Opposition Day — [12th allotted day] — Child Care

– in the House of Commons at 2:22 pm on 19th November 2013.

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Votes in this debate

  • Division number 128
    A majority of MPs voted against increasing the amount of free child care offered to parents of 3 and 4 year olds from 15 to 25 hours

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education 2:22 pm, 19th November 2013

I beg to move,

That this House
recognises that families are facing rising childcare costs;
notes the reduction in the availability of early years childcare;
and calls on the Government to help work pay by extending from 15 to 25 hours the provision of free childcare for working parents of 3 and 4 year olds funded by an increase in the Bank Levy.

I welcome Ministers to the Front Bench. Today, once again, the Labour party is highlighting the cost of living crisis that is affecting communities up and down the country, because under this Government the historic link between growth and living standards is being split apart as never before. Growth without national prosperity is not economic success, and the first and last test of economic policy is whether living standards for ordinary families are rising. Official figures state that, on average, working people are £1,500 a year worse off than they were at the general election. The Labour party is determined to shine a light on that quiet scandal of collapsing opportunity and stretched family budgets.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

While the hon. Gentleman is explaining that collapse, he might want to say why between 1996 and 2010 there was a collapse in the number of childminders from more than 100,000 to 57,000.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, but if Conservative Members think they can get away with their appalling record in office by worrying about the classification system for previous childminders, that is a dead end to go down. As I will explain, the Labour Government have a hugely proud record on provision for the under-fives.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

Is my hon. Friend aware that since this Government came to power child care has gone up by 30% while wages have been cut by 5%?

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

That is exactly the crisis we will be highlighting today because it is affecting so many families in our constituencies. After energy prices, pension costs, the living wage, rail fares and payday loans, today we will put to the vote the child care crunch facing parents. We will also set out Labour’s plans to ease the child care burden, to deliver the kind of universal, affordable and high-quality child care that secures a strong future for some of the most disadvantaged young people in our country, and to build an economy that allows women to return to work if they want to. [Interruption.] I am delighted that we are already seeing Government Members coming to our side and making it clear that we are building a progressive politics of change.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

The shadow Secretary of State talks about appalling records, but will he clarify why, when Labour was in government, the cost of child care in the United Kingdom was the second highest among OECD countries, behind Switzerland? If he is talking about appalling records, surely he should refer to his own party’s record in government.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Today we are concerned with highlighting the record of this Government, and, as I have said before, Labour is the party of Sure Start and of increasing fourfold the provision for under-fives. The values of this party are to ensure that young people have the best start in life, and today we are considering the total disconnect between living standards and the cost of child care.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

Should we not be frankly appalled that although the Prime Minister pledged at the last election not to close Sure Start centres, since the election an average of three Sure Start centres a week have closed? There are now 35,000 fewer child care places at a time when there are 125,000 more under-fours.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

On the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address, my hon. Friend delivers an intervention of such succinct clarity that Lincoln himself would be proud.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Labour, Bridgend

Does my hon. Friend also agree that Labour is the party in government in Wales, where Flying Start shows the changes that can be brought to children’s lives if we invest in joined-up child care provision, and quality that parents can trust?

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention because that takes me to the next stage of my speech, which is to lay out the importance of early years provision. Labour is the party of Sure Start, and we increased expenditure on the under-fives nearly fourfold between 1997 and 2009-10. We know the value of early years provision.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I am interested in the to and fro between the two contending sides, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, this is a serious topic that should cut across party politics. When we look at the situation in Wales, as in other regions, we find that 16% of Welsh local authorities cannot provide sufficient holiday child care for working families. That is an indictment on any Government, and we must address it across the whole United Kingdom.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, which is why I will draw on the work of the Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. It is clear that high-quality child care can improve child development for the most disadvantaged children, yet nearly half of low-income parents say that cost, rather than quality, was the main factor in choosing child care. As the chair of Ofsted, Baroness Morgan, recently pointed out, getting children school ready by reception year is fundamental to their life chances. We also know that access to universal and affordable child care can lift employment rates. Having both parents in work for long enough is the best guarantee of a life free from poverty.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that only 1% of child care provision is provided by those child care centres?

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I am so glad that Ben Gummer has finally found a customer, having scurried round the green Benches for 10 minutes seeking out a pliant Member. I will come to the point about the 1%.

Employment among women with children is lower in the UK compared with our OECD competitors and is much more likely to be part-time. If we want a successful economy and school-ready children, we need decent and affordable child care.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend is making an important point. The principle behind Sure Start was not just about child care provision. He talks about the importance of social mobility and other factors, and Sure Start was also about opening up training, employment and volunteering opportunities to parents so that they could participate in the workplace. It can be very isolating, especially for single parents, and having a child in nursery can make a big difference to those families’ lives.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The provisions offered by Sure Start centres were part of a socialisation process, including parenting and getting children school-ready, that was vital to those families’ prospects. We know that children who do well at school also have parents invested in them doing well at school, and the Sure Start provision was part of that.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

We have to be careful because many people in the press misinterpreted Baroness Morgan’s statement as meaning kids sitting in rows learning at two. It is early-years stimulation we want, and we get that—it is affordable on the Danish model—if we employ people who are well trained to do it, like the social pedagogues in Denmark.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

As ever my hon. Friend makes the point for a broader understanding of education, for play, for creativity and, above all, a high quality of provision. That is about making sure that we have high-quality childminders, those involved in nurturing, education and play for young people.

Sadly, what we have had from the Government is a sustained assault on early-years provision. The coalition’s child care crunch means that since the last election the cost of nursery places has risen by 30%. There are 578 fewer Sure Start centres, with three being lost on average every week. The cost of a nursery place is now the highest in history, at more than £100 a week to cover part-time hours, and parents working part time on average wages would need to work from Monday to Thursday before they paid off their weekly childcare costs.

Photo of Stephen Lloyd Stephen Lloyd Liberal Democrat, Eastbourne

The shadow Secretary of State makes some dire claims. How does he explain that in the past year more than 1 million families and children used children’s centres and that the numbers are higher than they have ever been?

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Part of that is the result of a markedly increased birth rate, so we are seeing greater demand on these centres—[Interruption.] I know that those on the Government Front Bench do not believe in demographics or planning for the future, which is why we have a primary school place crisis. It is because of their inability to understand the consequences of people giving birth for provision and for schools.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker Conservative, Worcester

I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman accuses those on our Front Bench of creating a primary places crisis when it was the Labour Government who failed to invest in new primary school buildings and places, and who predicated all the capital budget for education towards the secondary sector.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

It was called Building Schools for the Future, and what the Labour Government were involved in was building schools for the future. We were investing in future school provision. The hon. Gentleman has to get a grip on this: the Government have been in power for three and a half years, and they have to start taking responsibility for the dire situations that we are seeing.

The position is equally tough for families with kids at school. Under the last Labour Government, 99% of schools provided access to breakfast clubs and after-school clubs, but more than a third of local authorities have reported that this has been scaled back in their area under this Government. But that is what we get from the coalition. We get tax cuts for millionaires, but cuts in child care places for millions of families; billions of pounds wasted on botched NHS reorganisations, while parents struggle to pay for nursery places; and a hapless Royal Mail flotation filling the coffers of Lazard, rather than wraparound child care for hard-pressed parents. Those are the wrong priorities for working people—financial incompetence while families struggle.

As ever with this Government, it has been a case of say one thing and then do another. It was a great Conservative, a real Conservative, a true Conservative, Edmund Burke, who once said that

“those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

But how could he know of today’s Tory party’s attempt to obliterate the past? Whereas once they revered the wisdom of their elders, now they try to wipe the truth off the internet. For what did the Prime Minister say on the eve of the last general election? He said:

Sure Start will stay, and we’ll improve it. We will keep flexible working, and extend it.”

He also accused my right hon. Friend Mr Brown, the former Prime Minister, of scaremongering, saying:

“Yes, we back Sure Start, It’s a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this.”

Well, with 35,000 fewer child care places under this Government, three Sure Start centres lost a week, and not enough provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds, my right hon. Friend was right to warn the British public of the dangers of voting Conservative or Liberal Democrat.

Photo of Angus MacNeil Angus MacNeil Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitutional Reform), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland)

Is not that litany of horrors the hon. Gentleman has outlined from the Government in Westminster the very reason many in Scotland will take the opportunity to vote for independence on 18 September next year, so we can have child care standards like any good Nordic country? Would he applaud such a step by Scotland?

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Part of Labour’s programme for schools includes creativity and innovation, and that was an extraordinarily creative way of moving from child care to separatism. I will not follow the hon. Gentleman down that route because we are looking at the Conservative party’s past on this issue.

What did the Education Secretary say while grubbing around for votes before the last general election? He said:

“I personally believe we need to do more to provide affordable childcare”— by which, of course, he meant less. On a Mumsnet webchat, he told “Singalong mum and others”,

“gotta go in a second but on surestart we won’t cut funding”.

No wonder the Government wanted to wipe all records off the internet. No wonder the Education Secretary is too frit to come to this Chamber to defend his appalling record.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

When the Education Secretary talked about more child care, did he perhaps just mean cheaper, lower quality more child care, rather than the quality child care that we support?

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We are not interested in the warehousing of children. We are interested in the growth, the creativity and the education that comes from high-quality child care provision. Unfortunately, with this Government, it is a record of broken promises, misinformation and double -speak. Thankfully, the memory of the British people is longer than that of the Tory party’s web server, and they will not forget such a shoddy past.

