New Clause 1 — Childcare provision

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office – in the House of Commons at 6:45 pm on 8th April 2014.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Labour, Hackney South and Shoreditch 6:45 pm, 8th April 2014

There is cross-party support for all of that, because I agree that Sure Start was a revolution in early years support. I felt that it should continue so that there was Sure Start at the ages of five and 11. We would stray off the debate if I got into that territory, but my constituency still has 37% of children living in poverty and it is a young constituency. Families of all backgrounds have used Sure Start, learned from each other and got support. Whatever their background, people have challenges with their children at an early stage, and children really have got a sure start. Titles of Government initiatives often become glib, but Sure Start meant something to me and to many of my constituents.

The London assembly Labour group carried out a study on the London cost of living, and it found that flexibility in child care was particularly important in

London, where there are long commute times and variable hours. One of the benefits of the child care voucher system, which is not universal, is that where it has been taken up it has provided a good deal of flexibility for parents to buy into properly qualified, registered child care. Again, the study proposed by the new clause could investigate how to support quality through a tax voucher system. Of course, we have seen a reduction in tax credits, although I welcome and support what my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell said about the U-turn on universal credit paying 85% of child care costs. The key point is that we can have Government initiative after Government initiative, but parents want the system to be kept simple. They want to know what money they have to play with and where they can spend it, which means that both the supplier and the purchaser of a service, in this case the parent, can understand the system.

We need cross-party agreement so that we have a system that sticks and is not tinkered with time after time so that people do not have to work out, “Does that apply to me? My child is going to be that age on that date, so does it apply to them? Oh, they have missed that cut off by one day, so that whole term will be more expensive than it will be for the neighbouring child, who got in by one day.” There are all sorts of silly little bits of the system that make it complicated for people to understand. Such things can be disincentives for accessing child care and ensuring that people get the right support, particularly mothers who are going back to work.

I am a London Member, and the new clause would particularly benefit people in London, because child care costs in London are inevitably higher. The costs of premises are higher. Although there is a minimum wage, child carers are rightly paid more, and in London their wages will be higher than in other parts of the country. Research by child care site found that a quarter of parents in London who were not in work were prevented from getting a job because of high child care costs. The Resolution Foundation found that one in five mothers who were already employed would like to take on an extra 10 hours’ work a week on average but could not do so because they would need the commensurate extra child care—not just 10 hours extra but enough child care to allow them to travel to and from work.

A parent in London buying 50 hours of child care a week for a child under two would face an average annual bill of nearly £14,000, if they can find a child care setting that opens during the hours that they need to work. In the current climate, in which people are expected to work longer and harder for their money, 50 hours of child care is the bare minimum. Anyone who is not working regular hours, as the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire said, would need the flexibility of having someone come to their home, or a very flexible childminder. That might be manageable for a child under two, but things get much more complicated with children above that age who are looked after outside the home.

Just over a year ago, I called for child care to become a top priority, and it is heartening that we are having more debates on the issue, but talking about it does not mean that the Government are getting it right with the offer of so-called tax-free child care. I will not repeat the arguments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, but the Government’s offer depends on how much people spend, and it is complicated for people to understand. I know a number of people on low incomes who have a simple approach to the tax system and who will find the proposal complicated. They will not benefit to the same extent because of the amount of child care that many of them will access because of their working hours.

I represent one of the youngest parliamentary seats in the UK. More than a fifth of residents are under 16 and more than a third, about 34%, are under 24, so child care is a big concern. I am stopped on the streets of Hackney South and Shoreditch by mums, childminders and others who want to raise that concern. When I ask any working parent what the toughest part is, they say that it is sorting out the child care, which is a logistical challenge as well as a financial challenge. I know that, because I am a working mother of three, and I am lucky to be well paid enough to buy in that flexibility. For anyone who does not have a salary as generous as mine, buying in that flexibility is very difficult.

Nationally, we know that 70% of working parents do not work nine-to-five Monday to Friday, and in London, because of the journey times, doing a full day’s work means long and expensive child care, if parents can get it. We have the most expensive system in the world. The review proposed in new clause 1 could consider examples from around the world. In Denmark, a day care Act means that local councils provide child care for all between 8 am to 5 pm, with parents and the Government—this is where new clause 1 would come in—contributing to the cost. Child care is free for families on the lowest incomes. The subsidy is tapered, depending on the family income—in this country, it would need to be done sensibly through the tax and tax credit systems—which means that three quarters, 76%, of Danish women are working. That is a huge improvement on the number of women working in the UK. I will touch on the points made by Mr Burrowes on women wanting to stay at home, but we need women to be economically active. This is not just about child care, but about giving women their rightful place in the work force. Hearteningly, women outnumber men in the Chamber at the moment. I applaud my male colleagues of all parties for being here, because this is not just a women’s issue. Women who play their equal role in society and in the work force are more satisfied, better role models and better parents as a result, if we make things as stress free as possible, which is about providing flexibility.