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Day Nurseries (Blackburn)

Volume 979: debated on Tuesday 19 February 1980

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Cope.]

11.5 pm

I now realise that one of the many benefits of being successful in the ballot for Adjournment debates is to be a witness of such a fascinating and scintillating debate as the one that preceded this debate.

There are six day nurseries in the borough of Black burn, five within the town itself providing places for approximately 225 children and one in Darwen that caters for another 50 children. Last month, as part of its programme of cuts, the county council's social services committee had before it a proposal to close one of the Blackburn day nurseries, Holden House, which caters for 35 children, and two other nurseries in the county, one in the constituency of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson), whom I am pleased to see here tonight, and one in Colne. The aim was to save £51,000 in 1980–81 and £154,000 in subsequent years.

The closures were partly justified by the county council on the ground that the level of provision in the areas served by these day nurseries was in excess of 20 places per thousand children under 5. In 1978 a circular was issued by the Departments of Health and Social Security and of Education and Science to local authorities about the provision of facilities for day care facilities for children under 5. Although that circular was issued under the previous Government, the Under-Secretary of State told me earlier this month in a written answer that he fully endorsed the contents of the circular and its predecessor issued in 1976.

The 1978 circular said that priority for places in day nurseries should be given to those in special need, including children of working lone parents, children with a mental or physical handicap or whose home environment is so impoverished or so strained that they need day care and those whose parents are, through illness or handicap, unable to look after them during the day. Those guidelines have been followed nationally, and also locally in Blackburn and in the Holden House day nursery, since all the parents having children at that day nursery fall within those priority categories.

So it was with the gravest concern and apprehension that the threatened closure of the day nursery was greeted in my constituency. It was also greeted by some astonishment, because even the Lancashire county council, though not known for its charity, had never been expected to consider such a callous and uncaring act as this.

The result was that the Blackburn One-Parent Families Association, ably led by Mrs. Doreen MacDonald, quickly organised a campaign of opposition to these cuts and, with opposition from Accrington and Colne as well, the social services committee agreed at its January meeting to defer its decision until 18 March.

I met a large group of the parents concerned on 25 January. Since then the campaign organisers have been able to collect 2,000 signatures on a petition calling for the day nursery to be kept open. By a coincidence that is so extraordinary that it is no coincidence at all, the chairman of the social services committee, Dr. David Murray, announced earlier today that in the light of further consideration of the issue and because of the pressure that has been applied, he would now be recommending to the social services committee when it meets on 18 March that, after all, the Holden House day nursery and the other two in Accrington and Colne should not now be closed.

That is a great victory for all those who have been associated with the campaign to keep these three nurseries open. But while the news of the Holden House reprieve is of course welcome, the timing and the content of the chairman's announcement says very little for the manner in which the committee first proposed this closure—a proposal which can best be described as cavalier and unthinking. The announcement does nothing to compensate parents and staff for the anxiety which this threat of closure caused to them. If the county council had bothered to study fully the important service provided by Holden House it would never have proposed closure in the first place. Nor would it have done so if it had shown any serious understanding of the needs of some of the more deprived children in an inner urban area such as Blackburn.

Closure would have had a desperate effect on many of the families involved. It would have forced some of the parents to leave work and go on to supplementary benefit and would have placed some of the children at risk. Further, there would have been far lower savings to the public than the county council suggested, because any of the gross savings to Lancashire would have been offset by an increase in supplementary benefit payments to those parents who had to stop working.

One other lesson that we have learnt from this unhappy saga is just how insensitive to local needs and unwieldy are the remote county authorities—such as Lancashire county council—that now run social services. We have seen how Blackburn and Accrington, the urban heartland of Lancashire, have had to fight all the way against the complacent deadweight of the overwhelmingly Conservative Fylde that now dominates the politics of the county council and how loud one has to shout to drive home even the clearest points.

The facts should have been plain to the county council from the beginning. Of the 35 children in the day nursery over 80 per cent. come from one-parent families. All the remaining children were admitted on proof of the most serious social need, including the serious illness of parents or poor or unstable home conditions.

When I met the parents concerned at the end of last month, I asked a group of 11 of them what would happen to them if the day nursery closed. Some said that they would try to make alternative arrangements by way of child minders but all were pessimistic about the chances of finding a decent child minder and very apprenhensive about whether they could meet the cost.

