Education Bill

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Mrs. Laing: I apologise; I was not sure whether the Minister had finished his point. With the expansion of the categories, could there be providers who are funded through tax credits but who are not inspected?

Mr. Lewis: No, is the short answer. The debate is about the nature of the inspection: its light touch, whether it is a full inspection and whether it can be appropriate to fit the purpose. That would have to be considered along with any extension.

Caroline Flint: I am delighted by the discussion so far, because I advocated that we consider the registration of in-home child care, particularly for shift workers and those with disabled children, in Committee on the Care Standards Bill. I am pleased that there will be more debate on that.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware of a particular problem. Low-income families tend to use more informal child care, which is currently not covered by the criteria for the tax credit. Ironically,

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therefore, some of the lowest-income families cannot take advantage of the tax credits that we are targeting at that group. Informal child care often means both parents trying to balance child-care arrangements.

If we are widening access to tax credits, we need to be aware of any abuse in the system, whether or not inspection takes a different form for different categories. That is why there should be contact with the child care provider, whether formal or informal. That would enable us to satisfy ourselves that the child was being looked after in appropriate conditions, and to check for any abuse of the system.

Mr. Lewis: My hon. Friend shows her vast knowledge of, and sensitivity in, these matters. I agree with what she has said, but we return to the fact that the Conservative party often, although not always, opposes regulation because of ideological reasons, regardless of whether it is necessary, right or appropriate. The Government do not believe in regulation for its own sake, but in some areas of public policy—child care is one—it is essential to put safeguards in place.

Sadly, we all know of cases of abuse, and we also know that they are not typical of what happens in child care. Sometimes abuse is presented as if it were a daily occurrence, but it is not. However, because of justifiable concerns and proven cases of things going dreadfully wrong, there should be appropriate regulation and inspection. Most reasonable members of the Committee and people outside accept that, but we must always get the balance right.

It may help the Committee to consider parents who may be disadvantaged and whom we need to support. Parents of disabled children who work shifts or are lone parents cannot always access existing forms of child care. They may require child care in their own home. At present, such care is not eligible for child care tax credit support. However, the Chancellor announced that the Government were considering how to help that group of parents. The Tax Credits Act 1999 allows the Government to extend such assistance but, under existing legislation, there is not a parallel statutory base for inspection or a quality framework. Those parents are disadvantaged, and I think that all reasonable people would agree that they should benefit most from the expansion of child care.

11.45 am

Mrs. Laing: We have explored that aspect of clause 147 very well, and I am grateful to the Minister for his explanation of extremely important points.

I am not sure whether I should raise my next point as a point of order, but I think that it should be a question to the Minister. I am concerned about the reference at line 43 on page 87 to the Tax Credits Act 2002. For the past 20 minutes, we have discussed tax credits and their effect. We discussed them in the abstract, and I appreciate that the Minister has replied on the basis of the Government's intentions which, in all fairness, is all that he can do.

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My concern is that the clause refers to an Act, not to the Bill or to such legislation as may from time to time be enforced or words to that effect. It refers to a Bill as if it were an Act of Parliament. I appreciate that the Government are not interested in the democratic process, and I do not blame the Minister personally. The Government's modus operandi is that democracy and Parliament do not matter. What happens in the House of Commons, in Committees, or in the other place does not matter, because the Government have a huge majority of seats and, therefore, can do as they wish.

Even given that disgraceful state of affairs, which we have learned to live with, how can we debate a clause if an integral part of the argument refers to an Act of Parliament that does not exist? It is possible that the Tax Credits Bill may not become the Tax Credits Act 2002. If that were the case, how would we appropriately amend the clause? Our only opportunity to amend it is here and now in the Committee, on Report or, possibly, in the other place.

What would happen if the Tax Credits Bill did not become the Tax Credits Act 2002, or if the timing were such that the Education Bill became an Act of Parliament before the Tax Credits Bill became an Act, if it does? It is by no means a certainty. If it were a certainty, why would we bother being here at all? If it is certain that any Bill that the Government bring forward becomes an Act—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig): Calm down.

Mrs. Laing: I will not calm down. The matter is exceedingly important. It concerns the basis of our democratic process. [Interruption.] Labour Members laugh, as do those to whom I may not refer. They seem to think that it is amusing that a Government can bring forward a Bill and assume that it will become an Act, thereby negating any hope of making democracy work.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): I hesitate to interrupt my hon. Friend when she is in such fine form, but I would like to point out that, even if the Tax Credits Bill were to become an Act, the Government set a precedent last year with the Utilities Bill, which was introduced and debated, only for the Government to decide during the Committee stage to tear up half of it because it was such unadulterated rubbish. Could not the same fate befall the current Bill?

The Chairman: Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Epping Forest, I point out that all Bills that are progressing through the House refer to themselves as Acts, just as this one does. [Interruption.] Order. The Bill is only a Bill, but it calls itself an Act. I understand the point that is being made, but that is the situation.

Mrs. Laing: Thank you for that ruling, Mr. Pike. I entirely accept your point, but it is not relevant to line 43 on page 87, which does not refer to this Bill but to another Bill as an Act. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West is correct. I do not think any other member of the Committee was also a member of the Committee that

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scrutinised the Utilities Bill, but I was and I will always recall sitting for several hours while the Minister tabled amendments that deleted one-third of that Bill. Because we do not know what is in the Government's mind, they could suddenly do a U-turn on the Tax Credits Bill so that it does not become an Act after all. There is no certainty about a Bill becoming an Act, and I do not accept that it is legitimate to refer to another Bill as an Act.

Mr. Turner: I confess that I was going to continue the debate about the other principles that have been discussed this morning. It has been demonstrated that there is no problem so great that Government intervention cannot make it worse. It is exactly the problem of over-regulation to which my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell referred. The Government want to assist families, particularly poorer families, to access child care. That is excellent. The Government worry about the quality of the child care that those families are accessing; that is also understandable. They regulate, inspect and provide mechanisms which, as far as possible—Labour Members and I are not apart on this; we accept that it is not always possible—provide guarantees for parents about the quality of the education that they are accessing. However, there are difficult cases, such as the nanny of my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest, the disabled child to whom the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) referred, who needs to be taken care of at home, or—the Minister was quick to brush away this suggestion—my granny, to whom I referred earlier. A private sector provider may have no intention of complying with the Government's regulations because he does not foresee a child being educated at his school whose parents will have to have recourse to tax credit. It was not clear in the Minister's answer to the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough how a provider would find out that the parent was receiving tax credit.

Mr. Willis: The provider has to sign it.

Mr. Turner: The provider becomes aware that the parent is receiving tax credit, but then immediately has to either exclude the child or persuade the Government to include his nursery within the ambit of inspected and regulated nurseries. I appreciate that the Government do not propose the same level of inspection for all these settings. As we have seen, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell made it clear, the more difficult the cases are, the less likely it is that people will be willing to invest their time, energy and enthusiasm in undertaking these difficult tasks when they do not know the level of inspection to which the Government expect them to submit themselves.

A bald clause or subsection such as subsection (1) of clause 147 is of no earthly use to the people involved in provision. It does not give the indications they need before they are willing to make the financial and personal investmentinvestment of time and training, energy and enthusiasmin setting up new provision. The Minister shakes his head, but I am sorry to say that this happens right across those areas in which the Government introduce inspection and regulation. People invest time and enthusiasm, and in many

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cases their money, and then find that they cannot get over an obstacle which the Government have subsequently put in their way. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Don Valley for her sotto voce remark: ''That's right''.

 
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