Photo of Mark Spencer Mark Spencer Conservative, Sherwood

If the hon. Gentleman believes in quality child care, why was it not necessary under the Labour Government for anybody setting up a facility to provide that child care to have a qualification?

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

We are delighted to work on a cross-party basis to make sure that we have as high quality child care provision as possible. All parties understand that those who look after toddlers and young people should have as much experience and training as possible, and we are always delighted to work with Ministers to see how we can go up the value chain.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

In the early days of being the Chair of the former Education Committee, I remember visiting settings just after the minimum wage was introduced. Many people were horrified, because up until then they had been paying £1 an hour. That was the desperate situation we were left with in 1997.

Photo of Tristram Hunt Tristram Hunt Shadow Secretary of State for Education

What a valuable point, which reminds us that the Conservative party opposed the national minimum wage and proper payment for child care workers.

It is the Labour party that has a response to the cost of living crisis. In government, we will deal with the child care crunch by expanding free child care for three-year-olds and four-year-olds from 15 hours to

25 hours per week for working parents. The value of that child care is worth £1,500 per child per year. It would be paid for by increasing the bank levy, charged as a proportion of their liabilities, to raise an extra £800 million. In the past financial year, the banks paid a staggering £2.7 billion less in tax overall than they did in 2010. The Government have given the banks an extraordinary tax break and we would reintroduce some fairness into the system to support our child care plans.

[

Interruption.

]

I hear laughter from the Government Benches about our plans for the financial services industry, so I will quote from this Saturday’s Financial Times:

“Good times return as City gets in Christmas spirit,” reported the paper.

“After years of yuletide austerity following the financial crisis, party organisers and venue owners are seeing a resurgence in the market for festive frivolity.”

Well, good luck to them. We on the Labour Benches like to see the return of some animal spirits, but all we are saying is that some of that festive frivolity could be spent on securing affordable child care. That is called progressive politics, and the Government parties should try it.

To give parents of primary age children peace of mind, Labour will set down in law a guarantee that they can access child care through their local school if they want it. Parents of primary age children will benefit most from a new guarantee, as this is when families most require child care support. Of course, parents will have to pay for that, just as they do now, but this is an opportunity to deliver sport, music, healthy eating and after-school clubs alongside child care support.

The truth of the matter is this: high-quality child care and early years services are the foundation stone of a successful approach to tackling child poverty and improving social mobility. The Labour party has a costed and effective plan to deliver both. The coalition has broken promises, has poor priorities and has arrogantly refused to deal with the cost of living crisis. I commend this motion to the House.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 2:42 pm, 19th November 2013

I am afraid that after three years in Opposition, Labour Members seem to have learned nothing. First, they have learned nothing about how they got the country into a financial mess, as they seem to think that the answer is more spending and more borrowing; and secondly, they seem to have learned nothing about child care and how nurseries work. Despite the highfalutin’ rhetoric by Tristram Hunt, he seems to have failed to grasp the numbers behind child care. I will say more on that in a moment. First, let me remind hon. Members how we got here.

The Labour party left the biggest budget deficit among advanced economies and we were borrowing £1 for every £4 we spent. When we came into office, we were spending £110 million just servicing the interest on Labour’s debt. Despite that terrible inheritance, we have successfully cut the deficit by a third, and prioritised families and children. Total spending on child care and early education is increasing from almost £5 billion to more than £6 billion. We have increased the number of hours of free early education for every three-year-old and four-year-old, from 12.5 hours to 15 hours a week. We have extended support to two-year-olds from low-income families, with 92,000 two-year-olds already benefiting. From 2015, tax free child care worth up to £1,200 per child will be available to working parents. We are providing real help for hard-working families in tough times, not empty promises and unfunded spending commitments from Labour. That is what this coalition is delivering.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

Childminders in my constituency would like to take on more two-year-olds, but the funding provided by the Government does not cover their costs. Does the Minister expect them and other providers to subsidise Government policy?

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

We are funding the two-year-old offer at an average of £5.09 an hour, and the average rate paid for that age group is £4.23 an hour. We are therefore funding at considerably above the market rate, and we have been very successful at getting places for two-year-olds. [Interruption] It is an average.

Let me now turn to some of the spurious claims made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Labour claims that more than 500 children’s centres have closed. That is simply not true. Forty five centres have closed since 2010—just 1% of the total—and some new centres have opened, including one in Ipswich. Centres are joining networks so that they can be run more efficiently, but the same buildings are open to the same parents to use services. We are seeing a record number of parents and children using children’s centres—more than 1 million. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman does not want to celebrate the success of children’s centres, rather than constantly talking them down week after week. Children’s centres are doing a better job than ever under this Government. Let us not confuse children’s centres and child care providers. Children’s centres provide less than 1% of child care places.

Labour claims that costs have risen by 30%. That is based on figures from the Family and Childcare Trust. Despite the impression given by the Opposition, those figures were published before 2010. If the Opposition used the pre-2010 data, they would have found that the previous Labour Government were a catastrophe. Between 2002 and 2010, the cost of a nursery place rose by 46%. That is £1,200 a year more for a part-time nursery place for a child over the age of two, but we did not see the hon. Gentleman jumping around then, did we? Labour has, not for the first time, been cherry-picking statistics and ignoring the research. On 30 September 2013, Laing and Buisson published an in-depth report on the child care nurseries market in the UK. The report said that 2012-13 was the second successive year in which the price of full-day care in nurseries had been flat in real terms. In 2012-13, average nursery fees rose by 2.6%, which was the same as inflation. In 2011-12, average fees rose by 2.7%, compared to 3% inflation. In June 2013, the National Day Nurseries Association published the UK nursery insight report, which said: “58% were freezing fees”.

There we have it: the figures Labour cite actually show how the previous Government drove up costs with their confused funding and complex regulation, while independent research shows that costs have stabilised under this Government.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

The Minister referred to the child care survey on increasing costs and pointed out that between 2002 and 2010 there had been an increase of 46% in a period when wages were rising. The same survey shows that the present increase from the baseline is 77%, at a time when wages have fallen. Should she not take some responsibility for taking a bigger bite out of the family budget?

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

That 77% starts in 2003, and I believe that the Labour party was in government then.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central claims that we are not supporting school-based child care. On the contrary, the most recent data show a 5% increase in the number of after-school clubs. The difference between our view and his is that we think that school-based child care actually takes place in a school. The Labour party alleges that more than 90% of schools were offering an extended day in 2010, but I do not think that any parents with schoolchildren at that time would recognise that number. A school did not have to provide child care onsite, but could fulfil the requirement by linking to a child care provider on its website. That is what the Labour party meant by “extended day”.

It turns out that the Opposition’s new offer is no different. The shadow child care Minister, Lucy Powell, wrote recently that

“if a school chooses not to stay open longer hours because they do not need to offer this provision on site – they will not be forced to stay open. Schools can…facilitate out of hours childcare elsewhere for pupils”.

The shadow Secretary of State has a vision of children playing sport after school, but this after-school provision would not have to be on the school site and would be paid for by parents. How is that different from the current situation, where people pay a childminder after school? I am not sure how Labour’s so-called primary school guarantee, which need not take place in school, which schools would simply facilitate and which parents would pay for, would be any different from the current situation. It is a child care mirage: the closer one walks to it, the less certain it seems.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me and not to hon. colleagues on the Opposition Benches.

On the expansion of provision, does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that 73% of the children’s centres in the north-east are rated as either good or outstanding? More importantly, what opportunities will they have to expand that provision in the future?

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank my hon. Friend for his point about children’s centres, which have been a massive success under this Government. Record numbers of parents are using them, we have improved them by focusing them on outcomes and they are really achieving.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I think the hon. Lady is having a laugh about her child care guarantee. It would not mean that schools have to offer extended hours; they would need only link to a child care provider on a website. That is not what parents mean by extended hours.

I note that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central did not repeat his leader’s claim about the number of child care places. Could that be because his leader claimed there were only 1.3 million child care places in the country, when in fact there were more than 2 million, because they missed out the 800,000 places—30% of the market—available in schools? The number of settings is going up. It is strange, given that he has talked about his colleague Baroness Morgan advocating child care for two-year-olds in schools, that he does not know that schools provide child care and that his leader did not include those 800,000 places in his statistics. He also seems completely unaware that Building Schools for the Future was not for primary schools, but for secondary schools. Under his Government, funding for primary school places was cut by one quarter.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour, Huddersfield

Within the limits of this sort of debate, the hon. Lady is not making a bad speech, but many ordinary people and parents outside desperately want even better child care and are hanging on her words. What will the Government do to move to the next stage?

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I will come to that point later, but first I need to correct some factual inaccuracies that the leader—sorry, I mean the shadow Education Secretary; I am promoting him already—made.

The Labour party claims it will fund extra child care places for three and four-year-olds through the bank levy. I think we have heard that somewhere before. To be precise, we have heard it 11 times before, because it is to be spent on: the youth jobs guarantee, which will cost £1.04 billion; reversing the VAT increase, £12.75 billion; more capital spending, £5.8 billion; reversing the child benefit savings, £3.1 billion; more regional growth fund spending, £200 million; reversing tax credit savings, £5.8 billion; cutting the deficit, no amount is specified; turning empty shops into community centres, £5 million; spending on public services, question mark; more housing, £1.2 billion; and now child care, £800 million.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman had plenty of opportunity to make his point and I am keen to answer the question from Mr Sheerman about what the Government are doing.

