With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 6—Staff to child ratios: Ofsted-registered childminder settings—
‘(1) This section applies to Ofsted-registered childminder settings.
(2) The ratio of staff to children under the age of eight must be no less than one to six, where—
(a) a maximum of three children may be young children;
(b) a maximum of one child is under the age of one.
(3) Any care provided by childminders for older children must not adversely affect the care of children receiving early years provision.
(4) If a childminder can demonstrate to parents, carers and inspectors, that the individual needs of all the children are being met, then in addition to the ratio set out in subsection (2), they may also care for—
(a) babies who are siblings of the children referred to in subsection (2), or
(b) their own baby.
(5) If children aged between four and five years only attend the childminding setting outside of normal school hours or the normal school term time, they may be cared for at the same time as three other young children, provided that at no time the ratio of staff to children under the age of eight exceeds one to six.
(6) If a childminder employs an assistant or works with another childminder, each childminder or assistant may care for the number of children permitted by the ratios specified in subsections (2), (4), and (5).
(7) Children may only be left in the sole care of a childminder’s assistant for two hours in a single day.
(8) Childminders must obtain the permission of a child’s parents or carers before that child can be left in the sole care of a childminder’s assistant.
(9) The ratios in subsections (2), (4) and (5) apply to childminders providing overnight care, provided that the children are continuously monitored, which may be through the use of electronic equipment.
(10) For the purposes of this section a child is—
(a) a “young child” up until
(b) an “older child” after the
New clause 7—Staff to child ratios: Ofsted-registered non-domestic childcare settings—
‘(1) This section applies to Ofsted-registered, non-domestic childcare settings.
(2) For children aged under two—
(a) the ratio of staff to children must be no less than one to three;
(b) at least one member of staff must hold a full and relevant level 3 qualification, and must be suitably experienced in working with children under two;
(c) at least half of all other members of staff must hold a full and relevant level 2 qualification;
(d) at least half of all members of staff must have received training in care for babies; and
(e) where there is a dedicated area solely for children under two years old, the member of staff in charge of that area must, in the judgement of their employer, have suitable experience of working with children under two years old.
(3) For children between the ages of two and three—
(a) the ratio of staff to children must be no less than one to four;
(b) at least one member of staff must hold a full and relevant level 3 qualification, and
(c) at least half of all other members of staff must hold a full and relevant level 2 qualification;
(4) Where there is registered early years provision, which operates between 8 am and 4 pm, and a member of staff with Qualified Teacher status, Early Years Professional status or other full and relevant level 6 qualification is working directly with the children, for children aged three and over—
(a) the ratio of staff to children must be no less than one to 13; and
(b) at least one member of staff must hold a full and relevant level 3 qualification.
(5) Where there is registered early years provision, which operates outside the hours of 8 am and 4 pm, and between the hours of 8 am and 4 pm, where a member of staff with Qualified Teacher status, Early Years Professional status or other full and relevant level 6 qualification is not working directly with the children, for children aged three and over—
(a) the ratio of staff to children must be no less than one to eight;
(b) at least one member of staff must hold a full and relevant level 3 qualification, and
(c) at least half of all other staff must hold a full and relevant level 2 qualification;
(6) In independent schools where—
(a) a member of staff with Qualified Teacher status, Early Years Professional status or other full and relevant level 6 qualification;
(b) an instructor; or
(c) a suitably qualified overseas-trained teacher is working directly with the children, for children aged three and over—
(i) for classes where the majority of children will reach the age of five or older within the school year, the ratio of staff to children must be no less than one to 30;
(ii) for all other classes the ratio of staff to children must be no less than one to 13; and
(iii) at least one other member of staff must hold a full and relevant level 3 qualification.
(7) In independent schools where there is—
(a) no member of staff with Qualified Teacher status, Early Years Professional status or other full and relevant level 6 qualification;
(b) no instructor; or
(c) no suitably qualified overseas-trained teacher working directly with the children, for children aged three and over—
(i) the ratio of staff to children must be no less than one to eight;
(ii) at least one other member of staff must hold a full and relevant level 3 qualification, and
(iii) at least one other member of staff must hold a full and relevant level 2 qualification.
(8) In maintained nursery schools and nursery classes in maintained schools (except reception classes)—
(a) the ratio of staff to children must be no less than one to 13;
(b) at least one member of staff must be a school teacher as defined by subsection 122(3) [Power to prescribe pay and conditions] of the Education Act 2002 and Schedule 2 to the Education (School Teachers’ Qualifications) (England) Regulations 2003; and
(c) at least one other member of staff must hold a full and relevant level 3 qualification.
(9) The Secretary of State may make provision in statutory guidance to—
(a) define qualifications as “full and relevant”; and
(b) define “suitable experience” for those working with children under two.
(10) If HM Chief Inspector of Education is concerned about the quality of provision or the safety and well-being of children in a setting he may impose different ratios.’.
Amendment 76, in clause 73, page 50, line 16, at beginning insert ‘If, after a consultation period of not less than three months, and the publication of a response to the consultation, the Secretary of State is satisfied with the provisions, he may make an order so that’.
