The provision of child care facilities is primarily a matter for employers. Ministers have recently taken a number of practical initiatives to encourage the development of good quality child care provision.
That inadequate reply will cause disappointment in many parts of the House. Does the Secretary of State understand that child care is an idea whose time has come, because the overwhelming majority of new entrants to the labour market will be women? We shall recruit them only if we take the right steps now. The Government should not have a hands-off policy—standing back and leaving it to everyone else—but should take the responsibility for creating a comprehensive nationwide system of child care. That will not come cheap, but the Government should bear the largest burden because they will recoup in extra income tax, national insurance contributions and value added tax much of the money that they would have spent on a child care system.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance of making provision for women who wish to return to work. The labour force survey, which was published at the end of last week, shows a dramatic increase in the number of women at work and is evidence that women are returning to work in ever-growing numbers. However, I do not think that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman would suggest that the Government should assume responsibility for the wide-ranging measures to which he referred. That is primarily a matter for employers, who are increasingly recognising their responsibilities.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that a high proportion of women who return to work are employed by small companies which are incapable of providing the type of child care facilities that women need? Will he assure us that his Department is studying the whole range of possibilities, such as vouchers and other mechanisms, by which such women can be attracted back? There is already an excellent precedent in the employment training facility.
I note what my hon. Friend says. I am sure that employers are looking increasingly at precisely the type of facilities to which he referred. However, the primary responsibility must be theirs.
Is not the local authority the best provider of child care? It knows what local people want. If local authorities were given the resources, they would be the best provider of child care. That would stop kids being dragged about in the early hours of the morning on buses and other forms of transport. Why does not the Minister accept his responsibilities as a member of the Government? If it could be done during the war, why cannot it be done now?
Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that more women are working in this country than in any other European country? Although many of those jobs are part time, which the Opposition deride, does he accept that many want part-time work because it fits in with their family responsibilities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on both counts. I take some comfort from the Select Committee's recent report on part-time work. It paid particular tribute to the record of my Department, which makes part-time work available to virtually everyone who is appropriately qualified to do the job in question.