Let us not forget what Labour said about the bank levy when we introduced it. Mr Darling said:

“This is an industry though that employs over a million in this country and it is taking a hell of a risk, the Tory approach, in saying well actually they seem to be slightly indifferent to that… I think, frankly, the Tory approach is pretty misguided, it’s not thought out”.

So Labour has gone from being against the bank levy to spending it 11 times. How do those numbers make sense?

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I am sorry, but I want to talk about child care.

As well as complete economic ineptitude, Labour seems to have learnt nothing from its time in office about child care or nurseries. It still thinks the answer is spending more money, rather than reform. Baroness Hughes, children’s Minister under the previous Government, admitted that their approach was “probably wrong.” She said:

“We were so keen to stimulate demand from parents but in retrospect that was such a mammoth task. We ought to have focused on the supply side, supporting providers, then we could have done more and quicker.”

I could not agree more, yet Labour has nothing to say about supply; it talks only about spending more money. Let us remember what happened last time it did that. We ended up with some of the highest child care costs in the OECD, parents were paying out 27% of their income on child care, staff had some of the lowest salaries in Europe, contrary to what the shadow Secretary of State said, and under Labour’s preferred measure, prices increased by 50% during the Labour years.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

Reports suggest that the Government will not meet their own target of supplying child care places to the 40% most-deprived two-year-olds in the country, so will the Minister be open and transparent with the House? Will she meet that target—yes or no?

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

We have more than 200,000 full-time places available in our system, and we have said that all those eligible children will have places if their parents want to take them up.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I have just answered the hon. Gentleman’s question.

I was talking about why Labour made such a mess of child care. It piled red tape on schools and nurseries, making it harder for them to expand. Furthermore, even though parents like flexible, affordable, home-based care, the number of childminders halved under Labour, because of the level of regulation, the difficulty of becoming a childminder and the fact that the funding system was skewed towards nurseries and away from childminders.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

I often challenged the previous Government on the collapse in the number of childminders, and I would be interested to hear what innovative ideas the Minister has for expanding this important child care provision.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank my hon. Friend for her points and I note her consistent support for home-based child care and the important help it can offer.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

Childminders in my constituency are very pro what they do and also pro the fact that they provide good-quality child care. They tell me that the bad childminders were run out of town so that parents like me can rely on a childminder to look after their children, as I do for my daughter, and be sure that there are good-quality, properly inspected childminders. That puts my mind at rest as a working mum, as it does those of other working mums in my constituency.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank the hon. Lady for her points. I will deal specifically with childminders later and I will respond to her point then.

Labour also had a voucher scheme, but only one fifth of parents could use it—only those whose employers offered it, and only those who were in employment rather than self-employed. There was no limit on income, unlike tax-free child care, so millionaires got it, but the self-employed did not. That was Labour’s legacy on child care—a massive waste of money, added complexity and a huge spreading of confusion.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

It was even more unhelpful than that, as my employer offered the child care voucher scheme, but because it was so tightly regulated, even though I was spending a fortune on child care, I was not able to use it.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which illustrates the problem with the child care voucher system.

Let me further point out to Labour Members that in the ’80s and ’90s, when we had a working mother in charge of our country, England was ahead in respect of maternal employment, but we fell behind other countries such as France and Germany under Labour’s watch. Maternal employment rates are rapidly rising under this Government. As Edmund Burke pointed out—the shadow Education Secretary is clearly a big fan—“those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”, and if he has not learnt the lessons that people in the previous Labour Government learnt at the time, he will fail, should he ever get the opportunity to be in office. That is why we are reforming the child care system: we are reforming the hopeless legacy that Labour left.

The signs are that what we are doing is working. We are seeing prices stabilising, more places being made available in school nurseries and a revival in childminding. We want parents to have a good choice of options, including nurseries, schools, childminders and children staying at home with parents, or a combination of those. We are introducing much simpler funding and creating a regulatory structure to support modern working parents.

We are determined to reverse the decline in the number of childminders. From this September, good and outstanding childminders will be able automatically to access funding for early education places for two, three and four-year-olds. That means that an additional 28,000 childminders will automatically be funded. I think that addresses the point raised by Meg Hillier about ensuring high-quality childminding.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Education)

Perhaps the hon. Lady will explain why there are 2,423 fewer childminders than there were in 2009.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

That is a continuation of the fall in the number of childminders under Labour. We have reversed the policy, starting this September, and the Department for Education is already getting a lot of positive calls from childminders who are keen to offer early education places. There is a great deal of support for that; it helps parents to combine their child care and early education requirements. From this September, we are trialling childminder agencies, which will enable more childminders to join the profession, and they will be fully up and running in September 2014. They will provide training and support, and will be an easy way for parents to access home-based care. We are at the beginning of making significant changes to the way childminders are regarded in our system. What we want to see is an increase in independent childminders and more agency childminders, as well.

We want to expand the level of school-based care, too. As opposed to Labour’s child care mirage, we are allowing real schools to offer real facilities. We are encouraging schools to use their nursery facilities to offer full-time day care rather than just be open for part of the day. We are allowing schools automatically to register two-year-olds, and I saw some brilliant provision for two-year-olds at the Oasis school in Hadley, which opened in January.

We are seeing 8-to-6 schools blossoming. The Norwich free school has a squirrels club, which means it is open from 8 am to 6 pm, 51 weeks a year. I know that the shadow Education Secretary thinks that free schools are a “dangerous ideological experiment”, but I think schools like the Norwich free school are giving hard-working parents the support that they need.

Another example is the Harris chain of academies, which has promised that every new school it opens will operate on an 8-to-6 basis. I am hugely in favour of 8-to-6 provision. It supports working families and helps to increase children’s attainment, but we must do that in a way that is realistic and sustainable for schools. That means making the necessary regulatory changes, aligning the requirements after the school day from within the school day and making it easier for schools to collaborate with outside providers. We do not get anywhere by making false promises that cannot be realised. We are also reforming child care funding so that parents see more of their money, rather than see it wasted. This means that all working parents will get up to £1,200 per child towards child care costs and the provision of 15 hours for three and four-year-olds.

All that is in the context of what the Government are doing to help families with the cost of living: a £705 income tax cut, thanks to our increases in the personal allowance; a £1,000 saving on mortgages because rates have been kept low; £364 saved on petrol for those who top up their cars once a week; and £210 saved thanks to our council tax freeze. This Government have real policies, helping real working parents to manage their lives—not the dodgy numbers, unfunded promises and gimmicks we have seen from the Labour party today.

Photo of Jim Dobbin Jim Dobbin Labour, Heywood and Middleton

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I understand that a very serious incident has occurred in the Mediterranean today, when a Spanish naval vessel entered Gibraltar harbour. Is a Minister from the Foreign Office coming along to make a statement about what amounts to a very serious incident?

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Chair, Panel of Chairs, Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chairman of Ways and Means

I have been given no notification that a statement is to be made, but I am sure that the Foreign Office is listening carefully to what has been said about such a serious incident.

I shall now impose an eight-minute limit in order to get all Members who want to speak into the debate. We will start with Jonathan Ashworth.

Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 3:07 pm, 19th November 2013

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to be called so early, not least because I have just returned from two weeks’ paternity leave.

Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

I will take your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am the father of a two-year-old toddler and now a two-week-old baby girl, as well, so perhaps I should declare an interest. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend Kevin Brennan asks me their names. My two girls are called Gracie and Annie, but enough about my family; let me move on to the substance of the debate.

Investment in child care is one of the most important sets of investment that any Government can make. I think it was my hon. Friend Lucy Powell who made the point a few weeks ago in one of the many articles she writes that we often talk about the importance of infrastructure investment—very topical at the moment, given the controversies over High Speed 2—and that child care should be viewed as an infrastructure investment. I entirely agree. Investment in child care is good not only for our future economic capacity, but for our children. That is what I shall focus on in my speech.

There is a general debate about how to raise the trend rate of growth in this country and how to rebalance the economy. We also debate how, if growth happens, it should be shared fairly and not snaffled away by the privileged few, as seems to be happening under this Government. Investment in child care must be an absolutely central part of building the economy of the future that we all want to see. I consider it to be one of the best social and economic investments that we can make. However, today I want to emphasise the benefits that it has for children.

I am sure all Members will agree that learning begins at birth. The first few years of a child’s life are critical to its development. Children need a stimulating, caring environment: they need opportunities to interact, to be talked to, to play, and to explore in safe surroundings. While I entirely accept that academic researchers differ on what is the right balance for a child between being in child care and being at home and that there are different conclusions to be drawn, it is undeniable that good-quality, affordable child care is central to a child’s development.

Both Front Benchers mentioned Baroness Morgan’s observations on preparing children for school. Academic evidence suggests that children who have experienced child care are much further ahead when it comes to development and readiness for school, but we also know that child care gives society an equality dividend. It helps women, in particular, to move into the labour market, but all too often they are priced out of that market by the cost of child care.

Ministers boast about the state of the economy, and say that we have turned the corner. Some top Tories even claim that they are on the glide path to victory, which I would describe as a brave and, indeed, arrogant prediction. In reality, however, the economic benefits that exist are not being shared. There is a huge squeeze on living standards, and hard-working people are worse off and therefore cannot afford child care. We know from the figures that 2 million children in poverty live in households containing a single earner, and that nine out of 10 of the workless partners are female. Securing good-quality, affordable child care and helping mothers to return to the labour market is one of the best ways in which we can make a significant dent in child poverty numbers. But what is the record of the present Government?

