§ 29. Mr. Gareth Thomas (Harrow, West)
What steps she is taking to promote access to affordable child care. 
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes)
What steps she is taking to assist working mothers to obtain affordable child care. 
§ The Minister for Women (Ms Patricia Hewitt)
The Government are committed, through their national child care strategy, to ensuring that accessible, affordable and good quality child care is available in every neighbourhood. I am glad to say that, in the last five years, we have already created nearly 500,000, new child care places, which are benefiting nearly 1 million children, and that we are on track to meet our target of creating new places for 1.6 million children by 2004.
§ Mr. Thomas
Does my right hon. Friend accept that after-school clubs—such as those provided at Vaughan first and middle schools, Pinner Wood first and middle schools, and Earlsmead first and middle schools in my constituency—are a key form of affordable child care? Does she understand the frustration of head teachers and school governing bodies that they are technically, in law, unable to provide the after-school clubs directly themselves, and that they have to set up separate organisations to do so, with all the extra work load that that creates? What are the Government's plans to tackle that issue? If we have not solved the problem, will she undertake to discuss it as a matter of urgency with colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills?
§ Ms Hewitt
I congratulate the schools in my hon. Friend's constituency that are already providing after-school clubs, which are hugely useful for children and their parents. In the Education Bill, we are already giving further powers to head teachers to deal with some of the problems that my hon. Friend has rightly identified. I will certainly ensure that we consider that matter in the review being led by the performance and innovation unit, 1032 in which we are looking at our child care strategy right across government to ensure that we are doing everything possible to ensure that parents and children get the child care that they need.
§ Mr. Steen
The Minister will know that I am a great fan of hers. I hope, therefore, that she will understand why I wonder whether it is discriminatory that she is the Minister for Women rather than the Minister for Parenting. Does she agree that we need to change the business culture in this country so that businesses provide creches for parents—whether they are men or women—with young children? Should we not give them some kind of tax break to encourage this?
§ Ms Hewitt
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that balancing work and family, and meeting the needs of children, are issues for fathers just as much as for mothers. He will be aware that from next April, under the Employment Act 2002, two weeks paid paternity leave will be available to fathers for the first time. Indeed, Fathers Direct has announced that tomorrow night is the key date for would-be parents if they want to be among the first to take advantage of the new provisions.
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that workplace creches are not always the preferred choice of parents, particularly those who work in cities and do not want to take small children to work on what might be a crowded commuting journey. We are, however, examining all those issues in the PIU review, to ensure that, with the support of employers, education authorities, the voluntary sector and so on, we get the range of child care services that will meet different parents' needs.
§ Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)
My right hon. Friend will be aware that there are huge discrepancies with regard to affordable child care, particularly in London. One of the issues that is causing difficulty for some of my constituents who wish to expand the physical premises on which a nursery is held has to do with the planning system. Will my right hon. Friend please speak to her colleagues in the relevant Department to see whether there is a way of speeding up this process, if not of reducing the relevant requirements?
§ Ms Hewitt
My hon. Friend raises an immensely important point. Like her, I know of several nurseries and child care centres that are unable to expand because they simply cannot get the premises or the planning permission that they need. The Government have already embarked on a radical reform of planning law to ensure that businesses are not held back from desirable expansion, whether in this or any other sector. That reform will go ahead as quickly as possible.
§ Sandra Gidley (Romsey)
Many organisations now require flexible working, but child care provision generally does not reflect that. Does the Minister agree that employers are best placed to make such provision? Is she happy with the fact that only 5 per cent. of employers provide creches, and if not, what will she do to remedy the situation?
§ Ms Hewitt
There is no doubt that child care in the workplace can be useful in some circumstances. My Department provides several places at a Westminster 1033 nursery, which are very popular with some of my officials. As I said earlier, however, most parents say that they do not want to take young children to work, and would prefer other forms of support from their employers. Many employers do provide other forms of support, by subsidising the cost of child care elsewhere or simply by ensuring that parents whom they employ obtain adequate information about all the choices available to them. We will, however, examine the issue further in the PIU study.
§ Caroline Flint (Don Valley)
As I have said before, it worries me that those responsible for driving our economic agenda in the regional development agencies and the Small Business Service do not seem to consider child care an important part of the infrastructure to help families combine work and family life. Will my right hon. Friend, wearing her hat as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, seek reports from all the regional development agencies and, in particular, from the Small Business Service on what they contribute? Such provision is vital if we are to make work meaningful for people with families, and help others to get out of poverty and into work.
§ Ms Hewitt
Following an earlier question from my hon. Friend, I raised the matter directly with the chairs of all the regional development agencies. I stressed that child care was as important a part of our economic and social infrastructure as roads, railways, broadband telecommunication networks and so forth. Increasingly, agencies are working with the Department for Education and Skills and other Departments involved in the child care strategy, and considering how they can help to expand child care facilities. That will depend on the particular needs of regions and on investment programmes.
§ Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)
Along with, I am sure, most working parents, I am bracing myself for the six-week summer holiday. I am sure that I am not alone in being dismayed by a survey published in The Timeslast week, which revealed that nearly 50 per cent. of all working parents have no relatives or friends on whom they can rely to look after their children during the holiday.
How would the Minister respond to the criticism expressed by Stephen Burke of the Daycare Trust, a leading child care charity, who said that parents were 1034 forced to spend huge sums on child care during the summer holidays because of the shortage of play schemes? He addedEven where schemes do exist, they are beyond the reach of many parents".I hope that the Minister agrees that this is an area in which affordable child care provision is woefully inadequate.
§ Ms Hewitt
We have been considering the whole issue and are looking at ways to expand provision of holiday play schemes for children of all ages throughout the country, but particularly in the most disadvantaged communities. Such schemes are hugely important, not just in ensuring that children are safe and properly cared for during the summer holidays while their parents are at work, but in preventing young people from being tempted into criminal activities because they have nothing better to do.
Provision is indeed being expanded as a result of our early years partnership, but of course more needs to be done. That is why we are increasing investment in child care. We will soon have the PIU report, which will help us to do even more in this important area.
§ Mr. Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw)
The Minister will know that the school holidays have already begun in Scotland. Thousands of working mothers are taking their children abroad. May I quote from the Civil Aviation Authority's cabin safety procedure bulletin?
"Emergency situations have shown that the separation of family groups, especially children, may lead to problems in emergency situations. Of particular concern is that during emergency evacuations, group members…might seek each other out during the evacuation process. Such actions could have an adverse effect on passenger flow rates towards emergency exits, and might seriously"—
§ Ms Hewitt
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. I understand that some package holiday companies charge extra for a family who want to be seated together, even though, as he rightly says, the cabin safety guidelines say that that is desirable. I shall ask the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson), who has responsibility for consumer affairs, to look into the problem and give my hon. Friend a more detailed reply.