Of the 10 parents who were out during the day—seven at work and three studying—six said that they thought that they would have to give up their work or studies altogether were the day nursery to close and go on supplementary benefit. Three of the parents feared for the future of their children because those children had entered the day nursery precisely as a result of behavioural problems or family and home difficulties.

The fact that all the children were and are in serious social need also shows how absurd and misplaced it was for the county council to rely on crude references to national guidelines about places per head of the population to justify the closure of this day nursery in what is unquestionably the borough with greatest social need in the whole county of Lancashire.

When the guideline figure was put into the Department of Health and Social Security circular 35/72 in 1972 it was made clear that it was a national guideline and was not intended to be used in narrow local circumstances such as those in Blackburn. The circular stated:
"even when that figure is achieved nationally it is likely that need will remain for greatly increased use of full and part-time day care."
It is true that Blackburn's provision of day nursery places is well above the guidelines; but so is need in the area. It is well above both national and county average. That is shown clearly by figures from "Community Indicators" published by the Chartered Institute for Public Finance and Accountancy. On almost every indicator Blackburn emerges as worse than Lancashire as a whole and also significantly worse than English counties. There are more single-parent families, more large families, more people from the New Commonwealth, more unskilled workers and, perhaps most significant of all, a much higher proportion of women at work with children under 5 than in Lancashire as a whole and in the country as a whole.

It was figures such as these and others relating to housing conditions that led the previous Government to designate Blackburn as the only inner urban area within the county of Lancashire, a designation that the present Government have not disturbed. I hope that when the Under-Secretary replies he will not make too much of the present level of provision because in comparison with need it is not over-generous.

Like my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Accrington I do not accept the economic policies of this Government. Even if I did, the county council has no need to contemplate cuts of this nature. The social services committee in Lancashire is already well within the targets set by the county council.

The meanness of the proposal can be well illustrated by looking at the figures involved. Closure would have meant a saving next year of £50,000 in respect of the three day nurseries or one-fiftieth of 1p on the county rates. Each family in Lancashire would have saved the princely sum of 9p per year. Against the savings to the county council have to be set the cost to the DHSS of parents who would have ben forced to give up their jobs and go on to supplementary benefit. If only 15 of the 35 parents at Holden House had been so forced on to supplementary benefit—that is in my view an under-estimate—the cost in supplementary benefit, and tax and national insurance forgone would have been over £30,000. That is more than the total saving from the closure of the day nurseries would have been in the first year—and would result in a saving of only £20,000 in subsequent years.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will indicate in his reply whether he has asked local authorities to take such wider calculations into account in seeking to make economies. Why, given the vital importance of these services, have local authorities not been given more effective advice to protect these nurseries? I should like to know the advice that has been given to the authorities when they have been asked to make cuts in such services.

It is a terrible indictment of the Government's social priorities that the poorest and most vulnerable groups such as those using day nurseries have been put at risk by a doctrinaire economic policy which, even by its own standards, is bound to fail and which seems to provide nothing but misery, hardship and anxiety to the wage earners in my constituency.

11.16 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) on managing to acquire this Adjournment debate at such a singularly convenient time. I do not believe that the convenient time was a complete coincidence. It may well be that those who came to this happy conclusion on the subject matter of the debate were content to regard it as such. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on this speech and the fight that he has put up generally to keep the nurseries going.

It is inconceivable that the county council could ever have contemplated closing the nurseries. Indeed, it would have been a disaster if it had succeeded in closing the Manchester Road nursery in my constituency. Of the 34 to 42 children normally at that nursery, only three come from two-parent families. The result of the closure would have been that the weakest and most vulnerable parents would have been forced either to give tip work and live on social security —that seems to be against the philosophy of this Government—or to try to find alternative places for their children. They would not have succeeded in doing so without great cost and inconvenience. It has been estimated that the nearest nursery would have added about two hours' travelling time for those unfortunate ladies plus the burden of three times more expensive bus fares.

My hon. Friend has outlined the folly and foolishness of the project, and I need not underline that. However, I should like to praise the Hyndbum Nursery Action Group for the fight that it has put up. It obtained about 4,000 signatures in one week—an indication of the hostility and resentment caused by the proposal throughout my constituency. A campaign cannot exist without publicity. I should also like to praise—as I am sure my hon. Friend would—the local press, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph and the Accrington Observer, for the help that they have given by highlighting an action that could have caused great disaster to many throughout north-east Lancashire.

