pm
Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

It is a pleasure to be able to speak in this debate. The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) questioned why it was taking place in this Chamber. I am thankful that we have this Chamber, as it has provided more time to debate the important issue of child care. Perhaps we would not have such opportunities if we were operating only in the main Chamber. I welcome this opportunity, and all those who have come here to take part.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of chairing a conference organised by the DFEE and the Daycare Trust that brought together people involved in establishing early-years development and child care partnerships up and down the country. It was fantastic, and I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister was there to address the conference and to answer questions. More than 500 people from all over the country were packed into the hall; in fact, people were turning up on the day even though they had not registered beforehand, and others were being turned away.

I do not wish to sound too corny, but the conference showed how the Labour Government are tackling the issue of child care. They recognise that while a national strategy is vital—a fact overlooked by the previous Government for many years—we rely on people in the community to establish the right mix of child care for the communities in which they live and work. That involves partnerships between local authorities, the voluntary and private sectors and, most of all, parents. It also involves listening to children to ascertain their needs, to ensure that the schemes are a success. The Government can be commended for a great deal in those areas.

It is a great pleasure to have a national child care strategy, and to have it discussed repeatedly by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. It would have been unheard of many years ago to hear the subject of child care debated by such eminent people. I have been involved for many years as chair of a national child care campaign, and it is nice that we have a Government who are listening.

I do not think that the Minister would deny that there are areas in which there is room to grow, or that we must examine how our provisions are working. We must build on the quality of provision, recruit the employees needed to service this expanding sector, and recognise the changing patterns of family life and the changing needs of parents. Undoubtedly, those changes affect different forms of child care. We must have a mature debate in advance of other provisions coming on-line that may affect the existing position.

For many years, Doncaster local authority, which is in my area, has had a good track record of providing nursery education in its schools—unlike several other areas that are under different political control. That has resulted in the provision of different services, which is partly the crux of the debate about pre-school playgroups. I am pleased that the council has sought partnerships with pre-school playgroups. I visited one such playgroup, which the local school had embraced in order to provide its nursery education by giving the group space within the school. That ensured that the quality of the provision was up to the standards that we would all expect for our children in their early years. That is an example of a successful partnership.

Another example is provided by Rossington high school, a secondary school in my constituency. It has assisted a pre-school playgroup in the village of Rossington by giving it space in a school building that was not being utilised. Consequently, parents were able to establish that group as part of our pre-school partnership in the Doncaster area.

Those are just two examples of local authorities and schools discussing matters, acting in partnership and bringing pre-school playgroups back into the fold. That contrasts with the separation that followed the previous Government's ridiculous introduction of the nursery vouchers scheme. From next year, education for three-year-olds will be rolled out to all local education authorities, and I know that that will be welcomed by parents throughout the land.

However, more work needs to be done to close the child care gap. More than two thirds of mothers now return to work after maternity leave, and the shortfall relates primarily to the under-fives. Last Friday, at the Rossington family centre, I met an adviser connected with the new deal for lone parents, who was conducting an outreach surgery to meet lone parents in the community. Although the centre will be providing me with some statistics, I think that it would also be useful for the Minister's Department to follow up the adviser's estimate that 50 per cent. of the lone parents who sought opportunities for work had children under the age of five. I was taken aback by the fact that people voluntarily sought work when they were in one of the most difficult periods for those raising children on their own. The Government should try to find out whether that is being reflected throughout the country by the Employment Service's outreach work and other positive policies for talking and listening to lone parents.

I should like to impress on the Minister the need to ensure that sure start strikes the right balance. There is a sure start pilot in my area. While it is important that the health service and other services in the community provide support for parents during the early years of their children's lives, it would be shortsighted—especially given the amount of money that is being provided for capital funds—to miss the opportunity to create the necessary infrastructure for child care, which is also important. Although that infrastructure may not be important for parents who want to go to work, parents who want to embark on education and training need an infrastructure that allows them to focus on that while their children are looked after in a quality environment. We should look to the future, when parents may want to go back to work or change jobs.

If we get the right infrastructure for child care now, it will develop and grow depending on the needs of parents—this year, next year and in 10 years' time.

When I and my colleagues on the Select Committee on Education and Employment went to America, we visited the smart start initiative in North Carolina. That initiative, which began in 1994, is led from the top by Governor Hunt—which demonstrates why it is so important that we have a Government who are prepared to lead from the top on child care issues. It was interesting that those involved in smart start appreciated that child care had to be an equal partner to the parental support that was being offered within communities.

Having helped to create two workplace nurseries, I have found that many people who are unused to working in child care, or whose children have not used any child care facilities such as a nursery, have somewhat blinkered imaginations in respect of the possibilities that exist. I should like to take a little time to describe a nursery in North Carolina that we had the good fortune to visit.

Having walked into the nursery building, which was quiet and pleasant, we went into a conference room to meet the manager of the nursery and some other people from smart start. Before our tour of the nursery establishment, I asked how many children attended it. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I nearly fell off my seat when I was told that they numbered 190. My colleagues could hardly believe it either.