Amendment 77, in page 50, line 29, leave out clause 75.
Government amendment 28.
I wish to speak to new clause 10, which introduces paving legislation to allow Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to begin to set up tax-free child care, and amendment 28, which is a minor and technical amendment relating to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
First, I will comment on new clauses 6 and 7. As the House knows, we have proposals, on which we have consulted, for providers with highly qualified staff to be able to operate more flexible staff-to-child ratios, in line with best practice in leading European countries such as France, Holland and Germany. I highlight the fact that these proposals would be entirely optional for nurseries and are about empowering the front line.
The proposals received support from, among others, Sir Martin Narey, formerly of Barnado’s, and Sir Michael Wilshaw of Ofsted. I firmly believe that these flexibilities would allow nurseries to offer more choice of high-quality child care places to parents, invest additional revenue in attracting the best staff, and reduce costs for parents. However, as I made clear on the media this morning, it has not been possible to reach cross-Government agreement, so we are not proceeding with this reform.
That will not stop me working to make affordable, quality child care available to all. I am absolutely committed to this goal.
This is a matter of pressing need, and we are taking forward the following proposals: introducing early-years educator and early-years teacher qualifications; introducing tax-free child care; ensuring that more money for child care goes to the front line; increasing the supply of childminders through the establishment of childminder agencies; and making it easier for schools to take two-year-olds in their nurseries.
The current childcare system is not working for parents. The real cost of child care has risen by 77% in real terms since 2003. Families in England pay some of the highest costs in the world; some spend 27% of net family income on child care. In comparison, parents in France spend just 11% of their income on child care.
I hope that the hon. Lady does not think I am trying to be disruptive. I was enjoying what she said, but I want to get to the heart of it. She said that the Government are not proceeding with the other proposals, which should of course have due consideration. At the moment, child care in this country is too expensive, and very many women find it a great burden to be able to afford it as compared with those in other countries, especially in Europe. Will the proposals that she is left with do something about that?
I completely agree that we have very high child care costs and I will do everything I can, where we can secure cross-Government agreement, to address that. I want to outline some of our proposals.
I think there is merit in the work my hon. Friend has done and I pay tribute to her for the effort and energy she has put into it. I am disappointed that it has been brought to a halt. Will she confirm that the Deputy Prime Minister agreed to the proposals initially, only to renege on that agreement later?
I thank my hon. Friend for his point. It is true that the reason we are not proceeding with the proposals is that we have failed to secure cross-Government agreement.
As I have said, the current child care system is not working for parents and the costs are very high.
May I confirm my understanding that the Deputy Prime Minister signed up to this but later, for political or other reasons—who knows?—withdrew his support? That is shameful and it could lead to less flexibility in a child care system that lacks quality and is too expensive.
I thank my hon. Friend for his point. Other countries in Europe have flexibility and lower costs for child care. We are seeking to replicate some of their other reforms, and that is what I want to address.
One of the issues is that the UK has some of the lowest staff salaries in Europe. Child care workers here earn £6.60 an hour on average, which is barely above the minimum wage. Annual earnings are £13,000, which is well below the averages of £16,000 in France, £20,000 in Denmark and £22,000 in Sweden. We must reform the supply and funding of child care. If we do not, it will remain expensive and parents will struggle to combine work and family or find themselves cobbling together care, which is difficult and inconvenient. I know of some families where parents work alternating shifts to cover their care responsibilities. I want those families to have good alternatives.
Dual-income families are now the norm across the developed world because of our changing society and economy. In Britain, two thirds of mothers go out to work and many fathers also seek to combine family and work life. If we want parents to have good choices, we have to get better value for money for the £5 billion that the Government spend. International comparisons show that we spend the same proportion of GDP on public support for child care and early years as France and more than Germany, yet, as I have said, parents here pay double the cost that parents pay in countries such as France and Germany, and I do not think that that is right.
I would be the last person to volunteer to defend the leader of the Liberal Democrats, but perhaps he was not sure about the overall, holistic analysis of what is going wrong. We pay more, it costs more and early-years carers are paid rubbish salaries, while many settings do not have a graduate in employment, which always lifts the quality. What is the reason for that? There must be one. What do the advisers and researchers suggest?
There are, of course, various reasons, many of which relate to the history of how child care systems have developed in different countries. France, for example, has a long tradition of the école maternelle, which involves structured, teacher-led learning from an early age. That has been shown to improve outcomes for children, particularly those from the lowest income backgrounds. Our reforms seek to make sure that high quality, highly qualified professionals go into early years, and to try to adjust the differential between early years and primary school salaries. I will come on to that later.
Parents need to know that they can access high-quality care. The research is clear: high-quality early learning experiences boost children’s attainment throughout their education. There are many excellent nurseries that provide stimulating, structured learning opportunities for young children, which help them to prepare for school. However, there is much more to do.
Anyone who works with children needs a wide range of qualities, not all of which can be quantified by degrees or diplomas. However, that does not undermine the case for greater skills and better qualifications. In future, there will be two qualified roles: early years educator and early years teacher. Graduate leaders are already having a positive impact. Almost 12,000 early years professionals are trained to deliver high-quality early education and care for pre-school children. Building on that legacy, early years teachers will be specialists in early childhood development who are trained to work with babies and young children. We want to see more crossover between teachers in primary and early years so that there is a continuum of education, rather than two separate silos.
