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

I will come to that point in a moment. I am saying not that women who want to stay at home and who can afford to do so should not make that choice, but that it is important that women have the choice to work and to be economically active and play their full role in society in that way. Even women who stay at home to look after their children for a period of their child’s early years may well need or want to work at a later stage. That choice is therefore important whatever stage we are talking about. We should not conflate being at home with a very young child under five with being at home all the time. Under the hon. Lady’s Government’s benefits system, parents have to work or they will seriously lose money, and their children will be pushed into greater poverty.

In Hackney South and Shoreditch, women’s average earnings are higher than men’s, which shows what could be achieved if that was applied across the workplace. A decent universal system of child care will pay for itself in the long run. More parents working and paying taxes, and not claiming tax credits and benefits, more than pay for the state’s investment. I do not speak for my party on this, but I hope that those who do take that mantle and look towards the overall goal of a universal free child care system that will pay for itself. That is an aim we need to work towards. If the Government agree to new clause 1, we will be set on a cross-party basis along that route. It would not solve the problem overnight or mean that things will be easy, but it would mean that we can look closely at the options.

As I have said, child care costs in London are higher than in the rest of the country. I will not go into the details but, for instance, a nursery place for an under two is £140 a week typically in London compared with a UK average of £109. I know many people who pay a lot more than that. There is an idea that people have choice, but it is not often the case. Many parents take the option of what is available at the time, which is why we need to provide incentives at the supply end.

I have a couple of suggestions that the study proposed in new clause 1 could consider. It could examine the idea of a London weighting in universal credit for the provision of child care. It could also consider more family-friendly approaches by employers. Practices such as working from home arrangements and on-site nurseries could be fuelled by tax breaks. Speaking as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, we would clearly need to monitor that to ensure that it was not abused, but the brilliant brains in the Treasury, including the Minister’s, could probably work through such a system.

We need to push private and public sector providers to extend the hours available to parents, particularly late in the evening and weekends. That could happen through a tax incentive or a tax break system. There are an awful lot of opportunities. The Minister is nodding. I am sure that she, as a working mum, will recognise the challenges and needs.

I commend to colleagues the London cost of living report by the London assembly Labour group. Although it is a Labour report, it can be read by other parties. I read it as a cross-party report. The Institute for Public Policy Research has done a big bit of work on child care. It has found that directly funding child care facilities, which happens in other European countries, can function better for parents and be more cost-effective, because there is a guarantee of a place. We have to monitor and ensure that the money is not wasted, but it would mean certainty for the supplier, which means certainty for the parent trying to buy.

I want to pick up on some of the comments made by other hon. Members. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate talked about the importance of informal child care and I think we would all agree with that. Any parent will use informal child care at some point, whether for an evening out or as part of a longer-term arrangement with grandparents. Let us be honest, though. Not every grandparent wants to take on child care. I meet grandparents, and those whose own parents are caring for their children, who say that they do not necessarily want to take on child care but feel they should to support their child. Many of those grandparents are young and give up work to look after their grandchildren. That is fine if it is a matter of choice, but it is a real issue if they feel they have to step in because of the lack of availability and options. There is a danger of creating generational issues. For every individual who wants to work but cannot, we reduce the tax take. We need to bear that in mind.

The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire talked movingly about the loving bond in early years. I completely agree that that is important, but it is not exclusive to informal or formal early years education or child care, and I hope she did not interpret any of my comments in that way. It is not either/or: love at home and in a child care setting are both very important. Of course, some children do not get that love in the home in the same way that others do, and some get it more in their child care setting. I will resist the temptation, Mr Amess, to thank all the fabulous child carers my children have had over the years in different settings, but when my children love their child carer I am happy about that, because I want them to be loved and happy when they are not with me. That should come in all settings, but I also want to ensure that they are getting the education and support that I am not there to give them when I am here in this Chamber discussing child care, rather than delivering it. No one disputes that a loving bond is necessary, but I think we would all agree it can come from all settings and, hopefully, in all cases.

The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate talked about choice. New clause 1 touches on this issue, particularly in relation to early years. Maternity leave, a great breakthrough of the Labour Government, is now allowed for a year. It is not paid in most cases for a year, although some generous employers do. We could consider proper paid maternity leave for a year to match the entitlement, so that mothers are not pushed to go back to work if their household income relies on their salary. Shared care is coming in, but even that does not necessarily solve the problem for women who really want to be at home with their children. I would have loved that. I did not have that option and I would love to see it for other women if it could be found to be affordable. There may be ways, through the tax system, to consider that.

Finally, tax incentives and simplification could be extended to childminders and other flexible child care, as I touched on earlier. Childminders are a backbone for many parents in providing flexible child care. Thankfully, childminders are now professionalised so we do not have cowboys in the business. I pay tribute to the 40 very active childminders in our childminders’ network in Hackney who bang the drum positively for quality child care. They are small business women—I think they are all women—and there may be ways to encourage more people to be childminders by making it simpler to set up that sort of business. This is not a point about regulating the quality of child care—I am firmly of the view that that is vital—but there may be ways of making the tax paperwork easier. That could be easily considered if new clause 1 was adopted. I would also like to see support for alternative models, such as social enterprises and co-ops, by making sure that the tax system allows support for them as suppliers.

New clause 1 is proportionate and measured. It does not ask the Government to spend a lot of money or commit to a great deal. It asks them to set the ball rolling, so that we can have an open and honest debate on the costs and benefits of child care. We need to consider carefully and closely what incentives can be brought in through the tax system and how they could impact on both supply and demand. That would be a good start and a good basis for us all to work from, so that at the next general election every politician—not just the women who form the majority in the Chamber today—and the party leaders will be talking about child care as a vital issue for the future of our country.