Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for granting this debate on the important subject of future child care policy. As a pregnant mum, I am only sorry that this debate has ended up at the slightly non-family-friendly time of 9.32 pm, but that should not take away from the importance of the issue and the child care crisis facing many families in my constituency and across Britain today. I wanted to bring this matter to the Floor of the House since the Government have made several important announcements on this issue that they have yet to bring to the House.
Why is debate so important now? First, families are being hit by a triple whammy of the Government’s making: rising costs of child care; reduction in financial support; and for many, a financial disincentive to work. I will say more about those issues shortly.
Secondly, not only were the Government’s recent announcements on changes to child care regulation—a loosening of ratios between carers and children, and a greater requirement for qualifications—not brought to the House for debate, they have been widely derided by parents and providers and are confused and dangerous. What is more, there is little evidence that those proposals will have any impact on costs whatsoever.
Thirdly, for many weeks now we have read in the papers and heard from Ministers—not least in the mid-term relaunch of the coalition by the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister—about a new package of financial support for parents to help to meet the costs of child care, yet these proposals raise many questions. I would like to put them to the Minister this evening.
Finally, I would like to begin a broader debate—it is an important one for this House to have—about what the shape of future child care policy should be. It is vital to the economic future of the country that we enable as many women as possible—and, in some cases, men—to return to work at the level and pay they were receiving before having children. Not only would that pay for itself, but there would be wider social benefits to society from more early years development.
First, let me address the crisis currently facing the majority of families—a crisis of this Government’s own making. It is a triple whammy. Families with small children are seeing the costs of child care soar. Recent reports suggest that fees have gone up by 6% in the last year. Costs are set to increase further with the severe reduction in available places owing to this Government’s slashing of funding. Some 401 Sure Start centres have closed since the Government came to office, despite the Prime Minister’s pledge to “back Sure Start” during the election. Many more, such as those in my constituency, have ceased to offer any day-care provision at all. In addition, cuts to local authorities’ early years budgets have meant school nursery places falling. The choice for families has dropped greatly and, with the shortage of supply, costs are going up and up. On top of that, the Government are slashing financial support for most families, especially those on low or middle incomes. For those on the lowest incomes, the maximum allowance of child care costs that can be claimed through tax credits has been reduced from 80% to 70%.