The establishment was a combination of good design and advanced thinking about funding. The design featured a central core, where there were kitchens, office facilities, first aid facilities and meeting rooms for parents who might want to take part in parenting or literacy classes. Within that design had been created a series of small bungalows that housed no more than 10 children. That meant that while those children received a good quality of care and enjoyed a good staff to child ratio, the economies of scale allowed the nursery to thrive. Having helped, as I said, to establish two nurseries—one with 45 places and another with 30—I understand the economic difficulties of creating the diversity of funding that makes a success of nursery provision. That is one of the hardest things to get right.

The building was paid for by the YMCA, and smart start provided the quality assurance programme and the training of staff, as well as equipment, furnishings and outdoor play equipment. Governor Hunt's scheme subsidised families on low incomes—rather like our own working families tax credit and child care tax credit—and helped to bring money in. On top of that, the nursery, because of its size, had a partnership with the local university and other employers. We saw children from all ethnic backgrounds being brought together, all of whom were assured of quality provision. The diversity of funding assured sustainability into the future.

That subject arose during the conference organised by the Daycare Trust and the DFEE that took place a few weeks ago. It was suggested that we must ensure, through the partnerships, that there is an understanding about how to lever in money from the private sector and from those parents who can afford to pay part of the contribution, if not all of it. That is why it is important to work with the partnerships to ensure the involvement of people who understand business planning.

During our visit to America, my colleagues on the Select Committee and I were excited to see the dynamic partnership with the business sector. It helps to provide a good outcome and to obtain money to sustain projects in child care and in raising educational attainment. We must get away from the grant dependency in sustaining projects for the future. With sure start, capital is available for buildings, but we must look to the future. Denaby in my constituency has sure start, and many people who live there work in Rotherham, Barnsley or Sheffield. Professional parents may pay full fees for nursery places, but they support vulnerable parents in the community who may need to be subsidised.

The Select Committee closely studied students and child care. In our first report on further education, we raised a number of problems with access to child care. One in four colleges have no child care facilities and more than one third have no places for children under three. Student parents cannot claim the child care credit that is available to other parents. Many parents missed out on early education and deserve a second chance. I commend the Government for acknowledging that. Under the previous regime of the Further Education Funding Council, subsidies for child care were not available to students until the age of 19. That was ludicrous, as I said many times in the Select Committee and the House, and I am pleased that that changed in September.

There is a young parents centre in Doncaster for young girls who have become pregnant while at school. It allows them to continue their schooling and provides child care and support to enable them to do so. The previous situation was ridiculous. When they reached the school-leaving age of 16, they could not continue their education, even if they wanted to, because further education colleges could not secure funds for them because they were too young. I am pleased to put on the record today the fact that that has changed since September and that funding is available to those young parents for child care—with no age bar. That is to be commended.

We must consider how to expand the opportunities for students and encourage colleges to enter into partnerships with nursery provision in the wider community. I was told of a university in London that has a nursery, but with only a few places available to students and the remainder being taken up by staff. I do not want to become involved in a staff versus student argument, but a balance must be struck. One of the reasons why students could not access the provision was that the nursery wanted to offer full-time places or traditional part-time places. It was not flexible enough to cope with students' courses and study hours. Flexibility is vital to enable students' needs to be met, including vacation times.

The learning and skills councils offer an opportunity to ensure that their priorities include the provision of child care. Councils must liaise with early-years development and child care partnerships in the communities for which they have responsibility. It is important to stipulate that someone with child care expertise is given a voice on the skills councils.

Only one in 10 workplaces provide help with child care for staff. The Government are doing what they can to encourage employers to provide such care and they have the full support of the public—92 per cent. of parents say that the Government should do more to encourage employers—but we must consider new ways of enabling employers to take part in child care provision. I acknowledge that it is difficult for a single employer to build a nursery on site or to take full responsibility for establishing such a service. It is a specialised area and most employers do not have the resources for that provision, so we must try to broker partnerships to enable them to do so.

We must also consider incentives for employers. Perhaps we should have a kitemark for good employers who support family-friendly policies or, in these days of league tables, perhaps we should have a league table of bad employers who do not support family-friendly policies. I would not be averse to that, but it is better to reward the positive than to emphasise the negative. We could consider the financial restrictions on employers who support their staff. For many years—too many years—I was involved with the campaign against the workplace nursery tax, which was eventually rescinded, because it did not acknowledge that child care is fundamental. 1 am pleased that there has been some movement in the Treasury towards supporting employers who help to subsidise public transport for their staff, and I hope that child care will be treated similarly. It is important to move away from benefits that stifle the opportunity to consider imaginative schemes for child care.

I have referred to business partnerships. I am aware that some businesses are interested in providing money on a business loan basis to those who want to establish child care provision and to provide back-up by helping child care providers to establish suitable business plans to make their enterprises sustainable. More work could be done on that.

We must remember that local authorities and hospitals are the largest employers in local communities. We should ensure that child care is part of their corporate staff policy. It is ironic that local authorities are playing such an important role in the early-years development and child care partnerships, but they may be found lacking in the provision of child care for their own staff. I am sure that the Minister is keeping a close eye on the ball to ensure that the money that is provided for child care in the community is passed on in full and that its resourcing and development is receiving full attention.