As the Minister knows, I have tremendous respect for her. I listen carefully to her speeches, and read a great deal of what she says. However, the fact remains that the cost of nursery places has risen by 30%, and Ofsted figures show that there are 35,000 fewer child care places. The average bill for a part-time nursery place providing 25 hours a week has risen to £107. Breakfast clubs have been scaled down, and the cost of summer holiday child care places has passed the £100-a-week mark for the first time ever. Although all the academic research tells us of the advantages enjoyed by children and toddlers who have been exposed to books, the Secretary of State—who likes to think of himself as a champion of academic rigour—has halved the Bookstart grant.

The Government have implemented a range of policies that affect mothers. For instance, they have cut the child care element of working tax credit: a total of £7 billion has been cut from working parents’ tax credit. In two months’ time, many of the higher-earning parents whose child benefit is being clawed away will have the taxman knocking on their doors because of the Government’s woeful handling of the situation.

Perhaps the Government’s worst act of vandalism against early-years provision is the fact that there are 578 fewer Sure Start centres. My hon. Friend Tristram Hunt quoted what the Prime Minister said before the last election, but as the Tories have taken it off their website, it is worth quoting again. He said that we were scaremongering. He said that the Government would back Sure Start. He said that it was “a disgrace” that my right hon. Friend Mr Brown was “trying to frighten people”. The fact remains, however, that we have 578 fewer Sure Start centres. The Tories can take that quotation off their website, like some Bolshevik politburo apparatchik trying to doctor photographs, but we will continue to remind the British people that the Prime Minister promised to maintain Sure Start centres, and that under his Government we are losing them.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

My hon. Friend is making a very important point about the breaking of the promises made by the Prime Minister at the last general election. Not only did he say that he would keep Sure Start centres open; he also said that the Government would invest in 4,200 extra health care visitors. How does my hon. Friend think that that target is going?

Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

It sounds like an example of “same old Tories”—yet more broken Tory promises.

As I said earlier, I have tremendous respect for the Minister. I watched her carefully as she toured the studios yesterday, when she talked about the Conservative proposal for tax relief. That tax relief, however, will not be introduced until 2015, and I understand that it will apply only to couples when both partners are earning. If a couple have a two-year-old at nursery, one partner is working and the other is at home caring for a newborn child, that couple will receive nothing—zilch. There will be no help for them whatsoever from this Government.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

The hon. Gentleman is forgetting the fact that if the couple are married, they will be able to transfer some of their tax allowance from one to the other. [Interruption.]

Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

My hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell, who speaks on Treasury matters, shouts “No, she won’t.” I think that that deals with the hon. Lady’s point.

I gather that the child care voucher companies will manage the Minister’s proposed scheme, but I do not know whether they will manage it for free. I should be interested to know what estimates the Department has made. How much will it cost the voucher companies to administer the scheme, and how much of the £1.5 billion that the Minister is putting into the tax-free scheme will be creamed off?

The Minister’s big plan was to downgrade child care ratios. I remember the pamphlet that she wrote about that before she was appointed. At the time, a woman stopped me to complain about it while I was doing my shopping in Morrisons in the centre of Leicester. We know that, all too often, the Government’s answer to the challenges of globalisation is a race to the bottom, but what the Minister proposed would have put downward pressure on quality in the child care sector. I hope that she has now listened to campaigners, and does not plan to return to that proposal.

Tory spin doctors used to brief that the solution to the problem of a lack of affordable high-quality child care was the holy grail of policy, but we do not hear that so much nowadays. Regrettably, they are now briefing against the Minister. I read in Ben Brogan’s daily briefing the other day that they like to watch her “like a hawk”, and I read in Total Politics magazine that they like to keep her “on a tight leash”. Such briefing is nasty and unfair: that is no way to treat a Minister who is trying to develop better child care policies, although I disagree with the direction in which she is heading. However, I am afraid that it will fall to my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central and for Manchester Central to clear up the Minister’s mess, and implement a child care policy that will give hard-working mums and dads in my constituency the support that they so desperately need.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 3:17 pm, 19th November 2013

All parents want the best for their child’s early years. They want a safe, stimulating and secure environment, an environment that provides the best possible foundation for the child’s future success at school and in life. I do not think we should forget that, for many parents, that means early years at home with mother or father; but for many others who, like me, are working full or part time, it means relying on child care. What we all want is the best-quality child care, which will promote the best possible development for our children in those early years. It is not just parents who are committed to that; the Government are absolutely committed to supporting families by providing quality child care, to meeting the costs of that care, and, importantly, to meeting parents’ need for flexible child care choices in an era of increasingly flexible work.

I speak from considerable experience. During my working life, I have probably accessed every possible type of child care: a small private nursery, a pre-school nursery attached to my son’s state school, a childminder, family support, after-school clubs and breakfast clubs—and dad helped. I received wonderful support from friends, neighbours, and families whom I knew from church. However, I knew what it took to make that work for my children: it took an enormous amount of co-ordination. Without the network of support that I was fortunate enough to have, many families struggle. That is why it is so important for us to give as much support as we can to families and parents who want to work.

Photo of Fiona Mactaggart Fiona Mactaggart Labour, Slough

One of the sources of that kind of family support, which a quarter of families depend on, is grannies or grandparents. I am sad that we have not heard in this debate about how we are going to help working grandmothers cope. There was a study by a building society a couple of years ago which pointed out that grandparents save the taxpayer about £4,000 a year through every piece of child care they offer.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and we should pay tribute to grandparents. I was very fortunate in having four wonderful grandparents without whom I could not have developed the business I did develop in those early years, when I could not have afforded the quality of child care that I could, perhaps, have afforded in later years. It is important that we strengthen family life, and I will come on to talk about some of the initiatives we need to put in place to support family life more widely. Many people cannot access that in their locality, however.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

I am sure my hon. Friend will support this Government’s extension of the right to request to all employees, so that, for example, the grandparents Fiona Mactaggart referred to are able to take time off, perhaps for child care responsibilities.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point because I was going to discuss the extensive provision that this Government are promoting for flexible working. As an employer, I have been able to accommodate some of the flexibility young mothers need, even when they perhaps just want to start work at 9.15 rather than 9. That can make an enormous difference to family life by enabling there to be good care and a good start to the day for very young children.

I was very fortunate that when my two boys were young we had a wonderful childminder, who is still very much a friend of the family. They still refer to her as “Auntie Pam.” Auntie Pam cared for my boys for two days a week. It is a tragedy that between 1996 and 2010 under the previous Government the number of childminders —the number of auntie Pams—dropped from 103,000 to 57,000. This Government are addressing that.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

Does my hon. Friend agree that this Government’s policy of introducing childminder agencies will enable better support to be given to childminders, so many of whom say they left the industry because of the burden of regulation and the lack of support for their profession?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

That is absolutely right, and I am glad to have this chance to put on record that it is a profession that deserves respect. Many childminders do not want the burdens of having to set up and run their own business. They do not want to have the burdens of complying with regulations and training requirements; they simply want to care for children. Let us release them and set them free to do that by supporting this new initiative of childminder agencies that the Government are setting up.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I am going to make some progress now; I have taken several interventions.

The Government’s childminder agency initiative is an excellent step, not least because it will mean that families will have a local resource that they can access to find a childminder they can have confidence in—a childminder who has been through the appropriate training, and who is from an agency that they know is maintaining proper standards. The agencies will also provide for occasions when the childminder falls ill, which can cause a great deal of stress to parents; there will be additional cover to provide someone else at short notice when they need that.

The Government’s provisions to build up the number of childminders should be supported, therefore, and the agencies will also help to promote take-up of Government funding for two to four-year-olds. At present fewer than 10% of childminders are funded through Government funding. I am sure that a lot of early-year place provision is being missed out as a result of that.

I support the Government’s proposals. They will enable childminders to concentrate on delivering high-quality education and care, which is what they want to do, and not be driven out of their profession simply because they do not want to face the regulations and red tape they have had to deal with until now. They will be able to benchmark themselves against the highest standards. They will be able to access the new framework of training and support and ongoing improvement, and concentrate on giving the best provision to families.

We should remind ourselves of the support that the Government are giving families in meeting the costs of child care. Some 70% of the child care costs of those on tax credits are covered by the Government and an additional £200 million of support for lower-income families will be available within universal credit from April 2016, to take the proportion to 85%. Parents of all three and four-year-olds can access free child care. As we have heard, the Government have increased early education for three and four-year-olds from 12.5 hours a week to 15 hours a week so that what amounted to 475 hours a year of free child care in September 2010 now increases to 570 hours a year. I certainly would have greatly appreciated that when my boys were younger.

The Government are extending the offer of 15 hours a week of early education to two-year-olds from low-income families, which will benefit about 260,000 two-year-olds from September 2014, costing £760 million a year by the end of this Parliament. Just four weeks into this Government’s scheme that offers free child care to the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, 92,000 children are already benefiting, which is a huge increase on the 20,000 two-year-olds who accessed early education in 2010. Looking at share of GDP, this Government are spending £5 billion on early-years child care and are spending more than 40% above the OECD average on child care for children under three.

