New Clause 1 — Childcare provision

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 8th April 2014.

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Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury) 6:15 pm, 8th April 2014

It is interesting that the hon. Lady mentions that, because I will quote directly on this issue a little further on in my submission.

We know that the Government are good at con tricks, giving with one hand but taking much, much more with the other. For example, they made a U-turn last month when they decided to support 85% of child care costs for all universal credit claimants. That was a welcome reversal after the coalition decided in 2011 to cut the support for child care through the working tax credit from 80% to 70%—a decision that led to an average loss of £570 a year for low-paid working parents. It is just another example of this Government taking with one hand and giving with the other.

As Alan Milburn, chairman of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, has said, low-income families will still lose out, despite this increase in support for those most in need. He told The Independent on Sunday:

“The Government has taken half a step forward. The announcement that 85% of childcare costs will be met under universal credit from 2016 will help work pay for low-income families. This is very welcome. The sting in the tail is that this £200 million expansion in childcare support will come from within the universal credit programme…That risks robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Perhaps the Minister could also give a bit more detail on how she intends to pay for the increase in support. While she is at it, perhaps she could provide some clarity on when low-income families eligible for universal credit can expect to receive this support with their child care costs.

Under the original plans of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, most would have expected to receive the increased support when the tax free child care is introduced in 2015, but clearly that is not going to happen. Will the Minister clarify when the Government expect to introduce this support and whether it will be in the near future? Ultimately, as Opposition Members have made absolutely clear, parents facing a cost of living crisis will see through any child care con, because it does not make up for how much the families are now paying for child care under this coalition Government.

I come now to the first part of new clause 1 and the Opposition’s proposals for improving child care support, which we know will make a real difference to working parents. New clause 1 proposes that the Chancellor should undertake a review of the ways in which child care could be made more affordable before April 2015. We have done much of the work for him with our clear suggestions for supporting families on this pressing issue. We want to extend free child care for three to four-year-olds from 15 to 25 hours a week for working parents, which can be fully funded by increasing the bank levy. As with the 15-hour early-years entitlement, the new 25 hours would be for 38 weeks of the year, which would mean more than £1,500 of extra support per child each year. Perhaps most important, Labour’s plans will not demand that working parents spend £10,000 on child care in order to get the maximum promised help.

We also know that for school-age children, child care can become a logistical nightmare, with many parents increasingly struggling to find before and after-school child care, while the Government stick their fingers in their ears and hum. On the Government’s own record, 62% of parents of school-age children say that they need some form of before and after-school or holiday care in order to combine family life with work, but of those nearly three in 10 are unable to find it. To give parents of primary-age children peace of mind, the Opposition would set in law the guarantee that they could access wraparound child care from 8 am to 6 pm through their local school if they wanted it. This primary child care guarantee will benefit parents of primary-age children most, because those parents most need support. Of course, these plans will be in addition to all the support that parents will already receive, and they will not be contingent on spending thousands of pounds on child care in order to qualify.

At Prime Minister’s questions recently, following a Budget empty of any measures to address the problem now, I asked the Prime Minister to explain why his Government had failed to take the action to help parents with child care costs before the next general election. He answered:

“We are helping families with child care, not least by giving 15 hours…That is happening before the election; it has happened under this Government in this Parliament—15 hours of free nursery care for three-year-olds and four-year-olds…Opposition Members say it is not enough; it is more than Labour ever provided.”—[Hansard, 26 March 2014; Vol. 578, c. 344.]

That was not only a very complacent response but, unintentionally I am sure, misleading, and goes to show just how out of touch this Government are on this issue of child care.

The previous Labour Government introduced 12.5 hours of free nursery education for three to four-year-olds a decade ago, back in 2004, with the clear intention that that would be extended to 15 hours by 2010. Far from this being a coalition policy, the plan was inherited by the coalition from the previous Labour Government. As I set out, the future Labour Government will continue to build on this legacy, extend it to 25 hours a week for working parents, funded by an increase in the bank levy, and guarantee wraparound child care.

This was the Chancellor’s final opportunity to introduce policies that will really benefit parents before the general election, to give much needed support to working parents now, not in 18 months’ time. Parents have already seen their child care costs rise five times faster than their pay. They are already spending more on child care than on their mortgage. They have already seen the number of nursery places fall by thousands. They have already seen hundreds of Sure Start centres close, despite the Prime Minister’s promises to the contrary. Of course, most stay-at-home mums, as well as working parents, already see child care costs as one of the biggest barriers to their going back to work or increasing their working hours. A review of the issue is both due and urgent, and I commend new clause 1 to the Committee.