I shall comment briefly on the House of Commons. Hon. Members will be aware that in 1998 a child care survey was made of hon. Members, their staff and staff in the House. Since then, little has been said or done. Almost 300 of those who responded to the survey said that they would probably use a nursery if it were available. A large number said that they would support holiday play schemes. At a time when new buildings are being erected and accommodation is being reorganised in the Palace of Westminster, it is difficult to understand why there has not been time to discuss child care provision in the House. I have three children, but they are all at school, so I am not seeking a personal benefit. I realise that, with the hours that Members of Parliament work, it would be difficult to provide child care for everyone, although it should be possible to make provision for some hon. Members and their families. More important, although the Palace of Westminster is a major employer, many staff do not have access to appropriate facilities. Not so long ago, I was privileged to visit nursery providers in the Westminster area. Several nurseries were run by the Church of England Children's Society, and I found, to my amazement, that in Whitehall the child care needs of staff are not typically disregarded. Many Departments, including the Ministry of Defence, subsidise or buy places for its staff in nurseries in the Westminster area. I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister about this matter.

As we move into the next millennium, perhaps we should reconsider the Administration Committee's decision that a nursery could not be provided without resort to subsidy and, therefore, to the taxpayer. If time can be found in the House—I believe that 30 minutes was spent discussing whether vellum should be used in the House of Commons—we should debate this matter. A nursery could be provided in the Palace or we could go into partnership with other child care providers in the vicinity and allow staff to adopt that option. I realise that that is not directly the responsibility of my hon. Friend the Minister. However, the Government's national child care strategy is designed to persuade employers and local authorities to provide child care and to support providers in the private and voluntary sectors. It is a shame that we cannot get it right in the Palace of Westminster.

4.1 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

It is a pleasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that my inaugural foray in this Chamber is taking place under your chairmanship. We struggled long and hard to get this experiment under way and, for good or bad, it is in place. I hope that many hon. Members will appreciate the benefits that this Chamber offers. I hope to play a small part in that regard this afternoon.

I am also pleased that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to the debate. She came to Gloucestershire earlier this year to talk to the early-years partnership. I must put on the record my thanks to her for that useful visit. I know that she has spoken to similar groups and that she has regular debates with people about what the Government are doing and how we could further enhance facilities.

I have no particular expertise in this area. I cannot match the knowledge of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who sits on the Education and Employment Committee and whose previous experiences were relevant. I have some knowledge of the matter—I have talked with groups in my constituency.

I should declare an interest—my wife is the treasurer of the Stonehouse after-school group. She puts many hours into that work, which is unpaid, and I pay tribute to her for it.

Over the past two and half years, I have visited the various facilities that are available in my constituency and talked to many groups and constituents, who visited me in my surgery to discuss child care issues. I want to weave three questions into my speech, which I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will answer. In case they become lost somewhere in the midst of other points that I raise, I shall finish my speech by repeating them.

I concur with many of the points that were made by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. She said that, although we should examine and evaluate the situation, we should also stress how well the Government are doing in this context.

The Government issued a clear manifesto commitment on child care. It is initially being delivered for four-year-olds, but it will in due course be delivered for three-year-olds. Such provision affects whether people can work and secure an appropriate quality of life for their children. The richness that our different communities provide depends on adequate child care provision.

Although the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) threw a lot of statistics at us, I have some sympathy with his comments. I was not trying to be unhelpful when I said that we need to consider demographics as well as the way in which different groups function. His argument was important and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to it.

The Government's approach involves quality and choice and it should provide places for people where they most need them. That does not involve a numbers game; it means guaranteeing individuals' children access to appropriate provision. We shall not be able to meet our ambitious target in two and a half years, but we have made an important start.

The structure of provision is confusing and sometimes daunting. I know from my county and constituency experience that although there are complementary approaches, there is also conflict between different providers. I do not want competition to outwit what I regard as the better approach, which involves people working together. However, we must face up to the fact that people choose between different organisations, which may mean that there will always be some conflict. Some organisations will go out of business, but others will replace them. We must give appropriate support to providers and ensure that the superstructure that surrounds these organisations is as effective as it can be.

I give credit to my county of Gloucestershire, which was not, but which was almost, unique—that may be a contradiction in terms—in that at the outset there was no formal provision of nursery education. It would be easy to play party politics and to say who was responsible for that. Since then, pre-school education has been provided slightly differently. The argument at the time was that, in the main, people in Gloucestershire did not want such provision or did not need it because there were other ways in which their children's needs could be catered for. That argument is, and has been proved to be, bunkum. Our experience is that many types of pre-school provision, including breakfast clubs and after-school clubs, and holiday provision, are popular. Long may they continue to be so. We must knock on the head the idea that good provision was already available and that many people made use of it—that was clearly not the case. Appropriate provision was not available and people could not always pay for what was available. We have begun to develop an effective strategy in the county and nationally.