The training programme for early years teachers begins this September. Trainees will have to meet the same requirements as primary school trainee teachers. They must have a degree and will need to pass the English and maths tests. The National College for Teaching and Leadership has consulted on the new teacher standards for early years, which will be published in July.
We are extending the reach of Teach First, which has been successful in bringing talented new people into schools. From this September, it will include teaching three and four-year-olds for the first time. Teach First attracts some of the most talented and ambitious graduates in the country, many of whom might not otherwise have considered working with young children. They can make a big contribution, especially in areas of disadvantage.
We also want to raise the standards of practitioners who do not have degrees. Early years educators will be qualified at level 3. Early education qualifications have been far too diffuse and lacking in rigour, and there are hundreds of existing and historical early years qualifications. We are addressing that failure. The National College for Teaching and Leadership has consulted on new criteria for level 3 qualifications and will publish them shortly. Using those criteria, awarding organisations will develop high-quality qualifications to be introduced in September 2014. The minimum entry standard for the qualifications will be grade C at GCSE in English and maths.
Apprenticeships will offer a high-quality route to becoming an early years educator. They will last 20 months on average and combine employment with study towards recognised qualifications through various routes, including further education colleges.
Will the new qualifications, particularly those for early years educators, include training in early infant brain development and the crucial importance for childhood development of a secure early bond?
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. The new qualifications will include the study of early brain development and attachment theory to ensure that early years educators and teachers are up to date with the latest research and practice when they go into the profession fully.
We have just announced a £2 million apprenticeship bursary scheme for apprentice early years educators. Up to 1,000 bursary places will be available to people who aspire to a career in early education. Each bursary will be worth £1,500 and an additional £300 will be available for further training. I am encouraged by the view of David Pomfret, the principal of the college of West Anglia, that the bursaries will make it easier for people to begin a career in early education. The college has seen more people taking up such courses in recent years and we want to encourage more young people into this important profession.
In addition to improving the supply of early years educators and teachers into child care, we are reforming child care funding. The tax-free child care scheme will provide 2.5 million families with financial support towards their formal child care costs. That is an expansion on the current system and, in the majority of cases, will provide a more generous amount.
Unfortunately, under the current employer-supported child care voucher scheme, which was introduced by the previous Government, the question of who receives support is arbitrary. It is also highly inefficient, with 33% of the total amount being spent on overheads. At present, only 5% of employers offer employer-supported child care, and only a fifth of employees are eligible for it. Those who are self-employed do not have access to it, and whether a parent can or cannot get it is a lottery. Strangely, as more than one parent can claim employer-supported child care, in some cases there are two claimants for one child. That means that the costs for one child could be covered more than for a single parent with several children, and that is neither a sensible nor fair way to continue.
Our new tax-free child care scheme will resolve those anomalies. It will be available to any working family, except where one or both earners pay the additional rate of income tax. It will be on a per-child basis and include the self-employed and those on the national minimum wage. Tax-free child care means that around 2.5 million families will now have access to support. That support will be worth the same as the basic rate of income tax at 20% of costs, making child care costs effectively tax free. It will mean that the average family with two children will receive up to £2,400 each year. Those on lower incomes will continue to have 70% of their child care costs paid through tax credits and, in future, universal credit, and there will be an additional £200 million to help those in receipt of universal credit ensure that work always pays.
We are not introducing the tax-free child care scheme now. The Government have been in discussions with interested parties since the announcement of the scheme, and will launch a formal consultation document shortly. The consultation will last 12 weeks, and the Government will proactively engage with those affected by the changes to discuss the issues. New clause 10 has been tabled to enable HMRC to start developing the scheme. Although we will consult in full on its details, the basic tenets have been set out. To ensure that the scheme is in operation by the autumn 2015 target, work on its foundations must commence now.
I thank my hon. Friend for providing information on the tax-free child care system. Will that replace all forms of child care currently in the market? I am thinking particularly of employee benefits for those who receive child care as a benefit through the taxation of companies.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and HMRC will consider that issue in its new consultation on this subject.
Much of the work required is based on IT development because we want all parents to be able to access the service online. As with paving legislation before it, the new clause will enable officials to start high-level discussions on IT and other development, and such discussions could not take place without the new clause. The provision will not affect HMRC’s current operations or impede the development or scrutiny of the tax-free child care scheme, and there is no immediate cost of the scheme that must be funded.
This is a short and self-explanatory new clause that merely allows the Government to begin preliminary work ahead of the final design of the tax-free child care scheme. The Bill is similar to those used by previous Governments, and takes no greater powers than in those cases. Furthermore, the Government are clear that any changes required in primary legislation will receive appropriate scrutiny. The new clause is minor and technical in nature, and I look for support across the House to enable HMRC to start working on one of the Government’s priorities.