The early-intervention grant replaces a number of centrally directed grants in supporting services for children and young people and families. It has allowed local authorities greater flexibility and freedom at the local level. I want to highlight some of the ways the local authorities in my area have used that funding to support a wide range of services for children, young people and families. There is targeted mental health support for young children through the charity Visyon in my constituency, of which I am a patron, and additional support is being given for fostering and adoption—and I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend Mr Timpson, my constituency neighbour, who has done excellent work in increasing take-up in Cheshire. There is also the funding for such projects as Let’s Stick Together run by Care For The Family.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is so much better that the money that was previously ring-fenced for individual projects can now be used on proper early-years intervention?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

I do, because the key to all this is flexibility and choice, and that is what this Government are providing. They are providing flexibility in the way that money is used and flexibility and choice for parents in deciding how to care for their children.

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Labour, Barrow and Furness 3:28 pm, 19th November 2013

It is a pleasure to follow that at times very personal speech from Fiona Bruce, but I want to pick up on one thing she said, which I think caused a little concern on the Opposition Benches. She talked about regulation of childminders in a way that gave us—and people watching on television, I suspect—the impression that all such regulation is a bad thing. Surely she is not suggesting that, for example, CRB checks should not be done? I caution Members on the Government Benches about the language they sometimes use in talking about regulation, as it can give a wholly misleading impression.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Speaking as someone who has started and who runs a small business, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it is often extremely difficult to know what the regulations are. The fear of non-compliance can deter many people from starting a business in the first place. The agencies will give childminders reassurance that they are complying with the regulations. That is the big difference.

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Labour, Barrow and Furness

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I am sure that everyone on both sides of the House agrees on the need to cut unnecessary regulation, but I stand by the point I just made.

It is a pleasure for me to follow my hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworth, who marked his return to the House with an impassioned speech. The increased relaxation that being in the House of Commons can provide to someone who is the father of two very young children has immediately given him a boost, and he brought that into his speech today.

When the cost of child care rockets, something has to give. For some, it is the opportunity to work, but those mums and dads who choose to stay in work try hard to ensure that they are the ones who bear the brunt of the cuts. They often stop going out, and they hold off from buying things for themselves that, in happier times, they would not think twice about buying. I should like Members to listen to one of the testimonies given to the Furness Poverty Commission, a body that I set up to look into the increasing deprivation in Barrow-in-Furness. A 34-year-old mother from my constituency told the commissioners that she was

“constantly worrying if the bills are all going to be paid, sometimes not having money for food, not ever being able to afford to get away anywhere, not being able to afford to secure your home, broken locks, no insurance…having to sell things to afford Christmas and not to be able to afford heating.”

Stories such as hers are all too common in Furness and right across the country.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The evidence is not only anecdotal; it is very real when we look at the figures. Is he aware that the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that, at the current rate, there will be more than 1 million additional children in poverty by 2020? Does it not appear that the country is going in the wrong direction for our children and our future?

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Labour, Barrow and Furness

It does; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a striking, damning figure that sits alongside the human stories of difficulty and suffering that we all experience in our constituencies almost daily.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Conservative, West Worcestershire

The hon. Gentleman is making some powerful points about poverty. Does he accept that work is one of the best ways out of poverty? Does he also welcome the fact that, when universal credit is rolled out in his constituency, child care will be supported for the first hour of work for the individual whom he so eloquently described?

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Labour, Barrow and Furness

Work is important in many ways, not simply as a means of getting an income. There are some real questions about universal credit, but if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not go into that now.

Privately, my constituents sometimes share with me their sense of guilt and frustration when the strain is so great that they just cannot shield their children from the cuts they are having to make. Swimming lessons go, trips to the zoo are put off, and when nothing beyond the bare nutritional minimum goes into their child’s lunchbox, they worry that their child is not going to eat enough because they are not giving them what they really like or want. These are working people. They have made the choice to go out and hold down a job, and to juggle work and family life. They do not expect handouts. They know that life will not be easy when they choose to bring up kids, but they just ask for a bit of help with what can seem like the suffocating burden of rising living costs. Child care should be one of the things that lift the strain on families and give them a way out of poverty; it should not add to the burden.

One of key recommendations of the Furness Poverty Commission on dealing with social and economic exclusion in Barrow and Furness was to close the gap that local people had identified in affordable and flexible child care. It is great that the number of children under the age of four in England is increasing, and I am pleased to have been able to do my bit on that front in recent years. So I am delighted by Labour’s plans, which my hon. Friend Tristram Hunt has set out, to increase the availability of affordable child care. I am especially pleased that the extra entitlement will come in the form of wraparound care from 8 am to 6 pm.

Increasing child care from 15 to 25 hours a week could make a real difference to many families in my constituency. For many parents, it would make the difference between being able to work and not being able to do so. The provision of 12.5 or 15 hours has been a help but it has often not provided a trigger given the way in which the need for child care is spread out if parents rearrange their lives to go back to work. I believe that this wraparound care, aligning child care with the standard working day, will be revolutionary in helping parents to get back to work.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South, I have a great deal of respect for the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Elizabeth Truss. I was therefore disappointed to hear her dismiss the wraparound child care guarantee in the way she did. She did not want to take my intervention earlier, but I have to tell her that one of the main problems is that there is often no provision at all for families—

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Labour, Barrow and Furness

The Minister shakes her said and says that that is not true, but I invite her to come to my constituency and see the problems that many people face when trying to arrange that kind of wraparound child care.

Working parents in my constituency—and in those of many of my hon. Friends—know how hard it can be to find affordable child care, or indeed any form of child care, to cover the period before the beginning of the formal school day and the hour or so at the end of it. Effectively, they are trying to find someone to care for their children and walk them to and from school. That might comprise only an hour of care, but an inability to find it can present an impenetrable barrier to getting back to work. This is why our plans could make a real difference. If we are serious about a sustained recovery that is shared by everyone across the country, we need to tackle the child care crisis head on. If this Government will not do that effectively, the next Labour Government will.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 3:38 pm, 19th November 2013

It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate, and to follow John Woodcock.

It is also a pleasure to follow Jonathan Ashworth, who gave us the great news that his wife had recently given birth to a beautiful daughter.

It was also interesting to listen to the beginning of the debate. I thought that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss was able to truss up like a turkey the shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, by putting up a good defence of the Government’s record and exposing the issues involved. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I can assure the House that the jokes do not get better than that.

Of course, child care is an issue not only for mothers; both parents should and do play a full role in the care of their children. They, and people without children, such as me, recognise that access to good quality child care is key. We should also celebrate the fact that more women are working than ever before.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Should we not also honour and celebrate those mothers who decide to stay at home throughout their children’s childhoods and commit to caring for them personally?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I fully recognise that, too. What matters is that we should be allowing people to choose what they do. It is right to say that we should not condemn people who decide not to work in an external job and to focus their time on caring for their children at home.

The Minister referred to a number of cases where there has been concern about statistics being bandied about. Everyone in this House, however, would agree that one of the worst situations for a parent is when they need emergency child care, as occurs when teachers go on strike and parents are left trying to get time off work. It would be welcome if Labour Members condemned the decision of teaching unions to go on strike at irregular intervals, so that we can make sure that children are in school. The Minister referred to the fact that we are starting to remove red tape, so no longer will schools have to have a separate Ofsted registration when they cater for children under three years of age—that is to be welcomed. We are also dealing with aspects of planning and other requirements that restrict schools and deter them from facilitating child care provision outside the core school hours. It is important that we make it as straightforward as possible for existing school buildings to be used, be it by the school or not. I understand the wraparound guarantee to which the Opposition refer but, as has been pointed out, no extra funding is being provided for that—indeed, Opposition Members suggest that the funding has already been built into the formula grant.

One thing that does matter is having extra flexibility and choice. I also appreciate the commendation made by Ministers to ensure that schools do not just keep contracting their opening hours, as that, too, causes problems for parents trying to juggle work with getting their children to school. Some schools in my constituency have tried to do that and were still not listening after a consultation. Fortunately, however, when I sent them their communications from the Secretary of State, they realised that they should, of course, be considering the wider issues for working families. So I am glad that in the particular school I am thinking about the decision was reversed by the governing body.

Let me deal with other aspects of removing red tape or increasing the number of places. My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce eloquently referred to the issue of childminder agencies, which will be introduced. That is a good innovation to allow more people to put themselves forward to offer child care, and that is very welcome. In addition, childminders who are rated “good” and “outstanding” will be able to be funded directly from government, as opposed to the money being routed through the local council. That is a good step forward and, again, it removes the administration or other extra bureaucracy that stops government funding —we must remember that more than £5 billion is being spent by this Government on early years education and child care.

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Conservative, Selby and Ainsty

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating North Yorkshire county council on its work? Not only has it managed to preserve the number of Sure Start children’s centres in my constituency, but I had the pleasure of opening one last year; we have actually increased the number of Sure Start centres.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I indeed join my hon. Friend in congratulating North Yorkshire county council and I will also give a boost to Suffolk’s council, as one Sure Start centre has opened in my constituency since the general election, and that is to be welcomed.