I had some criticisms of the early-years development plan that my authority put together, but working with the public, private and voluntary sectors brought together the best elements. Those sectors learned from each other, and we have tried to encourage that approach. The Government are not trying to prescribe what should happen in each area. Admittedly, we have to provide funding—without it, many positive developments would not have occurred. However, our approach does not involve choice for its own sake; we are trying to find a different way to do things and to bring people together in ways that were not previously possible.

Our approach does not simply involve education authorities. I am pleased by the way in which education authorities work with social services departments and local authorities work with health authorities. Those bodies can look across the cultures—there are often different cultures in this context—and begin to work together to mould policies so that they dovetail and do not have contradictory results. We should appreciate that different bodies may approach the problem from different directions.

My area has not yet had the benefit of sure start, although that money will, I hope, come through in due course. However, we do receive home start, albeit in a slightly different way—that is always the way with Gloucestershire. We tend to do our own thing, which is a strength and—dare I say it—a weakness.

We have begun to see how the link with parent education—especially the parent network organisation in Gloucestershire, with which I have had dealings—can help parents deal with the problems of their adolescent children. That is an important development, and is closely linked to the family centre, which is one of the good things to come out of Gloucestershire. In many respects, such centres were created for the wrong reasons—a lack of nursery provision—but have now been turned into a notable success. The creation of the centres was slipped through without being noticed by a particular party, but I should not emphasise that point too much. They offer pre-school provision for parents who have not been able to get their children into a playgroup or nursery, and they also provide support for parents, especially in the more deprived parts of my constituency. The Park family centre in Stonehouse, where I live, and the Parliament family centre in Stroud have done a lot of good work in supporting parents and, more important, their children. That is worth advertising, and I hope that it is in line with what the Government want.

I do not intend to criticise the Government, but I want to focus on some problems that have been brought to my attention. I have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for Hertsmere said about provision, but it is inevitable that such a change would have such consequences. Recruiting good-quality people for playgroups and after-school clubs is a problem. Rural areas might be different, but there is not an abundant supply of people with the right qualifications and aptitude. The right people may come forward in due course, but there is a genuine need for training. Some visitors to my surgery have been unclear about what qualifications they would need to get those good-quality jobs, so clarification is necessary. Perhaps that message could be relayed through the early-years partnership.

Pressure on volunteers is also a problem, as the hon. Member for Hertsmere pointed out in relation to rural areas. If people have to sacrifice a lot of time, that is undesirable. Everyone wants to drive up standards, including the groups themselves. They are not saying, "We want to stay as we are." Instead, they welcome increasing professionalisation, and want help to achieve what we are asking of them. That relates to the question of how to get volunteers and what to expect of them. Volunteers are being asked to do a professional job—we should not kid ourselves about that—and they are prepared to do it, but they need support.

Another important issue is children with special needs. Dursley Church of England primary school has a centre, at the Highfields site, which has done excellent work for children who otherwise would not have such opportunities. The Shrubberies special school, in Stonehouse, also takes children with profound difficulties, and provides them with a more gentle and supportive introduction to education. As always, there are more children with such needs than available places. How will special needs be catered for? That is an especially pertinent point in Gloucestershire, as a special needs review is currently under way. Considerable opposition has been expressed, largely to the proposed closure of moderate learning difficulty schools. All that washes back into pre-school provision, and further strategic thinking is probably necessary. Resources will have to be applied—nationally, locally or a balance of the two.

The Government have made an enormous financial commitment—£470 million. No group has come to me to say, "Please, you're doing the wrong thing." There may be nuances and differences of opinion on certain issues, but the groups welcome the investment of time and money in the sector, and will do what they can to make provision available. The link with schools was touched on my the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), who spoke about the stage at which children should enter schools. In a mostly rural area such as mine, that is a planning issue. A private nursery in my constituency, Upper Knapp Farm day nursery, made the point that although it benefits, through the child care tax credit, from the money that it puts into the system, it needs to know how to plan for the future. Schools might open pre-school units in competition with such nurseries, and there will also be other developments. Clarity is, therefore, necessary.

The breadth of support and quality of after-school provision are impressive. I have direct experience of that in Stonehouse, and I have also been to Gastrells in Stroud. Children are now recieving genuine support where previously they received none. Many of those children are receiving that support because their parents are able to go out to work, which is a win-win situation. Some of those children might have gone to child minders previously, but most of them probably did not. Provision is therefore being opened up. Finance, development and resources are important.

There are three main questions for my hon. Friend the Minister. First, what training and support are necessary to recruit good people, and what should the qualification route be? I am confused about that, as are people who have visited my surgery. Secondly, what will be done about the funding gap up to Christmas, which is a result of the way in which the money is paid? That is an issue for the nursery that I visited, and also for the playgroups, which are saying, "We are fine from Christmas onwards, but how do we get to Christmas, because the money isn't there?" I have read the answers to parlimentary questions, and perhaps I have got the wrong message, but strong opinions have been expressed on this matter.