In addition to reforming child care funding we must also increase the supply of quality child care. The number of childminders has almost halved over the past 15 years, limiting parental choice in a flexible affordable form of child care. Many parents want home-based care, especially in a child’s youngest years—I know my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom is a great advocate of that. The Bill enables the introduction of childminder agencies, which I believe will help to increase the number of childminders in the market by removing barriers to entry and offering an alternative to working completely independently. Agencies will drive up quality—they will be required to support the training and development of childminders—and make it easier for parents to access childminders and be assured of high-quality and flexible provision.
Will children’s centres be encouraged to become childminder agencies? That would link two of the most critical structures available to support parents. Childminders often believe they do not have access to training or to the camaraderie of others in their field, so that could be a perfect combination.
I agree with my hon. Friend and will mention the types of organisations that could be involved in childminder agencies in due course.
Childminder agencies will be a one-stop shop, meaning that there will be a simpler process for childminders entering the profession, without the large up-front costs that put many capable people off. We are working closely with childminders and other providers, including those interested in setting up agencies, and with Ofsted, as we develop details of how agencies might operate.
I am delighted to inform the House that the Department has written to more than 60 organisations that have expressed an interest in working with us to trial elements of childminder agencies. There is a mix of organisations, including businesses ranging from nursery chains to individual childminders, and academies, maintained schools, national child care organisations, children’s centres, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and local authorities. The trials will begin later this summer. I will say more in the coming weeks about the organisations taking part and the shape of the trials. Some hon. Members seek assurances on our plans for consultation. I can confirm that, following the trials, the Department will consult fully on the key requirements to be placed on childminder agencies in regulations.
Amendment 28 is a technical amendment and introduces a transitional provision to cater for section 85 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 coming into force on or before the day on which the Bill receives Royal Assent. Section 85 is designed to bring about a change across the board in relation to the fines that magistrates courts can impose. The amendment is needed to ensure that section 85 applies to the new offences relating to childminder agencies in schedule 4 as it applies to most other pre-existing offences.
Local authorities have an important role in early education and child care. Local authorities and their local agencies—family information services or Sure Start children’s centres—have a vital part to play in helping families who need support and in championing the interests of children. For example, local authorities have made strong progress on securing early learning for two-year-olds—some 55,000 children are already benefiting from places throughout the country. I am working with the Department of Health to ensure that services are more closely integrated, and that the two-and-a-half-year-old check is in place in 2015, which will help in that regard. We need to ensure that families get the help they need, and that a seamless service is provided by children’s centres, with both the Department for Education and the Department of Health contributing.
I want local authorities to continue to work to attract high-quality providers to their area, and to encourage schools to offer more nursery places and school-based child care. At present, there is a big gap between the proportions of outstanding providers in different local authority areas. As I have said, we are supporting Ofsted with increased funds to increase the number of Her Majesty’s inspectors. Sir Michael Wilshaw has announced his intention to focus more on weaker providers. Ofsted is to trial an improvement programme with nurseries and pre-schools that are not yet “good” in three London boroughs in the next few weeks to show how this approach might work. Local authorities are also empowered to offer support and training. The intention of the clause is to get rid of unnecessary bureaucracy, so that local authorities can focus on these important functions. I want to see a shift from process and bureaucracy to focusing on what matters: outcomes for children.
Clause 75 repeals the bureaucratic requirement to produce a child care sufficiency assessment every three years. Instead, local authorities will report annually to elected Members and parents in a way that meets local circumstances—a move widely supported at consultation. I have recently published new guidance for Sure Start children’s centres, and a consultation on a proposed new funded early education guidance that reflects this approach.
I have set out a range of steps the Government are taking to meet the challenge of high-quality and affordable child care for all families.
I rise to speak to new clauses 6 and 7 and amendments 76 and 77 in my name and in the name of my hon. Friends. Notwithstanding the welcome announcement the Minister has just made on behalf of the Government—at last, I might add—we still wish to proceed with the new clauses as their premise and purpose are still valid.
The Government have got themselves into a complete shambles. With every passing week, it becomes more and more apparent that Ministers do not have a credible plan to tackle the child care crisis they have created. Under this Government, parents are facing a triple whammy: costs are rising faster than wages and even general inflation, with the average cost having risen by almost 20% since 2010; support from the Government for those on tax credits has been cut, meaning that some families are up to £1,500 a year worse off; and there is a real struggle to find places in some areas owing to the cuts in supply-side subsidies and direct provision, such as through children’s centres. Since the election, we have lost almost 900 nurseries and more than 1,500 child minders, and there are 500 fewer Sure Start children’s centres.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the Prime Minister panicked and plucked the Children’s Minister from the Back Benches to implement her ideas without even bothering to check whether they were any good. The main idea to come out of “More great childcare”—increasing the number of children each adult can look after—is the worst one, and we are pleased to hear that it has been dropped. The Minister has been told categorically, most notably by advisers commissioned by her own Department, that it was not a good idea from the start, yet still she persisted with it.
If you will allow me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to place on record what those advisers said. Eva Lloyd from the university of East London was commissioned, along with Professor Helen Penn, by the Department to advise on child care practice from around the world, but her report is still being sat on seven months later. She said:
“The ratio relaxation is unlikely to reduce child care costs, but may well drive down child care quality.”