That takes me neatly on to the issue of Sure Start centres—or children’s centres, as they have become. A lot of figures are being bandied around about how many have closed. I have a regular correspondent on Twitter who assures me that the figure is now more than 700, whereas the Opposition tell us that it is more than 500. We have heard from the Minister today that fewer than 50 have closed. I will not pretend that I have had the time to go through all the different links and go into detail about the different numbers, but I am assured by what she has said at the Dispatch Box. Our Prime Minister said that he wanted to counter scaremongering, and we should not always get hung up about the buildings; it is about what matters for the child.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I was about to refer to my hon. Friend and I will do so before I give way to her. Early intervention grants are no longer ring-fenced; it is to be welcomed that we have local solutions to deal what is needed. I wish to commend three Members of Parliament, in particular, in this regard: Mr Field; my hon. Friend Ben Gummer, who has done some extraordinary work—learning, to some extent, from the right hon. Gentleman—on how to help children in his constituency; and my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, whom I was going to praise because of her work with OXPIP—the Oxford Parent Infant Project—and other facilities.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

Surely what really matters is what Sure Start centres are achieving for families. We are not looking enough at the achievements of the centres, the inroads they are making and the improvement in UNICEF’s assessment of the happiness of British children—that is going in the right direction. Instead, all we talk about is whether a centre has closed. That is surely not the right thing to be looking at.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes the point I was referring to. Whether we are talking about Sure Start centres, children’s centres or many other public sector services, we should not get hung up solely on bricks and mortar; we should be focused on the outcomes for children, as that is what really matters.

I also wish to praise another local scheme in my constituency, Home-Start, which also operates around the country. I am particularly impressed with what it is doing to try to reach people, many of whom are not going to children’s centres to access services. It is taking the service to people in their homes, and giving help without it being seen as being judgmental—instead, it is seen as friendly. These are the kinds of initiatives we should be supporting. We should be allowing local councils to use their discretion and initiative to focus on what works best in their area, rather than solely implementing an idea from Whitehall.

Opposition Members have said that their proposals will be funded through the bank levy—I appreciate that they are not talking about a bankers’ bonus measure, which may have been discussed earlier. The shadow Secretary of State mentioned that less tax is coming in. He might have noticed that some of our largest banks have not been making a profit. The obvious cause is the global recession, but the previous Administration allowed the financial disasters to emerge: they allowed RBS to grow without any particular controls; HBOS was forced together with Lloyds, and similar other things occurred; and we had the disasters at the Co-op which have been revealed in the past few works. The Opposition are trying to suggest that a recovery in financial services is bad and that we need to tax them and, indeed, the people who work in them, further to pay for more and more schemes; the bankers’ bonus tax seems to have been used 11 times to pay for various schemes that Labour Members cite. The reality is that money does not grow on trees—we all got taught that lesson when we were children—and we have to make every penny stretch. I am very proud that this Government have genuine ambitions for world-class child care. We know that at this moment in time the coverage is patchy and it is costing more than it should, but I am very supportive of the moves we are making to ensure that child care becomes a significant contributor to growth and to the growth of the family.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury) 3:48 pm, 19th November 2013

It is an honour to follow Dr Coffey. Although I respect her immensely, I pretty much disagreed with most of what she said. I know from personal experience and from talking to mums and families in Newcastle just how vital good quality, affordable child care can be. Support with child care is particularly crucial to those mums who want to get on, stay in work and help lift their families out of poverty.

My hon. Friend John Woodcock made a powerful speech about the difficulties in which many families find themselves. A recent

Asda survey reveals the startling picture that seven out of 10 mums said that they would be worse off if they went back to work because of the costs of child care. Any Government should take such a matter extremely seriously. Many families are caught in the poverty trap. Although they work all the hours they can, only one person can work because of the costs of child care. As a result they are struggling with the ever-rising cost of living, which is the reality for families up and down the country.

Fewer women are in work in this country compared with many of our leading competitor countries, so we need to take the matter seriously. At the same time, women are paying three times more than men to reduce the deficit, yet they earn less and own less than men.

I am not just talking about supporting parents with the costs of child care, it is also important to ensure that child care places exist. Children and families in Newcastle are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the Government’s cuts. Andrea Leadsom raised the issue of the Sure Start centres and how we should measure their outcomes and not just bemoan their closure. None the less, their gradual disappearance is a serious loss and blow to every community.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

This is an incredibly important point about Sure Starts. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Sure Start, and we have just done a year-long inquiry into best practice in Sure Starts. Our conclusion is that there is absolutely no wholesale closure of the centres. In fact, lots more are opening. The Sure Starts that exist are really focusing on outcomes and on getting in better services for families. I wish that Opposition Members would stop suggesting to families that the support they need in those early years is disappearing; it is just not. There is no evidence for that.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The Minister provided no clarity on the figures. The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal said that she was unable to clarify the figures, but that she had been reassured by the Minister. I am less so. I would be pleased if the Minister provided some clarity now.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The figure of 500 to which the Opposition have been referring is the number of centres that were independent and that are now part of a network. They are still open to the public and providing services, but management efficiencies have been achieved. There have been 45 outright closures. I hope that I have made myself clear.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It is clear that the Government are using figures to manipulate the reality that is being reported by constituents up and down the country.

Let me get back to the situation in Newcastle. Last year, my local authority, in the light of unprecedented funding challenges, consulted on a three-year budget for the period 2013-16. When it began the process, it believed that, as a result of funding reductions from the Government and rising cost pressures from inflation, high energy prices and the costs of providing services to an ever-ageing population, it faced a funding shortfall of £90 million over three years. That figure rose during the consultation process to £100 million. Following further cuts announced in the autumn statement and the local government finance settlement, it is now facing cuts of £108 million. It has already announced the closure of Sure Start centres in my constituency—all of them—and because of the additional funding requirement and shortfall, it has now put all 20 Sure Start centres within the Newcastle city council area under review, so we do not know what their future will be.

Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is staggering that there is such a lack of understanding about the swingeing cuts that have been made to local government over the past few years and the fact that it will have an effect on essential services? It is wrong to pretend otherwise.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The Department for Education’s children’s centre database on the gov.uk website shows that there are 3,053 centres whereas the DFE website shows that there were 3,632 Sure Start centres in 2010. The number of Sure Start centres, in the form in which communities recognise and value them, is reducing and the Department’s figures show that. It would be an appalling situation if Sure Start was just about providing affordable child care—we know that the Government have a great challenge on their hands to meet their obligations in that regard—but it is not. Sure Start also provides vital support services to young children and families, who are some of the most vulnerable and hardest to reach in our communities, by providing parenting advice, breastfeeding support, affordable child care or just an opportunity for isolated and often vulnerable and frustrated new mothers and fathers to meet up with other people.

Another huge concern is the impact that Sure Start closures would have on the preventive early intervention work that stops children and families entering the child protection system. I know that the children’s Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Mr Timpson, cares about this matter, and I would be grateful if, in his winding-up speech, he commented on the consideration the Government have given to that impact on our child protection system. At present, about 50% of the looked-after children in Newcastle are in the local authority’s care as a result of domestic violence in their home.

Photo of Marcus Jones Marcus Jones Conservative, Nuneaton

The hon. Lady is making a very good case for children’s centres, with which I completely agree. Would she not acknowledge, however, that despite the changes that she is saying are so detrimental, more than 1 million people are now accessing the centres, as are two thirds of the most disadvantaged families with children under five—a record number?

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I am talking about the future, too, and putting on the record my concerns about further closures of Sure Start centres. I agree that it is positive that more families use them, but the worry is that they will disappear as the local authority cuts that have not even started yet have an impact. Both Under-Secretaries should be worried about the impact on their own figures and work.

The long-term costs of the closure of Sure Start centres must be considered in the wider context. I have seen first hand the work that my local Sure Start centres, which are already earmarked for closure, do with vulnerable women and men in cases of domestic violence. That work is vital if more children are not to be taken into care in future.

The holistic approach to supporting children and young families across the country developed under Labour is, in my view, under threat from the action taken by a Government who seem incredibly out of touch, who just do not get it and who just do not care. That will only result in higher costs in the long term for society and for public services at every level.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I am changing the time limit for the last two speeches in order to start the wind-ups at 10 past 4. The time limit is now six minutes.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch 3:57 pm, 19th November 2013

For me, as for many people in the Chamber and up and down the country, child care is not an academic issue but something we grapple with every single day of the year, including today. I believe that child care is an area of public policy that, if we get it right, can transform the lives of millions and build a stronger economy. I think that so far I would have cross-party agreement.

I know that it is fashionable for some members of my party to apologise for things that Labour did in office, but we should make no apology whatsoever for what Labour did on child care. Our record is incredibly strong. Labour introduced the free entitlement to 15 hours a week of child care for every three and four-year-old in the country and Labour introduced Sure Start. When I was out on the doorsteps as a candidate before 2005, Sure Start was a policy that mothers were talking to me about. It is very rare that voters talk to us about policies by name. It was exciting, it was progressive and it has made a difference.

The three and four-year-olds coming through the system at the millennium are today 16 and 17, a generation of young people whose lives were enhanced under a Labour Government but are now blighted by the prospect of unemployment under the coalition Government. The latest evaluation of Sure Start, published by the Department for Education in June last year, showed many positive impacts of Sure Start on young children and their parents. The one I want to highlight is the greater improvement in life satisfaction among lone parents and workless households. We know that being unemployed is tough, and being a lone parent is one of the toughest things in the world. This programme demonstrably improved life satisfaction amongst those groups in our community. That is why we should be angry that Sure Start centres are closing or being watered down. Our blood should be boiling with indignation. Mine certainly is.

We should nail the myth about Sure Start centres. Some may still be open, but what range of services are they providing? Many are no longer providing child care. Others have been subsumed into their sponsoring school.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

I am sorry, I do not have time to take interventions.

The assault on Sure Start by this Government is surely their greatest act of vandalism—an assault on the future of the poorest and most vulnerable children and parents. We know that—

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

I regret not having the chance to debate, but I have three and a half minutes left—a very short time in what we thought would be a longer debate.