The third point relates to funding, and touches on something that I have already emphasised. Child care tax credits are very welcome. I know that the Minister does not have direct responsibility for them and I do not want to put her on the spot, but why do people receive child care tax credits when they send their children to a child minder but not when they use a nanny, who may work from someone else's home? I do not want to finish on a negative note, but that is causing one of my constituents a great deal of angst. She keeps asking for an answer and I try to explain why the problem has not been addressed. Such minor considerations can make a difference between someone sending their child to an appropriate place and getting to work, and not. My constituent works and child care tax credits would help her in many ways. I realise that the Minister may not be able to respond now, but a commitment to write to me would be appreciated.

As an overview, apart from my minor quibbles, the policy achievement has been tremendous. We are delivering, and a lot of good developments have taken place.

4.21 pm
Valerie Davey (Bristol, West)

I came this afternoon to celebrate the Government's achievements in extending quantity and quality of nursery and child care provision, but I realised that there would be time for me to make a contribution.

I want to highlight the importance of training and qualifications, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards. In Bristol, although not in my constituency, I can celebrate our early-years and child care partnership which has brought together the private sector, the voluntary sector and the local authorities to make even better provision than they were making separately. I can also celebrate an important development—again not in my constituency—with sure start.

Those excellent projects build on provision that the city of Bristol and formerly the county of Avon made many years ago to ensure that all four-year-olds had the opportunity of nursery education. That is in sharp contrast with Gloucestershire, which is the neighbouring county of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). They built on a tradition that went back to the provision of training. After the war, it was recognised that child care was important and that women, who were the main providers of child care, needed qualifications. The city and county of Bristol, as it then was, established a nursery nurses college. In 1946, women entered the college and gained what became the Nursery Nurses Education Board qualifications. The college, of which I had the privilege of being not just a governor but chair of the governing body, continued as a local education authority college until the incorporation of further education colleges. I saw the basic qualification for 16 to 19-year-olds develop, in conjunction with further and higher education in the city, to become diploma qualifications that led on to graduate and post-graduate qualifications. Those

developments in qualifications have been of prime importance. I trust that they can be developed throughout the country.

I know high-quality provision is important. My hon. Friend the Minister emphasised the fact that people from a range of backgrounds enter child care. In her climbing frame example, there is not just one step ladder but several step ladders for different backgrounds and skills, such as nursing and teaching, which contribute to a nursery qualification. That can lead to a teaching qualification and beyond.

I want to celebrate those achievements because the Government are determined that provision is not localised and dependent on where people live. They want provision to be available generally and the qualifications recognised nationally. People should have a clearer understanding of what elements of professional training contribute to the qualifications. This is not just about child care. As a governor of the college, I recognised many years ago that the young people who were providing child care were also confronted with the needs of the parents. The children that they cared for often came from disturbed homes and needed carers who understood them and the family setting, because the parents also needed support. It was soon recognised that those who entered the profession at a more mature age were often better qualified. They brought with them experiences that were relevant to their professional work and training and were able to become highly skilled providers of care for children and their families.

I remind hon. Members of a trip that the Select Committee on Education and Employment made to Switzerland. We saw excellent nursery provision that was highly structured but most creative in every sense of the word. It catered for young people of a slightly older age group than we associate with nursery education, which raised the issue of the age at which young people should transfer from nursery provision to the more formal early reception year before infant education.

There is a provision, which is based in Bristol, that is a national resource. It is known as "Children of the 90s", which has the difficult acronym ALSPAC—the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The aim of the group is to identify ways in which to improve the health and development of future generations. It started in 1990 and, in association with the university, studied the development of all children born in Avon—which has a population of about 1 million—during 1991 and 1992. More than 14,000 children were included in the study. It included a hands-on examination of the children, questionnaires that were completed by parents, education, social and health records, biological samples and specific measurements of the home environment to determine the causes of childhood ailments and disorders. It also looked positively at the way in which children develop.

All training must include an excellent child development study. At an all-party group on the adoption of children, I recently met social workers who were examining the complex way in which children develop within adoptive homes to determine their needs. They thought that it was important for social work training to emphasise child development. I recommend the studies that were produced by "Children of the 90s". It has provided a huge bank of knowledge and should be seen as a national resource. In 1998 those children reached seven and an extenive study is under way. There is a resource which can be the basis of a great deal of potential study in colleges and universities and which will, I am sure, supplement the training that is being given at all levels.

In Bristol we celebrate the fact that our association has existed over many years, emphasising the importance of child care and development. We have particularly emphasised training and professional qualifications and the bringing together of social services, education and health resources to ensure a greater understanding of children's development and needs.

In Bristol, as in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, we have home start, which has shown how, in the voluntary sector, people with their own experience in the family can contribute. It invited to its last AGM the director of "Children of the 90s", recognising that those volunteers, too, need professional help and development. That is all, of course, for the children. I believe that, although such work is intended to improve the health and development of children of the next generation, the Government have made an excellent start in their first two and a half years towards ensuring excellent nursery provision for chldren now, which will stand them in good stead in the future. I trust that for the rest of the Government's term—and the following five years—there will be the necessary longterm development to ensure that the importance of child care and professional training for those involved in it is recognised in our communities and as part of our national heritage.