Professor Cathy Nutbrown, whose excellent report on qualifications in the sector was manipulated by the Government to argue for relaxing ratios, said:
“Current proposals will shake the foundation of quality provision for young children. Watering down ratios regardless of the level of qualifications held by staff, is likely to lead to worse, not ‘great’ childcare, and will undermine intentions to provide quality early learning experiences.”
You might be forgiven for thinking, Mr Deputy Speaker, that child care providers, who in purely economic terms could stand to benefit from these plans, would back them. Well, here is what some of the leading representatives of child care providers have to say.
Neil Leitch from the Pre-School Learning Alliance, whose survey of members found that 94% did not believe they could maintain the quality of their current level of provision if staffing levels were reduced, said:
“We are absolutely appalled by this fixation to alter ratios… This is a recipe for disaster.”
In a separate release last week, he said:
“There is no doubt that relaxing ratios would have lowered the overall quality of childcare in this country. Not only would children have received less one-to-one support from childcare workers, but their well-being would also have been put at serious risk.”
My hon. Friend is highlighting all the reasons the proposal should not have gone forward, but it seems that it ended up as an internal argument on the Government Benches, rather than being based on the opinion of experts.
We would rather the Minister had come to the House sooner with a proper statement. In the time available this afternoon, that will not be possible, and obviously the House is not as well attended as it would have been for a statement. It is disappointing, then, that the announcement was not made in a statement to a full House in the usual way.
I fully understand what the hon. Lady is trying to achieve, but are these professionals and new clauses trying to say that the professionals in the sector are not professional or good enough to decide themselves what ratios they deem to be safe, rather than what she deems to be safe?
No. I will tell the hon. Gentleman what more of the professionals have said, however, and then perhaps he will think on the strangeness of his intervention.
Purnima Tanuku of the National Day Nurseries Association said:
“At the moment there is an option that nurseries can operate a 1:13 ratio for over threes, if a person with a Level Six (degree level) qualification is working directly with the children. However, few nurseries take up this option, largely because it is not practical for one person to meet the needs of 13 children doing the type of activities most nurseries offer.”
That was echoed by private nurseries and managers I have met across the country. They suggested that it can often be a struggle providing quality care when operating at the current ratios. Finally, I will quote June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation, which runs the nursery in the House of Commons:
“It beggars belief that a junior Minister can wreak havoc on a sector that has explained the negative consequences of her actions.”
Obviously the junior Minister has at last come to the House and ditched her plans, which I am sure all the people I have quoted will be pleased to hear. Most important, though, parents will be most pleased to hear today’s announcement.
I too welcome this U-turn by the Government today, but I welcome all the more my hon. Friend’s new clauses. Parents in my constituency are actually worried about the safety of their children under the Government’s proposals and are taking that anxiety to work. Some were even considering giving up work, if it had been introduced, which would not have done our economy any good. Would support for the new clauses in fact do our economy good and remove that anxiety from parents?
I agree, which is why we are proceeding with the new clauses: we need to ensure that parents will never again face such a threat from a Minister who just brings forward a mad idea out of the blue, against all the evidence and without any support from anyone—whether professional, parent or expert—in the country.
Both Mumsnet and Netmums have officially backed the Rewind on Ratios campaign, following widespread anger among parents—anger that the Minister felt the full force of when she did a web chat on Mumsnet in February. A recent survey of parents by Bounty found that 80% would not back the changes, even if they led to significantly cheaper child care bills. Of course, that is a big if.
The Department has argued—the Minister did so again in her opening remarks—that the measure could cut costs. The modelling information that the Department was forced to reveal said that it could cut costs by up to 28%, but the modelling done to arrive at that figure was branded by providers as a “work of fiction”. The modelling made wildly unrealistic assumptions of 1005 occupancy for 52 weeks of the year, which no nursery ever has—speak to the nurseries and they will say that. It did not account for any breaks, training sickness or holidays for any of the staff. In one model—the one that said that it would save parents up to 28%—staff would not even have been paid any more money, which was supposed to be the whole point of these reforms, as the Minister again said in her opening remarks.
Busy Bees, which had initially supported the plans before saying it would not be changing its ratios, calculated that it could actually cost parents more if these changes were brought in.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again but this issue is really important. No consideration seems to have been given to the need to change premises, for example. My granddaughter was in a three-storey property, with babies, largely, at the top. The number of children in care on that floor could not be increased without something significant being done to the building. I do not think that any of those additional costs were considered.
My hon. Friend makes a very valid point that has been raised with me many times. I know that the Secretary of State is getting a reputation for sloppy research, and I feel that this is another case of policy-based evidence from his Department.
Then, last week, we thought that common sense had prevailed and the plans had been ditched. In fact, the Deputy Prime Minister said as much. In his briefing note to journalists, he set out in black and white the complete lack of support and credible evidence that the Department for Education had for these reforms. This was a cause of great relief for the tens of thousands of parents and childcare professionals who were rightly appalled by the lack of consideration of the needs of young children in these plans. Indeed, given how out of touch with childcare practice in England the Minister appears to be, it is little wonder that, according to her own Department, she has visited just five English nurseries in an official capacity since getting the job, compared with seven settings in France.