The “pile them high, teach them cheap” policy promoted by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, Elizabeth Truss is another example of the Government’s attitude to child care. I want to focus on three areas—first, that child care is not a peripheral issue, a soft issue or even a women’s issue. Quality child care goes to the heart of our society, our economy and our country’s prosperity. No policy matters more. As we see, with a squeeze on living standards throughout the country, people are looking at costs. We see the challenges.

For example, research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that the cost of necessities required to give a child a decent standard of living increased by 4% in the past year alone. A recent OECD report found that the UK has some of the most expensive child care in the world. I will not repeat the arguments that colleagues have made, but we know that a further 1.3 million women want to work more hours. If our employment rate for mothers moved up to the average of the world’s top five nations, 320,000 more women would have jobs, and crucially tax receipts would rise by £1.7 billion.

Secondly, we need to bold. I urge those on my Front-Bench to be bolder even than they are being now. We should be proud of our record, but in the past progress was sometimes slower than it should have been. It was sometimes piecemeal. I do not speak for my Front Bench, but I would like to see a child care Bill in the first Queen’s Speech, announcing our aim to move towards universal child care. The Institute for Public Policy Research think tank has shown that a decent universal system of child care pays for itself in the long run. More parents working, paying taxes and not claiming tax credits and benefits more than pays for the state’s investment in child care. We know from Scandinavia that that increases women’s participation in the work force, so we need to be bold.

The third area that I have a brief moment to flag up, as I know we are running out of time, is the idea of sustainability and ownership. I am a proud co-operator, and there must be a greater role for co-op and mutual models when it comes to child care. Many of the original Sure Start centres were run by boards of parents. I worked among them as my own older children were growing up and saw the empowerment that that gave many of those women. These community assets should not be at the command of Ministers of any party. They remain under threat if Ministers do not care about child care. Parents know best. I would like to see more co-operative ownership, including childminding co-ops, rather than the agencies that the Government are promoting, which would cream off a profit and remove the parent relationship with their own childminder, which would be a great mistake.

In my final minute, I give way to Andrea Leadsom.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

I just want to say that the hon. Lady is making a big mistake by turning child care into such a political issue. She knows as well as I do that Sure Start centres are doing brilliant work in our society. There is so much potential from the Sure Start movement. She should be proud that Labour introduced it and that this Government are building on it. Opposition Members should stop trying to frighten parents into thinking that it is all going pear-shaped.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

But we know that services are being watered down. The great thing about Sure Start centres is that they were open to all and a range of services were provided. It was a one-stop shop. It will always be a challenge to decide what services should be provided when money is tight, but Sure Start was a great unifier, a great starting point, a great melting pot, a great mix. I am glad to hear from the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire that she is a champion of it on her Benches. It is a shame that the Government are not, and their funding cuts to local authorities are putting Sure Start under threat. I am not being partisan for the sake of it. Our record is strong, and parents and child carers in my constituency worry about their future under this Government.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central 4:03 pm, 19th November 2013

I follow my hon. Friend Meg Hillier by agreeing with her about the cuts to Sure Start and the effect that that has had throughout the country. The Minister confirmed that the figures have fallen from 3,631 in 2010 to 3,053—a reduction of 578 in the number of Sure Start centres. That is the reality.

I take the Minister back to her evidence to the Education Committee in reply to a question from me on this subject. She did not deny that that was the situation. She claimed that, where the centres were still being used, they had moved to a hub and spoke model. We heard in evidence that sadly, far too often, instead of the delivery of the service, a part-time member of staff hands out leaflets, signposting parents to a service that may exist somewhere else. That is not the same thing as delivering the service that was there previously. That is what has happened with these closures. We have seen a drastic reduction in the quality of the service. When I asked about that in the Select Committee, the Minister ignored the point and moved on to something else. I have the transcript here if she wants to check what she said. She failed to give me an answer when I put that point to her. According to Government figures, 7,200 fewer staff work in Sure Start centres throughout the country. That has to mean a lower level and lower quality of service. I am sorry to say this, but that was the evidence given to the inquiry.

I am proud of our record on Sure Start. My son was three when he came to live with us, and we were fortunate in that the Sure Start centre where we used to live opened about a week before then. It was linked to a school, so there was a nursery, and he benefited from the brilliant staff working there. We as a family benefited from the support of Sure Start. Talking to other parents there and to parents who used other Sure Start facilities, it was clear that Sure Start transformed their lives and the lives of the children who benefited from those services. It made an enormous difference to their development and school readiness. That could be seen when looking at older children who had benefited from going through that system and the quality of child care and support for families that resulted from what the last Labour Government did. The Labour party is right to be proud of our record on Sure Start. I have confirmed that with the Sure Start centres in my constituency. Having children who are school ready makes all the difference. In the deprived areas that I serve in Crosby, children whose parents have benefited from Sure Start are school ready while others from the same estates are not. There is a marked difference in school readiness and the outcomes that schools can achieve for those children.

The Select Committee went to Denmark earlier this year and looked at the Danish experience. That is the quality of care to which we should aspire. We do not spend as much as they do in Denmark or in a number of other countries, particularly those in Scandinavia, and that explains the difference. The Minister shakes her head, but her Department has produced a report, which was evidenced in the Select Committee, in which a thorough analysis of the figures showed that spending levels here are not on a par with those in Denmark, and that explains the difference overall.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is real muddle from the Government about exactly what they do spend? They come up with different figures depending which Minister is asked at which time of year or day. Do we not need some clarity on this in order to inform the debate?

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

Absolutely. The Government should look at their own officials’ reports, as I was just saying in relation to the OECD comparisons.

The Government quite rightly want more women in the work force as a long-term driver of growth. In Denmark, 84% of working-age women are in work, whereas in the UK the figure is only 67.1%—we are rated 16th in the OECD in that regard. Denmark has wraparound care from 8 am to 5 pm, and from six months all the way up to age 10, and the maximum contribution an individual can make is 25%. There are highly qualified and well-trained professionals, mostly educated to relevant degree level, working in its child care settings. It is that massive level of support from the public purse that enables so many more women to go to work. They have a choice, of course, but many of them choose to take that opportunity. As a result, the system is supported by parents, politicians and the Danish equivalent of the CBI, so business likes that system.

My hon. Friends on the Front Bench are right to propose moving in that direction in the motion on the Order Paper, with wraparound care from 8 am to 6 pm. We certainly need to increase the number of hours in nurseries, so 25 hours is a great step in the right direction. We certainly need to follow the Danish system, and I hope that Members will support the motion.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Education) 4:11 pm, 19th November 2013

I am grateful to the many colleagues across the House, especially so many male colleagues, who have spoken in this important debate. This is my first outing at the Dispatch Box, and I am absolutely delighted to be winding up on an issue of such importance to so many families across the country.

Labour has a proud record on child care. It was the Labour Government who put child care on the political map and oversaw a revolution in child care provision. My hon. Friend Meg Hillier gave a passionate account of our record. Ensuring that we have good, affordable and flexible child care is critical not only for families facing a cost of living crisis, but for the economy as a whole, as my hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworth rightly said.

Unfortunately, things are going backwards under this Government. They are presiding over a child care crunch and failing to support families in work. Under this Government we have seen a child care triple whammy of rising costs, falling places and cuts in support to help parents. Since 2010 the number of child care places has fallen by over 35,000, including 2,423 fewer childminders on the Minister’s watch, all at a time when a rising birth rate is putting greater demand on the system. The failure to supply enough places is impacting on costs for families. The problem of insufficient child care supply is hurting the economy and making balancing work and family life a nightmare for parents.

Many Members have spoken about cuts to their local Sure Start centre. The Government’s own figures show that there are now 578 fewer centres than there were in 2010. That figure is calculated from the Government’s own publicly available records, and I must say that it resonates much more with what we hear is happening on the ground. Let us take the Prime Minister’s back yard as an example. Of the 44 centres in Oxfordshire, 37 are due to close. He once famously said that he would back Sure Start, but for many in his constituency that is yet another broken promise.

I agree with Andrea Leadsom—I have a great deal of respect for her and for the work she has done on early intervention—that the issue is not just about the fabric of the buildings; it is also about capacity. I wonder whether Ministers can tell us what progress is being made in increasing the number of health visitors by 4,200 by 2015, which is critical in delivering the Sure Start model.

The crisis in places is leading to price hikes that are making it increasingly unsustainable for parents to make ends meet, as the very powerful account from my hon. Friend John Woodcock made clear.

Photo of David Ward David Ward Liberal Democrat, Bradford East

Is the hon. Lady aware that Naomi Eisenstadt, who can be regarded as the mother of Sure Start, told the Education Committee that there were too many Sure Start centres and that phase 3 was spreading them far too thinly?

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Education)

I was not aware of her comments, but I completely disagree. As hon. Members have said, this is a very popular service that people raise with us on the doorstep, unlike many other Government policies.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Education)

I will plough on and give way later.

Under this Government, average weekly part-time nursery costs have increased by 30%. Put another way, child care costs have risen five times faster than wages. In the past year alone, they have risen at more than double the rate of inflation. It is typical of the Government to pretend that things are going well when the reality is that many parents are finding it an incredible struggle to find and afford the child care they need. On top of the crisis in places and hikes in costs, parents have also seen their support fall. Families with two children have experienced a reduction of about £1,500 a year in tax credits, hitting low-income families the hardest. At the time of the 2010 spending review, the Office for Budget Responsibility warned the Government that cuts to child care support would have a negative impact, saying that they would

“affect the hours worked and participation in the labour market”.