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

I am delighted to participate in my first debate in this Chamber, especially with you in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I join other hon. Members in congratulating you on becoming a Deputy Speaker.

This has been a vigorous and thoughtful debate and, I hope—to revert to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)—the beginning of a mature debate on some of the issues that we confront as we develop early-years education and child care services.

One reason for my delight at participating in this debate is that this is my first opportunity in a debate to think about and respond to some of the issues that hon. Members raise. Normally, when we debate in the other Chamber, we are up against time constraints, and I always feel that Front Benchers do not give enough time to the issues raised by hon. Members during debates. I shall start by doing that, and then return to an overview, building on what my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards said.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) was, I think, playing with statistics, because our purpose is not to become obsessed with the settings in which children are placed. In whatever setting, we want them to have a good experience, with sufficient opportunities to provide choice for parents and children. The quality of the experience and the nature of the choice are what matters—not so much the setting. That was why I wanted to draw attention to the overall increase that has taken place in child care and early-education places. That is an indisputable fact, although the places are emerging in varied settings as we create greater diversity in the system.

Mr. Clappison

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. As I made clear, I was talking about places rather than settings. Her party has made pledges that have concentrated on numbers. Perhaps the Minister would write to me setting out how provision for children under eight has, as she claims, increased. I should be happy to receive such a letter, because her Department's statistics—taking the whole picture and all the settings involved—show a reduction in the number of places.

Ms Hodge

I will gladly write to the hon. Gentleman, but would simply comment that he has selected part of the relevant figures. Children under eight also take advantage of out-of-school clubs and holiday schemes. The figures to which the hon. Gentleman referred do not reflect the massive increase in early-years education, in maintained schools and other sectors.

Certain evidence from the figures causes me concern, as it will the hon. Gentleman, and he may want to respond. There was a drop in one year in the number of child minders, which is worrying in the light of our wish for diversity and for the type of response to the growing gap in child care, particularly for the under-fives, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley alluded. We need to deal with that and are doing so. There are many reasons for that decline in the last year. They include the fact that we are cleaning up the figures. For the first time, we have had proper audits, which revealed that social services lists included child minders who had not been working for many years. In a tight labour market, people tend to move out of jobs that have traditionally been seen as low-income, low-status jobs, and child minding is viewed in that way. We need to do something about that and to raise the status and income that people can enjoy from it.

A welcome discovery has been made by the Exit survey carried out by the National Childminding Association. Many women who enter child minding—98 per cent. of people working in early-years education and child care are women—are going up the climbing frame of qualifications into other professions, such as social work, health work or teaching. We should welcome that, not merely because of the greater contribution to society that those people subsequently make, but because of the personal development of those women. Nevertheless, we need to tackle the need for sufficient places to meet the child care gap for working parents.

Mr. Clappison

I was concerned about playgroups. When the Minister writes to me, will she set out her reply in the form in which her Department publishes the statistics—the provision for children under eight? Is she saying that there has been an increase in that provision, setting aside the provision for out-of-school clubs and holiday schemes, which I distinguished from other provision and which is mentioned in the documents? That provision has decreased.

Ms Hodge

With the greatest respect, I must say that that comment shows that the hon. Gentleman does not live in the real world, where children across the spectrum are spending part of their time in school, using the growing services that are now available for three and four-year-olds in school; they may then have wraparound care, of which out-of-school clubs are inevitably part. The document, which I happen to have with me, refers to provision for children aged five to seven. We are getting into a ridiculous argument about definitions rather than about substance—about whether there is more or less provision for children. We recognise that there is not enough, which is why we have embarked on a national child care strategy and the expansion of early-years education. However, we are getting there, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere, and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) mentioned another matter; the latter happens to have absented himself, so I shall not respond to his entire lengthy contribution. While he got cold, we remained cold in this Chamber.

Mr. Clappison


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)

Is it about the cold?

Mr. Clappison

No, it is not about the cold. I do not want to come to the assistance of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and I do not agree with all that he said, but I should be interested to hear the Minister's response to it.

Ms Hodge

Perhaps I should write to him as well.

Because of our concern to retain and maintain a vibrant and growing pre-school sector, we established the pre-school review. It was not our review; we put in place an independent review chaired by an independent chairman so that its conclusions would not be Government conclusions but could be considered by us. We are already doing so. We have published an early response to the many recommendations in that review. Together with partners such as the pre-school sector and the early-years development and child care partnerships, we are developing a plan for the early-years and child care sector to ensure that as that sector grows, the pre-schools play a strong role because we want diversity.

I want to set one record straight. Under this Government, pre-schools have unprecedented access to public funds. That did not exist prior to our taking office. They have the money that follows the child, as the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, with the expansion of free places for three and four-year-olds. Of the first tranche of money for the expansion for three-year-olds, 80 per cent. has gone into the private and voluntary sectors. Most of that money is going to help to sustain a vibrant pre-school sector. That is crucial to the child care tax credit—a mechanism that will bring more resources into the sector.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, asked how we would publicise the child care tax credit. I stress that we are not leaving it to partnerships, although they have a key role because they are in direct contact with providers, who in turn are in direct contact with those

parents who need to make claims. We are supporting those partnerships. We have given them a disk of information that will help to explain what is available locally. The Daycare Trust will be grant-aided to go round the country with an information campaign on child care tax credit and I am in discussions with the Treasury to ensure that its advertising also reaches parents.