I am not sure what those French nurseries were like, but the Minister regularly cites them as exemplars. I am sure she will have seen that the chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, Neil Leitch, commented last week on his visit to France. He highlighted staff not having the time to identify and support children with special educational needs, nursery age children having scheduled toilet breaks and long afternoon naps, and children being made to sit still at desks for so long that tennis balls had to be fixed to their chair legs so that they did not make a noise when they fidgeted. This is not what anyone with an understanding of child development—
He has photographs. They are available on the internet. The Minister is disputing what I am saying. She can look up the pictures, and I am sure that Neil Leitch would be more than happy to meet her to discuss what he saw in France.
This is not what anyone with an understanding of child development would describe as high-quality early education. When we consider how stubbornly the Minister has refused to listen to those experts and child care bodies who repeatedly told her that that is what her plans would mean, it is unsurprising that she has met with the tiny number of organisations who support her many more times than the major sector representatives who disagree.
Yes, the French system is of a lower quality. That comes out in the OECD ratings of its nurseries, which are lower than those of the British system. When people meet French nursery providers, they are often asked about our system. French nursery providers look to emulate our model and cannot understand why we look to emulate their systems. [Interruption.] That is what we are told, but again, I am more than happy to hear evidence to the contrary.
Within 24 hours of the Deputy Prime Minister saying that the policy was dead in the water, both the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister’s spokesperson denied that a decision had been taken. The Department for Education said absolutely nothing for six days. We had to wait six days for a Minister to come to the House and make a formal announcement confirming that the plans are indeed dead in the water. We were grateful to hear that at long last, even though we will not have time to discuss it in detail this afternoon.
Even though the Minister has said today that the plans have been shelved, I do not have confidence that we have seen the last of them. After all, the Government are struggling to meet their target to provide free child care for the 20% most disadvantaged two-year-olds. With just three months before the policy is due to be introduced, a freedom of information survey that I have conducted shows that only 60% of councils have the capacity to provide the places, probably for some of the reasons cited a moment ago by my hon. Friend Alison Seabeck, who is no longer in her place. The temptation for the Government just to click their fingers and increase the number of two-year-olds that each worker can care for must be great. We should be clear: all they would have to do is change statutory guidance, meaning that Parliament would have no say.
In proposing the new clauses in this group, the Opposition are giving this House a say. We have an opportunity to nip any such future reforms in the bud. We have an opportunity to send the strongest possible message to
Ministers that this House has listened to the tens of thousands of parents and professionals who have been campaigning against these changes, not to mention the Department’s own experts, and to say that we will not risk the safety of children in child care settings or the quality of the early learning and development they receive by allowing any such plans to go through unchallenged.
Does that mean that the hon. Lady thinks it was wrong for the previous Government to increase ratios for three and four-year-olds in 2008?
I was not in the Department or in position in 2008, but if we raised ratios, I am sure it was done after full consultation and with the support and backing of child care professionals, which is the exact opposite to now. That is the key difference, and I am sure that people out there listening to this debate will know whether that is true and whether that case is a fair comparison.
I sincerely hope that today the Deputy Prime Minister will put his MPs where his mouth is and lead his Liberal Democrat Members into the Aye Lobby with Labour when we seek the opinion of the House on these new clauses shortly, to ensure that in future no Secretary of State can force through, against the will of the House, changes such as those that the Minister has now dropped.
Amendment 76 would require the Government to take the novel step of consulting on the formation of childminder agencies before they legislate to create them. I hope that Ministers will learn the lessons from the furore over ratios. I should say from the outset that I do not have a dogmatic objection to childminder agencies, particularly if they are voluntary. What the Government say they want to achieve through such agencies is all very sensible: greater co-operation and peer support for childminders, as well as access to training and help with gaining bursaries. Childminder agencies will also be a single point of contact for parents who might need a mix of child care solutions. These are all good things that make for a vibrant childminder sector, and are all things that local authority childminder networks and family information services should be providing at the moment. That some of them are not is perhaps down to the devastating cuts to the grant that local authorities previously received from the Department for Education to pay for them.
Since the publication of this Bill, the Department has been consulting on removing many of those duties from local authorities—such as providing training and quality improvement support—and this on top of the attempt in clause 75 to remove the duty to publish child care sufficiency reports, which our amendment 77 would block. All this seems to be a clear sign that the Government want local authorities almost completely removed from the child care equation and that agencies are therefore the preferred configuration for childminders.
Given that the Minister has said that there will be no direct funding from the Government for agencies to provide those services, the implication is that there will be a cost to the childminder. That cost will in turn have to be passed on to the parents, because most childminders do not earn the sort of money that would allow them to soak up the kind of membership fee or commission that we might expect an agency to demand. The most recent childcare costs survey from the Daycare Trust found that childminder fees were already increasing by an average of more than 5%, year on year.