11.19 pm

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) for raising the subject of day care for young children. The subject is of particular interest to me. Some three years ago, I raised an Adjournment debate on the broader subject of education for the under-fives. That is the definitive speech on the subject. It was made on 14 January 1977 and I commend it to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman has provided a welcome opportunity to outline briefly the Government's policy and to dispel the delusions voiced in some quarters—that we are not interested in the welfare of pre-school children and their families. As the hon. Gentleman has conceded, the reason for the Adjournment debate has now passed. However, I shall discuss our policy under four broad headings: prevention, regulation, support and last, but by no means least, optimising the use of resources.

First I shall deal with prevention, by which I mean measures to prevent family breakdown and to avert the need to take children into local authority care. Ideally the pre-school child should be cared for by a parent. There is no substitute for the love, care and attention which a committed parent can give. Where that is not possible, we feel that the first priority for the statutory authorities and all others involved in this field must be to seek to meet the needs of those families with a special social or health need for day care. Such families are often called the priority families. These include many of those about whom both hon. Gentlemen have tonight expressed such concern. Day nurseries undoutedly have an important role to play in meeting the needs of these families. However, we think that it is particularly important that their needs should be looked at also on a wider basis —for the facilities available in day nurseries to be complemented and supplemented by other forms of day care. Day nurseries are expensive and, even more important, there is a growing body of expert opinion that considers that the institutional type of care that they provide is not the best thing for many young children. One possible answer is to increase the involvement of parents in the day-to-day running of nurseries. This is now happening in a number of places, and I welcome all moves in that direction. Parental involvement benefits the children—by adding to the homely atmosphere in the nursery—and it can also be of great benefit to the parents, many of whom can learn much from the skill and expertise of the staff in looking after children, in playing with them and in coping with the problems, fads, tantrums and idiosyncracies that small children are so prone to display.

To have parents around all the time may make life more complicated and may disturb a well-established routine. I hope however, that staff will appreciate the benefits to be gained and that they will recognise the value of such moves. However, for many young children, especially those under 3 and those with special problems, such as beset many of those in the priority groups, the sort of care such as that which a good childminder can provide is likely to be more in tune with the child's limited capacity for social contacts than the communal experience of a day nursery.

Good child minding also has many advantages for working mothers, as it can more readily be arranged to suit their hours of work and is often much nearer home than other forms of provision. Another great advantage is that it can readily be related to the particular needs of an individual child. It can encourage the development of relationships with individual adults that are often difficult to foster in a day nursery with the frequent changes of staff that most of them experience. I, therefore, welcome the moves that a number of local authorities are making to develop child-minding services in their areas. I am very interested in schemes that link childminders and day nurseries that operate in the same area. In this way it is much easier to choose the form of day care—and the individual best able to provide it—for a particular child.

I move on now to the second strand of our policy in this field—the regulation of services. We fully recognise that some parents will need to go out to work. It is not, however, for the State automatically to provide facilities for the children of working mothers. But the State has a very real interest in ensuring that the quality of the day care services for young children is satisfactory. We have, therefore, stressed to local authorities—which are responsible for regulating day care services in their area—the importance of doing all they can to foster the development and raise the standard of day care facilities in their area. While resource constraints will clearly limit what can be done in this field at present, we see the benefits to be gained from support and advice services for childminders, private day nurseries and other facilities as an excellent investment. I am, therefore, particularly pleased to hear of the plans, to which I shall be referring again later, of the Lancashire authorities to foster an increasing degree of professionalism among childminders working in the county.

The legislation that governs the regulation of day care services is also often criticised as being out of date and unworkable. It dates back to 1948, and we are therefore looking at it to see whether it should be brought more into line with current needs.

The third strand of our policy—support —brings me on to a subject very close to our hearts. That is the need to counter the all too common attitude that mothers who stay at home to look after their children are doing a second-rate job. We must stop demoralising the country's mothers. The job that they do is frequently more demanding and skilled than any job done by their husbands. I feel that it is vital that the importance of the role of the mother who looks after her children at home should be fully acknowledged and that steps should be taken to improve the quality of her life.

For that reason, we particularly welcome the work being done by the preschool playgroup movement to enable mothers with young children to get out and about. That is of great benefit to mothers and their children. The development of playgroups can do much to develop a spirit of community in an area and help to relieve the loneliness and isolation that affects the lives of many mothers with young children.

The last strand of our policy that I want to mention tonight is the need to optimise the use of all available resources, not only of scarce finance and skilled manpower, but of all the good will and expertise available in the community. I have already mentioned the work of the preschool playgroups movement. There are many other examples of valuable and imaginative work being done by voluntary agencies and from community initiatives. We hope that authorities will foster these initiatives.

