I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work on “The 1001 Critical Days”, which highlights the importance of attachment, care and attention. Parents seek to find such care in a formal as well as informal child-care setting, but the reality is that families, particularly disadvantaged families, rely on the help of grandparents and relatives who are close at hand.
Undoubtedly, the Government are right to take important steps to make child care affordable, because obviously one of the key routes out of poverty is work, which we all support, but we should also support quality child care in all its forms.
There is also a need for flexibility. I have been seeking to make the point that we must have a wider understanding of child care. It involves more than grandparents, because at least 300,000 children are cared for full time by relatives, friends or other people. That often starts in a crisis or an emergency, when friends and family members step in, particularly those in the extended family—perhaps an older sibling, an uncle or aunt. Those people may have their own challenges. They may be in work, but have to stop work to care for a friend’s or relative’s child. They may be on a pension giving a fixed income, and there may be a significant impact on them. We must therefore recognise that there is a considerable impact on carers. A significant number of children are cared for by that group of people.
It is therefore right for the Government to focus on encouraging more people into work and to ensure that it does pay to work. We must recognise the impact on families on different earnings. Reference has been made to poverty. Statistics from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation show that 52% of children living in poverty are in single-earner families. One answer to that is the straightforward one of providing the single earner’s spouse, through the opportunity of affordable child care, with the choice of going into work.
We must recognise the Government’s statistics. The “Childcare and early years survey of parents 2012-2013”, which was released this January, had some interesting findings on parents. It is important to recognise that 71% of parents at home were there by choice, while only 13% of them cited cost as a problem. [Interruption.] Lucy Powell speaks from a sedentary position. If she wants to intervene, she may do so. I am simply citing a Department for Education survey from January 2014. Some 37% of working mothers said that they would prefer to stay at home and look after the children if they could afford it, while 57% said that they would like to work fewer hours and spend more time looking after their children if they could afford it.
According to the Netmums survey on “The Great Work Debate”, which had some 4,000 respondents, 33% of part-time working mums said that they would prefer to be at home. I am not here simply to bang the drum, but it is interesting that when one raises the issue of stay-at-home mums, there is immediately an artificial dividing line between yummy mummies exercising a lifestyle choice and those unfortunate mothers and others who want to work. I know that hon. Members will not want to make such a distinction, but it does happen and it can be paraded in that way in the media.
As a Conservative, I believe in freedom and aspiration. Freedom must include freedom of choice. People should be free to work, and we must ensure that affordable child care is available for them. However, we must also recognise that a considerable number of parents want to be able to choose to be at home. That involves income strands, and income is particularly relevant, as I have highlighted. Households on lower income levels, which are on the margins of poverty or indeed in poverty, often want to call on relatives and friends or their own family structures to support them. It is important to allow them the choice and flexibility to do that, and to recognise the impact on such family members in the tax system.
We can all agree that we must support aspiration as well as freedom. Aspiration includes the aspiration to work, and the aspiration of mothers or indeed fathers who want to give up their career or take a cut in their income to care for their family at home. The question is about how we can provide support. We will have a similar debate tomorrow on the transferrable married couple’s allowance, which would provide some recognition of that.
We can also all agree that raising children needs time. It needs time to cultivate relationships, and that can happen in a variety of forms. Such time is what many parents are striving for. Many parents look back on the fact that, because of all their other commitments, they did not have enough time to spend with their children. As Members of Parliament, we are probably the last people who should talk about that. We have our own concerns about that, and we can certainly declare an interest about our lack of time. I have six children, so I can understand that.
We also have to recognise that many parents—from looking at some surveys I would say most parents—want more choice and more opportunities to have time with their children. They also want to be sure that if they do not have the opportunity to care for their children at home because of the choices that they have to make, or if they prefer not to, there is a guarantee that they will be able to entrust their children’s care to others who will be able to give them the time and commitment that they need.
I welcome the Bill’s provisions, which will make massive strides in providing support for affordable child care. However, let us ensure that we do not lose sight of the need for greater flexibility, freedom and aspirations for families, so that we can support good-quality child care whether it takes place in a formal setting or through grandparents, parents or other relatives.