Yet the Government have taken no notice and parents face an increasingly difficult child care crunch.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Education)

I am going to make some progress.

Let me turn to the Government’s response. They may have deleted reference to it from their website, but the Prime Minister once promised that they would be

“the most family-friendly Government…ever”.

Yet they have wasted three years doing very little. The Minister’s flagship agenda on ratios has been abandoned; the nursery offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds is being met with delivery problems; and their tax break scheme is too little, too late and benefits the richest the most. On child care ratios, the Deputy Prime Minister agreed with us that changing ratios could even increase prices. He said that the evidence was “overwhelmingly against” changing the rules on ratios, and went on to say:

“I cannot ask parents to accept such a controversial change with no real guarantee it will save them money—in fact it could cost them more.”

While we welcome extra support for disadvantaged two-year-olds, one in three councils tell us that they do not have enough places to meet this policy.

Childminder agencies are up in the air, with no clarity about how they will work or what they will do. The Minister is running 20 pilots across the country. So far, we know that at least two of those pilots will charge, although we do not know who will bear the cost. Will Ministers give us a guarantee that childminder agencies will not push up prices for parents?

The Government’s tax-free child care policy is too little, too late for parents. The extra investment in child care the Government are promising is dwarfed by the £7 billion a year of cuts they have already made for families with children. The scheme does not start until 2015, and it excludes families with children over the age of five. It benefits families earning up to £300,000 a year, helping the richest the most while leaving low and middle-income families struggling to make work pay, particularly for second earners. This policy will do nothing about costs.

By contrast, Labour has a plan to tackle the child care crunch. Our policies will make a real difference to mums and dads, get our economy moving, and help parents to tackle the logistical nightmare they face. As my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell rightly pointed out, seven out of 10 mums said they would work were it not for the high costs of child care. Expensive child care is acting as a drag on our economy. If our employment rate for mothers moved up to the average of the world’s top five nations, 320,000 more women would have jobs and tax receipts would rise by £1.7 billion a year. The Government gloat about their record, but most of the jobs they have created for mothers returning to work are part-time, low-paid jobs. Over 1 million of those people want to return to full-time work, but the full-time jobs do not exist.

Labour Members take the child care crunch seriously; we are not as complacent as Government Members. We would expand free child care for three and four-year-olds from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents. That is worth over £1,500 a year. This is a fully costed Labour commitment. We would pay for this policy by ensuring that the banks pay their fair share, increasing the bank levy to an extra £800 million a year.

For school-aged children, many parents increasingly struggle to find decent before and after-school child care. The Government abandoned our extended schools programme. We will set down in law a guarantee that parents can access wraparound child care through their local school if they want it. This will stimulate innovation and collaboration to meet the logistical nightmare described by Members today.

Child care is at the heart of the cost of living crisis for many families. While parents cry out for action from this Government, all we have seen is in-fighting and prevarication while costs have soared and provision fallen. Our offer of 25 hours free child care for working parents of three and four-year-olds will make a real difference to families struggling to make ends meet. I hope colleagues on both sides of the House will support our motion.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 4:20 pm, 19th November 2013

This has been a valuable debate that has brought into sharp focus the importance of the cost and availability of child care to so many parents across the country. I have listened with interest to the contributions made by Members on both sides of the House.

I add my congratulations to Jonathan Ashworth on the recent addition to his family. If he decides to expand it in the future, he will, of course, benefit from the provision for new flexible parental leave in our Children and Families Bill, which will come back before the House before too long. He spoke about the importance of high-quality, affordable child care, which is a baseline on which I think everyone who has taken part in the debate can form a consensus.

My parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, told us how her family had benefited from a range of choice and flexibility with regard to child care, and about the importance of promoting strong family life and the role that childminder agencies could play in increasing both supply and choice.

John Woodcock explained how child care can be a way out of poverty. I completely agree with him. That is why we have extended early-education funding to 260,000 two-year-olds from the lowest-income households. He may be pleased to hear that in Cumbria 805 children have already benefited directly from that policy.

My hon. Friend Dr Coffey made an excellent contribution. She reminded us that more women are working than ever before in this country and said how improving flexible access to quality child care will help push that figure even higher.

Catherine McKinnell started by saying that she disagreed with almost everything my hon. Friend said. I listened carefully to the hon. Lady’s speech and I, in turn, disagreed with almost everything she said, save for her very thoughtful consideration of children who are on the edge of, or who have fallen into, care and how child care may help support them. I would be very happy to discuss that with the hon. Lady outside this debate.

Meg Hillier explained the wider benefits to society of good-quality, accessible child care, and Bill Esterson told us about the Danish model that was considered recently as part of the inquiry held by his Select Committee.

My hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom, who is a champion for Sure Start children centres, also made a good contribution. I have read the report produced by the all-party group of which she and Mrs Hodgson are members. It is an excellent analysis of the current state of affairs and well worth reading, and I recommend it to the Opposition’s Front Benchers.

My hon. Friends the Members for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) and for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) also contributed to the debate.

There is not doubt that child care costs have been a real problem for many families for too long. To be frank, that should not surprise us when figures from the Family and Childcare Trust show that between 2002 and 2010, child care costs increased by just under 50%. That is why the Government have been quick to act and taken a number of significant steps to reduce parents’ child care bills and support those who want to work.

In September 2010, we increased the free entitlement for all three and four-year-olds to 15 hours per week—the equivalent of 570 hours per year—and 96% of children are now getting at least part of their free place. From September 2014, that will be extended to about 260,000 two-year-olds, many of them from the working households on low incomes for whom the costs of child care are such a burden.

As universal credit is introduced, parents working less than 16 hours per week will, for the first time, be able to get up to 70% of their child care costs paid. That will rise to 85% when both parents work enough to pay income tax, a point which was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton. From autumn 2015, we will begin to phase in tax-free child care, which will give 2.5 million working families up to £1,200 per year per child.

Taken together, that means that for three-year-olds in nursery for 40 hours a week, the state will pay for half of the hours for children whose parents claim tax-free child care, and more than 80% of the hours—four days out of five—for children whose parents claim universal credit. It also means that the Government spend on early education and child care will rise by more than £1 billion from less than £5 billion in 2010 to more than £6 billion by 2015-16.

We on the Government Benches know that simply providing ever-more funding will not, on its own, halt the long-term increase in child care costs, or provide the child care places that we need for the future. That can come only through growth in the market and improved competition.

Contrary to the view expressed by Opposition Front Benchers, there is no shortage of child care places. Some Opposition Members read from their brief a claim that the closure of Sure Start children’s centres means that child care places have been lost. However, as the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss made clear several times, the Opposition’s rumours about the demise of children’s centres are very premature.

In fact, those centres are thriving, with a record number of more than 1 million parents and children using their services. Although they continue to provide such valuable services, it is important to remember that they provide only 1% of child care, as opposed to schools, which provide about 30% of it. In fact, the total number of child care settings rose from 87,900 in 2010 to 90,000 in 2011, which is a 2.4% overall increase.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

Will the Minister tell me whether we imagined or made up the evidence given to the Education Committee inquiry on Sure Start about many centres just being used by part-time staff to hand out leaflets, because that is what the record shows? Is that not what is happening? Is that not the reality in the country?

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Gentleman had the benefit of listening to that evidence. It would be strange for me to suggest that he did not listen to evidence that I did not listen to, so he has asked a slightly bizarre question. The bottom line is simply this: are we ensuring that money, support, training and a quality work force are available to parents who require child care? We are providing £2.5 billion for early intervention, which is up from £2.3 billion, and we are making sure that the money we put in equates to 2 million early-years places, including the 800,000 in maintained schools—the Opposition forgot to mention them in their rushed-out press release earlier this week—which is a 5% increase on 2009.

Local authorities report that there are already 180,000 places for two-year-olds across the country, which is more than sufficient for all eligible two-year-olds whose parents want to take up the offer. Just one month into the new entitlement, 92,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds are already receiving their 15 hours a week of early education, which is more than four times the number receiving funded places in 2010. I hope that hon. Members on all sides recognise that that is a significant achievement not for us in this House, but for the children on whose lives there will be a positive impact.

We should, however, be acutely aware that more high-quality places are needed. Demographic changes, the expansion of the two-year-old entitlement, continued economic recovery and welfare reform will all increase demand for child care. That is why we are acting to create the right conditions for that to happen in every part of the market.

The evidence is clear that the quality of settings is determined above all by the quality of the work force. In “More Great Childcare”, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary signalled our intention to create a step change in the quality of recruits coming into early-years education, and many of the report’s proposals are already in place.

The signs are promising both in relation to the cost of provision and maternal employment. One authoritative industry report published in September found that 2012-13 was the second successive year in which the price of full-day care in nurseries had been flat in real terms.

There are positive indications that the package of reforms that this Government have put into place, and which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has done so much to champion, are starting to have the desired impact of encouraging growth in every part of the child care market; placing a better trained and higher quality work force at the heart of child care provision; creating genuine choice for parents; and ensuring that, for hard-pressed parents, work really does pay. I encourage Members to vote against the motion.

Question put.

The House divided:

Ayes 231, Noes 291.

Division number 128 Opposition Day — Free Child Care for Parents of 3-4 Year Olds

A majority of MPs voted against increasing the amount of free child care offered to parents of 3 and 4 year olds from 15 to 25 hours

Aye: 231 MPs

No: 291 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 124 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.