Education Bill

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Caroline Flint: No, I did not say that.

Mr. Turner: In that case, I withdraw that. I misheard her. She would have been right to say ''that's right'' had she done so, because it is right. That is a serious obstacle. The Government need to provide more guidance than they have so far provided if we are to go down this road, as it appears the Government are determined to do, and if there is to be a long-term commitment to the people who make these investments.

Caroline Flint: We are going into detail about how the national child care strategy can evolve and change, taking into account Government intervention in this area, which for so long was disregarded by the Conservative Government. As a result of that investment and attention since 1997, five years down the road we are starting to explore other avenues and their implications for public policy. It is worth reminding ourselves that since the introduction of the working families tax credit, 145,000 families have received help with child care costs. That compares with 47,000 families who benefited from the child care disregard in family credit at its peak. We have also seen an expansion of places and opportunities.

One of the good things about the early years and child care partnerships is that they are not a bureaucratic hurdle to be overcome, but a resource within communities for anyone interested in engaging in child care. We are focusing on early years provision, but it could be child care in the form of holiday play schemes, after-school care or breakfast clubs. They should be seen as a resource to establish the state of play of any public policy that may benefit the child care provider at any given point in time. That may be in the form of credit, but it may also mean applying to the new opportunities fund for support or going to the regional development agency if a provider wants to start up a business.

This debate shows how far we have come. Different Departments have a role in helping to develop and encourage child care in communities in its many forms. We must be mindful of the fact that policies evolve, but we should not see this issue as an obstacle to moving on. It raises questions about how we can bring other groups into the arena, but we should not see it as a hurdle that prevents us from developing and increasing the many good forms of child care in our communities.

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I want to put that on the record, because we have to understand the context in which we are having this debate. There was no national child care strategy before 1997, but we have one now. This strategy is evolving all the time. We have listened to people in early years and child care partnerships. They may say, ''This booklet is far too thick, can you help us to reduce the bureaucracy?''. The Government have responded to their concerns.

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This is an important discussion, and we need to take a careful and considered approach. There is a public debate going on. My sympathies vary towards the different forms of informal child care and the financial resources that should be provided for that. We must be wary, because there is a balance between public money going to families and how that money should be accounted for, especially with regard to the safety of the children. If there is any financial abuse of the system, that could result in money going not towards child care but into the family income, without any demonstrable benefits for the provision of child care and the needs of the children.

There is a serious debate to be had on public policy and how much public money should go into this area of family support. I welcome the fact that the Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills have acknowledged that this is an issue. We have not come to any concrete conclusion on how we might go about this task, and the Opposition certainly have not. At least we recognise that, five years into the national child-care strategy, it has developed different scenarios, and although our objectives are not being meet, the debate is still open-ended.

Mr. Lewis: There have been some significant and interesting contributions to this debate. First, I should like to respond to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. She has a long track record of campaigning on these issues, and that is to her credit. People ask what practical impact the Government have on their lives, and whether it makes a difference to the quality of their lives which Government they elect. This policy is one of the most stark examples of the changes that have occurred in local communities in only four or five years as a consequence of having a Labour rather than a Conservative Government in power. Opposition Members will say that this is a party political point, and of course it is. It is also backed up by much conclusive evidence, and I wonder whether that is why we have been going off the main core of the debate, given some of the contributions from Conservative Members.

I also want to respond to my hon. Friend's comment about being open-minded as this provision develops and evolves, and about the best way to achieve the Government's objectives. It is right that any new policy should develop. We want to increase the flexibility and amount of child care, and we want simultaneously to improve the quality. We need to deal with any unreasonable obstacle or barrier that gets in the way of achieving those objectives, so that the Government are able to meet the needs of children and their families at a local level. I agree with my hon. Friend, and I am sure that she would agree with me that the Tax Credits Bill and this part of this Bill reflect a willingness to develop the policy, review and evaluate the direction in which we are heading and be open-minded about the need to examine any obstacle or barrier.

In some ways, I do not have any disagreement with the point made by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight.

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He said that if the Government decided to extend the category of people who are eligible for the tax credit, it would be perfectly sensible and logical to expect that they would simultaneously detail the inspection framework that would be introduced for those providers. It might surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that I think that he made a perfectly reasonable request. I would regard that as good practice, and accept that sometimes it does not happen. If it does not happen, we should ensure that it does in the future. There is no reason why public announcements should not be made simultaneously, because that is when the providers will start having to gear up for the change. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that that is a movement towards his point.

I have always found the contributions of the hon. Member for Epping Forest to be positive, helpful and informed—until now. She did not make a substantive point and seemed to be playing to the Gallery. We do not often refer to the Gallery in Committee, but there is a significant presence here today. You, Mr. Pike, have already informed the Committee about the terminology of Acts and Bills, and the normal parliamentary processes. If it is possible to add to your wise deliberations, I should say that when two Bills are going through parliament in parallel, it is normal parliamentary practice for the Bills to refer to them as Acts. It has been normal practice for many years, and I shall give an example.

In 1995–96, the Education Act 1996 and the School Inspections Act 1996 were referred to in exactly the same way in the respective parts of that legislation. We may remember who was in Government in 1996, eroding parliamentary democracy and accountability, with contempt for the House of Commons and having no regard for parliamentary scrutiny. In 1996, the Government was the one that the hon. Lady so slavishly supported.

Mrs. Laing: I was not in the House in 1996, but I appreciate the Minister's his point about convention. That is all very well, and you, Mr. Pike, have given advice, which of course I do not question for a second. However, what will happen to this part of the Bill if the Tax Credits Bill does not become the Tax Credits Act 2002?

Mr. Willis: It cannot be enacted.

Mrs. Laing: I appreciate that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough is answering the question. I also understand the issue and could answer the question in the same terms, but there is no point in me asking questions of the hon. Gentleman or myself. The purpose of the Committee is to enable me to ask the Minister questions, and it is from the Minister that we require answers.

Mr. Lewis: The provisions cannot be enacted.

The Opposition have referred throughout the Committee to the lack of time to scrutinise the Bill and to the fact that the usual channels have perhaps not been as co-operative as they would have wanted. We have wasted a significant amount of time on a point that has no relevance and no purpose. There is a test of parliamentary accountability and scrutiny. Let

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us use it on the public. I ask the Gallery to respond on mass to the test—

The Chairman: Order. We do not recognise that there is a Gallery and so that is not possible.

Mr. Lewis: I am sorry, Mr. Pike. There is nevertheless a test that we can carry out with the public. If two pieces of related legislation were going through the House of Commons on a policy area and each one would have a direct impact on the other, I submit that the public would want them dealt with under the current legislative procedure. We live in an era when more than ever the public want common sense from politicians, a sense that there is joined-up government and some consistency and logic to the way that parliamentary business is conducted. Let us move on to discuss serious matters of relevance to schools, parents and children and move off a subject on which the hon. Lady has spent a long time, although I suspect she knows it was a bogus intervention.

 
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Prepared 22 January 2002