Of course, as all the parent surveys tell us, cost is a secondary issue to quality, and it is the end of individual inspections by Ofsted that is the most worrying reform. Parents really value the fact that their childminder has proved their effectiveness to Ofsted. A National Childminding Association survey last year found that 80% of parents thought that individual inspections were important, and that 75% might not choose a childminder without the reassurance of an individual inspection. Childminders value the inspections too: 80% felt that moving to an agency model of inspection would have a detrimental effect on their professionalism, and they are obviously concerned that this would put parents off using them as well.
Of course we want more childminders to set up—as I said earlier, we have seen the number drop by more than 1,500 since the election—but we should not be trying to achieve that by passing legislation that has the potential fundamentally to change the market, without first consulting on it and establishing consensus. I would therefore welcome assurances from the Minister that the Government will set up such a consultation before the Bill completes its passage through the other place.
It is a pleasure to follow Mrs Hodgson, as it enables me to clarify these matters from the perspective of the Liberal Democrat Benches. It was also good to see the Chair of the Education Committee, Mr Stuart, back in the Chamber, although he is no longer in his place. He led the charge on many of these issues, although I suspect that he might have been getting a bit of gyp from the old leg, as he seemed uncharacteristically bad tempered.
I shall address my remarks to the new clauses and amendments in this group, as you would expect me to do, Mr Deputy Speaker. I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Elizabeth Truss for the way in which she has gone into battle over the use of the taxation system to support the provision of child care. She has come up with a whole package of measures, which we will explore in the course of the debate, and it is a great achievement to have secured some cash from the Treasury. I know that colleagues in my party support her in this. She has gone out there and done this, and I pay tribute to her for her achievement. New clause 10, in putting down this marker in the Bill, represents an important step forward in showing the Government’s commitment to supporting parents who want access to good quality child care in order to allow them to go out to work, and to bring up their families in the way they aspire to.
The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West talked about the rising cost of child care, but she could have turned the clock back a bit further to when the previous Government were in power, because those costs rose hugely on their watch as well. This is nothing new; it is a trend that has been going on for some time. I therefore welcome the proposal to set out a framework for investing more public money in supporting the cost of child care for families who need it.
New clauses 6 and 7, tabled by the hon. Lady, cover an issue that has, as the Minister said, been settled for the time being. This Government now have no plans to alter the ratios. They consulted on the proposal, and those who responded to the consultation were fairly overwhelmingly against it. The Government have responded to that. The Minister clearly believes that there is a case to be made for such an alteration, however, and she will continue to make that case in the run-up to the general election if that remains Conservative party policy, but it is not the policy of the coalition Government to introduce such changes now.
That debate will no doubt continue, but I welcome the fact that, on the basis of the consultation, the Government have chosen not to go ahead with the changes. In today’s statement to the House on GCSE reform, the Chair of the Select Committee praised the Secretary of State for listening to the results of that consultation and being persuaded to take a different tack on some aspects of exam reform. The Secretary of State did it in that case, and the Government have also done it in this case. We should not criticise them for that; listening and taking action based on a consultation is the purpose of a consultation. The debate will continue and we will see whether a further case can be made. For the time being, that does not seem to have been the case. It is not only the sector that was concerned about this; parents were, too. If those two important groups are expressing concern, it is very difficult to move ahead with the policy.
The hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West is seeking to add measures that are entirely unnecessary. There are a number of things that any future Government might propose to do about child care with which we may be unhappy, but as those things are not being proposed, it is utterly pointless to say we have to have a vote on them now. We could have all sorts of amendments to stop things that are not being proposed by the Government—an amendment to prevent child care from taking place outdoors in the rain, for example—but that is pointless.
We all know what this is about. It is about the Opposition, as they are entitled to do—[Interruption.] Absolutely; it is about children, which is why the Government are not doing these things. These amendments, on the other hand, are nothing to do with children. They are about trying to add something to the Bill so the Opposition can claim some kind of victory or try to drive a wedge between the two Government parties. That is what Opposition parties do, so that is absolutely fine, but there is no need to vote for amendments to stop something that the Government are not proposing. I will be disappointing the Opposition Front-Bench team, therefore.
Liberal Democrats policy is clear. We are not convinced that the ratio change is necessary. [Interruption.] Absolutely not; we can support the Government because the Government are not making any change, so the Opposition proposal is unnecessary, as I have just set out.
I was therefore intrigued to note that the Labour Opposition have tabled an amendment not to enact something that was originally passed on their watch.
I understand the thinking behind Opposition amendment 77 on the duty on local authorities to provide an assessment of child care places in their locality. Having heard from the Minister about what is being proposed, however, and given the fact that the consultation has found that they would prefer to do it on an annual basis in a less bureaucratic way, I am persuaded that that is unnecessary, too.
We have therefore heard from the Government that there is no proposal to change ratios, which I welcome. They are also putting in the key change, which the Minister has gone out and fought for, of more financial support in coming years for child care, and I welcome that, too. Therefore, I will not support any of the Opposition amendments, but I am happy to support the Government new clauses.