It was the policy of the previous Government to encourage co-ordination in the provision of services for under-fives, and we are happy to maintain that policy. We want to ensure that all those working in the field of the under-fives work together to ensure that developments in one area, or by one group, are planned in full knowledge of what is being done by others. Only in that way can we ensure that we are making optimum use of all resources.

We need to involve all those who have an interest in the needs of under-fives—the statutory agencies and the voluntary organisations. I am fully aware of the difficulties that that presents. The voluntary agencies are jealous, and rightly jealous, of their independence. The statutory agencies have to be aware of their responsibilities to their authorities and elected members. Professional workers have very real differences in their perceptions and approach. We are asking them all to come together, forget their differences and work together in the interests of young children and their families.

Despite all the difficulties, it is most encouraging to see the extent to which co-ordination, collaboration and consultation are being achieved. At central Government level, we work very closely with the Department of Education and Science, and also have close ties with voluntary organisations active in that field. I am pleased to say that close co-operation is also widely practised between education and social services departments and local voluntary organisations in the field. The proposed amendment to the Education Act to enable teachers to be employed in nurseries should ensure that teaching skills are more widely available, and enable another barrier to be broken down. However, there is no room to be complacent, and I am sure that there is still room for further improvements in local co-ordination to secure the best use of resources in the interests of young children.

I have outlined the main strands of our policy, and I hope that I have made quite clear the importance that we attach to the needs of young children and their families. However, responsibility for the day-to-day provision of day care facilities rests with local authorities. They have to make the difficult decisions on priorities between services in the light of their assessment of local needs and conditions. Because of the planned reduction in local government spending as a whole, social service authorities cannot necessarily be expected to maintain expenditure on personal social services at previous levels. Services for young children cannot expect automatic exemption from reductions. However, Ministers do not regard that lightly but realise that the country must live within its means.

As the Government said in their previous White Paper on public expenditure, we expect that savings will, as far as possible, be made by further increases in efficiency, by reducing or eliminating low priority provision, by developing policies to help people to help themselves and others and by promoting collaboration with the voluntary sector. Where reductions in standards of provision prove necessary, authorities are relied upon to implement those in ways which, as far as possible, protect the most vulnerable, amongst whom must be some of the young children in the priority groups mentioned by both hon. Members. To improve child minding services in place of expensive day nursery care can be seen to be compatible with these objectives. It remains, however, for individual authorities to decide the eventual distribution of the resources available to them.

I now turn to the proposal for the closure of day nurseries in their constituencies, to which the hon. Member for Blackburn and the hor, and learned Member for Accrington (Mr. Davidson) have drawn attention. First, I should like to stress one point. It remains a proposal, on which no final decision has yet been made. Many of the proposals for reductions in services up and down the country which have been widely publicised have not, in the event, been accepted or endorsed by the authority. Indeed, I understand that the chairman of Lancashire social services committee yesterday announced that no nurseries are to be closed at present. Although I fully appreciate the hon. Members' concern for those who might be affected, were this proposal in due course to be approved, I think that we need first to see the proposal in its wider context.

I understand that the proposal, which has now been abandoned, to close the nurseries is part of a wider package of measures. There are at present five nurseries in Blackburn and four in Accrington which provide 223 and 184 places respectively. Were they to be closed, these numbers would be reduced by 31 and 34 places respectively. Even so, the number of places remaining would represent over 20 places per 1,000 children under 5. That compares with about 16 per 1,000 throughout Lancashire and 9 per 1,000 in the country as a whole. I fully appreciate that in a town like Blackburn, with a long tradition of women going out to work, there may be a greater call on day care services than in other areas. It is, therefore, particularly interesting to note the other complementary plans that I understand Lancashire social services department has for the development of day care services. These include, I am told, further support and development of child minding services. That would be in line with national policies, and could result in services much better tailored to the needs of many children and their families. Although I have not yet seen the full details of what is proposed, and, of course, decisions remain to be taken locally, I shall await with great interest news of developments in the field of day care for young children and support for their families in Blackburn and Accrington.

It has become clear that the original reason for the debate has been put behind us. It has been interesting to hear the particular problems that both hon. Members face in their constituencies, and I hope that they have found this exposition of the Government's policy useful.

I should like to thank the Minister for the fullness of his reply, and to apologise to him and to the House for keeping hon. Members up so long.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Twelve o'clock.