In the first 63 days since the introduction of the working families tax credit, there were more than 700,000 inquiries. We have now had 430,000 new and renewal applications. We are not doing a bad job to ensure that a new tax credit, which brings money into the system, especially the pre-school system, reaches the appropriate people.

For two years running, we have made a £500,000 grant, which is administered by the pre-schools themselves, to ensure that those in financial difficulty have access to short-term funds to sustain themselves. We give a large amount of money to the Pre-School Learning Alliance central budget to support pre-schools in the field—more than £1.5 million towards training. A lot of money is going into the sector.

Other issues, such as the admissions policy, need to be addressed. I say to those hon. Members who believe in local democracy that we will not and should not dictate from the centre about what local people and local education authorities should do about their admissions policy. The guidance encourages deferred entry. We are pleased that more local education authorities are taking up deferred entry, but it would be wrong for us to dictate that those authorities should ignore local parental choice and take a particular route on the matter of entry.

The hon. Members for Hertsmere and for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised the issue of class sizes. There is a distinction, which I am not sure that the hon. Member for Hertsmere entirely understands, between nursery and reception class sizes. Nursery class sizes have not gone up. Between January 1998 and January 1999, the average size of single-teacher nursery classes decreased. An additional adult tends to work alongside the nursery teacher in such classes. In the guidance drawn up under the Children Act 1989, we recommend that there should be two adults in every nursery class. We inherited the mess caused by nursery vouchers, to which the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough referred. Competition for the vouchers led to far too many children going to inappropriate reception classes.

Mr. Clappison

The hon. Lady may not have heard me correctly. I referred to nursery class sizes. Once again, I am quoting from the Government's own published information, which shows that between 1997 and 1999 average class sizes went up, and so did the percentage of classes with 31 or more pupils. The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough made that point, too.

Ms Hodge

There is a distinction between nursery classes, to which I think that the hon. Member for Hertsmere referred, and reception classes, to which I know that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough was referring. We were not quite in government in January 1997–1 know that it seems a long time since we took office as we come up to Christmas and we are all getting tired. The 1997 statistics were around when the Conservative party was in power. I was referring to statistics for January 1998–99, which are more relevant, as they have been compiled since we came to power.

Mr. Willis

May I offer you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the Minister an apology? I had a pager message that my flat was flooded. My daughter said, "We can't turn the water off." I was responding to a damsel in distress. I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would have rushed from your place if you had had a similar message.

The Minister acknowledged my point and I hope that she will expand on her answer. A significant number of very young four-year-olds are now in reception classes. The Minister acknowledged that by giving 40 local education authorities additional funding to reduce those class sizes to no more than 15. Does the hon. Lady therefore agree that, having made that concession, the provision should be applied to all reception classes so that all four-year-olds, especially young four-year-olds, receive proper early-years provision rather than extended reception provision?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I thank the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough for explaining why he was late returning to hear the ministerial reply. That is an example of courtesy which not only the Minister but hon. Members very much appreciate.

Ms Hodge

Thank you, for making remarks with which I should like to associate myself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, particularly given my previous comments before the hon. Gentleman explained his absence. I draw to his attention the fact that we have so far helped 60 LEAs, not 40. I entirely agree that what matters now is to get absolutely right the offer that fouryear—olds enjoy. Part of it relates to the adult-child ratio in those settings. We have made a start and I cannot prejudge the Chancellor's future decisions about extending the provision across the country, but it is of great importance if we are to provide the quality education that we want.

The hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough mentioned independent schools. I draw his attention to a clause in the Care Standards Bill that will give powers to the Secretary of State to introduce regulations to regulate and inspect the provision for children under five in independent schools. We are consulting the independent sector about that. I draw hon. Members attention to a serious problem with a number of independent schools in which perhaps half a dozen children are of statutory school age, but many more are below it. The fact that they have a few children of statutory school age exempts them from the regulation and inspection regime. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about that. We are consulting on it with the independent sector.

Business rates for private providers is a difficult issue. Rates are set according to market value. The market value of a school is far less than the market value of what might often have been domestic properties before they became private nurseries—that leads to a difference in rateable values. The issue has already been drawn to my attention and I am considering whether there is anything that we can do about it.

I commend the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley has done on child care issues. I hope that together we can sort out something for the Palace of Westminster—we ought to lead by example here at the heart of the nation if we are serious about evolving a national child care strategy. I agree with my hon. Friend's comments on the conference that we recently attended. Eighteen months into the national child care strategy, it was heartening to see more than 500 people, from the north of Scotland down to Cornwall—in respect of which my right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards is currently carrying out her ministerial duties—talking about child care. Some 200 people could not get in because the hall was full.

I have also visited many partnerships, including those in Gloucester and Bristol. My visits are often on a Saturday and it is encouraging to see as many as 150 people from various local places, with different experiences, backgrounds and interests, thinking about the local provision of early-years education and child care. We are encouraging the growth of something innovative and important.