On new clause 10, the Minister made great play of introducing tax-free child care, but she should be clearer in her closing remarks about what exactly that means, as I fear she is misdescribing something. What she seems to be proposing is that after people have passed through many hoops, including having both parents working and receiving certain levels of income, 20% is paid, which is not tax-free for the higher rate taxpayer. I want her to clarify this point: she talked about those paying additional tax not qualifying, so will she explain what tax threshold this will and will not apply to, so people who might be affected can know about that?
Amazingly, this scheme has managed to unite The Daily Telegraph and the Labour party in criticism. That is some achievement, and I applaud the Minister on it, but it shows that there is a degree of muddle. The scheme is for couples or single parents where both work, but there are many other questions about it—I look forward to the regulations being laid so we can get to the details. What about where one partner was working but is unemployed or sick and unable to work, perhaps for a long period, or is retired, which is not beyond the bounds of possibility? Does the Minister have any plans to extend this as a general policy to parents of over-fives? A chef in my constituency on £15,000 or so a year raised with me the challenges of getting child care out of hours, a situation faced by many people, both with over-fives and with under-fives. I hope that she will give us some indication of her thinking on this matter. Will she tell us when she is planning to lay regulations on this issue, so that we can all be alert in order to tackle that?
On new clauses 6 and 7, I will be generous to the Minister. She said that the fact that she has lost support—perhaps could not corral support across Whitehall—is not stopping her push for “affordable, quality child care available to all.” On that last sentence she and I are united as one, but, sadly, I disagree with her approach. If that really was what was being proposed, I would be a greater supporter of hers, but I am concerned about misrepresentation: little ideas presented as big solutions. We need a longer-term vision about child care provision for our under-fives and our older children, and we must ensure that we see that as an investment in those young people and, in particular, in women, in enabling them to work. However, this is not the time to get into that debate.
On childminder agencies, I am not going to get into the issue about ratios, because my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson raised it very effectively. The proposal was never popular. I was even stopped in the street about it in my constituency by parents and carers who were very concerned about it—it was that much of a worry. I echo what my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham said about that worry being something that Ministers need to think about when proposing ideas that have not been agreed properly within their own Government, let alone anywhere else.
I have some concerns about the proposals on agencies for childminders, and I have referred to the parallel with older people’s care, where private agencies came in and reduced the quality of care. That is a legacy of the late Lady Thatcher’s years in government and it has not improved in all that time. I do not want private companies to come in, cream off a profit and cut the income of the childminders, who, in my area, consider themselves as small businesses. The number of childminders has reduced because a lot were on the list for local authorities but were not active, so as soon as that list was tidied up they dropped off it. A number of those to whom that happened were poor quality and did not want to have the scrutiny of Ofsted or any other authority, because they were the “pile ’em high, stack ’em cheap” sort of childminder that the Minister seems to favour.
Hackney childminders, a very professional group, are united about the achievements that they have personally brought about and the benefits for young people in my area, and about the fact that the bad childminders have been run out of town. We do not want to go back to those bad old days. I am a mother of three and I know that I can stand here in the House now only because of my excellent child care. Over the years it has not always been so good, but there are times when one really worries, and one cannot work while worrying about children not being in a safe place.
My hon. Friend speaks passionately about childminders in Hackney. The Northamptonshire Childminding Association was also clear that it thought that this proposal would reduce quality and increase cost, so that experience is consistent with hers.
That is my worry. What exactly is an “agency”? We hear one description from bits of government and other descriptions from some of the organisations outside, including Ofsted. If the Minister is saying, as she has indicated, that some part of this move is about sharing professional experience and providing support to professional colleagues, I can tell her that my childminder network in Hackney does that very effectively in any case, so does it count as an agency? I have suggested that it thinks about setting one up. If it was to work in collaboration with the local authority or with the local Sure Start centres in smaller areas, would it then count as an agency? In the attempts to trial some of the elements, is the Minister being prescriptive or is she allowing 1,000 flowers to bloom? If it is the latter, what is to prevent the bad, rapacious private agencies from coming in, taking over, dominating in an area and becoming a local monopoly? There is a real concern about that. Will childminders have to join? The position on that is unclear, so perhaps she will give us some information on it. There is some benefit to professional experience sharing and professional support, but not at the costs that I have outlined. Will the Minister tell the House the timetable for the regulations, which she said would be coming very soon?
I will leave my comments there, but this is an important issue. My constituency is one of the youngest in the country; over a fifth of residents are under 16. I think I speak with some authority on their behalf. For them, the Bill, and these changes, make a very big difference.
We have had a wide-ranging debate on the various child care issues, but one point that I think we can all agree on is that there is an urgent need for high-quality, affordable child care in this country. At the moment, many working families are struggling to afford their child care, and I can assure the House that the Government are fully committed to improving the situation. Tax-free child care, which is the key policy that we have been promoting in the Bill, will contribute to that.
I would particularly like to thank Dan Rogerson for his very constructive comments, particularly on the point about our tax-free child care scheme. I want to reassure Meg Hillier that “tax-free” refers to the 20% that parents will benefit by. The critical point is that it is open to many more families.
I understand the hon. Members want to move on to the next debate so, without further ado, I shall finish.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 10 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.