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Under Fives

Volume 927: debated on Tuesday 8 March 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Social Services if he will make a statement on the progress on the Government's new policy for the under-fives announced in October 1975.

Our thinking on under-fives was summarised in Section IX of our consultative document—"Priorities for Health and Personal Social Services in England"—published in March 1976. A circular issued jointly by my Department and the Department of Education and Science in March 1976 emphasised the importance of co-ordination of central and local services for under-fives and the need to make maximum use of existing resources. The Government welcome the efforts that local authorities are making within the constraints imposed by the current economic situation to improve their services.

Will the Minister confirm that DOE Circular 120–76 is now official Government policy with regard to under-fives? Does he not accept that it is shameful, even in the current economic dilemma, to cut back on further nursery provision under any circumstances?

That question should properly be directed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. My responsibility is only for pre-school playgroups and child minding. Our policy is not yet finalised. It is still out for consultation with the priorities document.

In view of the evidence on the health of under-fives that has since emerged from the Court Report, will my hon. Friend, as a matter of urgency, look at the two main suggestions proposed in the report regarding child health visitors and general practitioners becoming specialists in pediatrics?

We have recently received the Court Report. It is now out for consultation, so that we shall see how we proceed to implement it. I have to say that a number of the Court Committtee's recommendations seem to have substantial resource implications, and that will have to be borne in mind.

Will the Minister inject a fresh degree of urgency into the consultations with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to try to get a rational and co-ordinated approach towards the needs of the under-fives, and at the same time get away from the damaging and illogical split in approach between the two Departments which now exist?

A number of experiments are going on up and down the country into the DHSS service under the aegis of local authorities and the Department of Education to try to bring about much closer co-ordination. We have this very much in mind, and a circular urging co-ordination between education and social service activities was issued by my Department and the Department of Education and Science.

In view of the fact that almost every question asked by Opposition Members this afternoon has demanded an increase in public expenditure, will my hon. Friend have a word with the Chancellor and tell him that it would be inappropriate to reduce income tax in his Budget on 29th March and that we would much prefer him to meet the demands with regard to public expenditure that Opposition Members have been making this afternoon?

I am not entirely sure whether I should approach my right hon. Friend with a suggestion that income tax should not be reduced. I have noticed the phenomenon to which my right hon. Friend draws attention. Whenever Opposition Members are challenged, they say that the particular point they are urging at any particular time should be exempt from public expenditure cuts. What we have not yet discovered is where they believe that the public expenditure cuts should take place.