I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley on the issue of students and child care. I trust that she, too, welcomes the money that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made available in his pre-Budget review. I hope that we will be able to use that to support individual students, rather than more provision in further education colleges. By supporting individual students, we will deal with the problem of those colleges that choose not to invest in a child care facility on site.

I am pleased that, as part of the national child care strategy, we have been able to put in £5 million annually through the Further Education Funding Council to encourage FE colleges to develop their facilities. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley on the importance of learning and skills councils. We must ensure that they put a strong emphasis on training for early-years education and child care workers.

I also agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of local authorities using the money that we give them in their standard spending assessment for early-years provision. It was depressing to find out last year that only 20 per cent. of that money had been passported through to the early-years development and child care partnerships, reflecting the priority that many local authorities give to this important work?it is important in the community, but it is not always quite as important in council chambers. We will do all that we can to urge that more happens in that regard.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) asked more than three questions. Perhaps I can combine one of my answers with a response to the thoughtful contribution of the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey). If we are to succeed, it is crucial to attract, retain and train good child care workers and thus raise quality in that sector.

It is astonishing that more people work in early-years education and child care than there are teachers. If we are to meet the demands of our current targets, we need to recruit a further 100,000 people into the sector. The work is traditionally low paid and the work force comprises 98 per cent. women and is 97 per cent. white. Although there are many talented, committed, well-qualified and competent workers, there are also too many who do not have appropriate training and qualifications. That is why we are investing a huge amount in a qualification and training framework. We have done a lot already. We have set up a new national training organisation and we are establishing a new qualifications framework.

We inherited a legacy of between 1,300 and 1,400 different qualifications—employers did not know what competencies they were buying and students did not know what competencies they would obtain from the training that they were doing. We are establishing a new national framework of nationally recognised qualifications. We are prioritising training and investing money in it via the further education sector, training and enterprise councils and the standards fund. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West said, it is important that there is an emphasis on child development.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud talked about children with special educational needs. Again, some authorities and establishments are doing really good work with those children, but there is more to do. The Department recognises that if we can identify children's needs and give the appropriate support early on, the outcome for those children will be enormously enhanced. That is why this year, for the first time, we have ring-fenced some of the money given to the early-years development and child care partnerships for investment in special educational needs. I hope that that is the start of a much longer-term strategy to tackle that issue.

My hon. Friend also mentioned child care tax credits for nannies. Where the state puts money into child care, it is important that there is a quality threshold, which is why tax credits are available only when that child care is regulated and registered. Nannies are neither regulated nor registered and, as I have explained elsewhere, to provide regulation for nannies would be an almost impossible task and would give false comfort to parents who were selecting them for their children. That is why nannies are not included in the scheme. I note, however, that the child care tax credit has been generous.

I hope that I have answered the questions that were asked. I shall conclude by saying something about the overall strategy. When we came into government, the needs of young children and their families in the changing world of work were simply not emphasised. One difference between this Government and the previous Government was the latter's belief that the interests of children and families were a matter of private concern for individuals. The state intervened only at points of crisis—when a child was at risk of abuse, for example. There was a lot of rhetoric abusing lone parents and much moralising about the nature of the family, but there was not a lot of support for families and children. I hope that we are beginning to put into place an infrastructure that will give young children the best start and will support families in the changing world of work, especially given that more mothers are working.

When we came into government, the United Kingdom lay at the bottom of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's international league tables for investment in early-years education. However, OECD colleagues made a recent visit to undertake a study of this issue and there is no

doubt that we are now leading OECD countries in both innovation and investment. Some £8 billion is being invested in this comprehensive spending review period—I call it our quiet revolution. We are expanding places, developing a quality framework, reviewing regulation and inspection, investing in training and introducing a new foundation stage with early-learning goals. All those are key initiatives.

The other initiatives to which hon. Members referred, such as, sure start and early excellence centres, are prime examples of how the Government are trying to break down traditional professional barriers. We are trying to work not merely across Government, but across sectors and professions to put children at the centre of everything that we do and to meet their needs. We want professionals to respond to children's and families' needs, rather than to their own needs.

This is the most exciting time to be working in early-years and child care. We have already achieved a huge amount. All four-year-olds have a place and the number of three-year-olds in places has doubled. We will set a target during this Parliament for universal nursery education for three-year-olds. We will deliver child care places for 1 million children by the end of this Parliament. We will have 250,000 sure start centres up and running. We will exceed our target on early excellence and we will have a new framework of qualifications and regulations.

There is a huge amount left to do and I want to end with a big thank you, not to people in the House, but to the many hundreds of people in local communities who have engaged with us so positively, despite the huge pressure that we have put on them to start delivering the best start for our young children. We can decide national policies here, but they must be delivered locally in communities. We depend on local people. We share with them the agenda of creating a more equal society to ensure that all children enjoy the opportunity to develop their potential from their earliest years. That is a vital policy and we are beginning to deliver on it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes past Five o'clock.

Back to