“(1) Within 12 months of this Act coming into force, the Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament a report containing an evaluation of the impact of discharging the duty under section 1(1) on—
(a) the supply of childcare places;
(b) the quality of childcare provision;
(c) the readiness of children to start school;
(d) the proportion of parents that are in employment;
(e) the availability and quality of childcare for disabled children;
(f) the cost of childcare to parents who do not receive free childcare under this Act or Section 7 of the Childcare Act 2006; and
(g) any other related matters, which she considers should be reported.
(2) The report under subsection 1 must also include an assessment of—
(a) administrative obligations on parents wishing to access 30 free hours of childcare a week;
(b) administrative obligations on childcare providers delivering childcare under the Act; and
(c) the adequacy of funding provided to childcare providers delivering childcare under the Act.”—(Jenny Chapman.)
This new clause would require the Secretary of State to review the impact of providing 30 free hours of childcare a week on the supply of childcare places, the quality of childcare provision, the proportion of parents in employment and other related matters.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Attainment and development of children—
“(1) In discharging the duty under section 1(1), the Secretary of State must have regard to narrowing the attainment and development gap between young children—
(a) of different genders;
(b) of different ethnic backgrounds;
(c) of different socio-economic backgrounds;
(d) living in different regions; and
(e) who do and do not have a disability.
(2) Within 12 months of the passing of this Act the Secretary of State must lay before both Houses of Parliament a report containing an evaluation of the impact of discharging the duty under section 1(1) on narrowing the attainment and development gap between young children—
(a) of different genders;
(b) of different socio-economic backgrounds;
(c) of different ethnic backgrounds;
(d) living in different regions; and
(e) who do and do not have a disability.”
This new clause would require the Secretary of State, in discharging her duty under this Act, to have regard to the attainment and development gap between different groups of children. The Secretary of State would also have to publish a report on the impact of discharging her duty on such gaps.
Amendment 1, clause 1, page 2, line 8, at end insert—
“(4A) Regulations under subsection (4) must provide for victims of domestic violence who have left paid employment in order to escape such violence to continue to be eligible for 30 hours of free childcare per week under section 1.”
This amendment seeks to ensure that provision is made for people who are suffering domestic violence who leave paid employment in order to escape their situation to continue to receiving 30 hours of free childcare per week.
Amendment 2, clause 1, page 2, line 8, at end insert—
“(4A) Regulations under subsection (4) must set out in what circumstances a parent or partner who is a student nurse will be considered to meet any conditions relating to paid work.”
This amendment seeks to ensure that provision is made for student nurses to be eligible for 30 hours of childcare per week under this Act.
I spent five years on the shadow Justice team and had to speak to many really quite dreadful Bills. It is a soft landing for me to be greeted by the remaining stages of the Bill, which is, essentially, uncontroversial. We enthusiastically support the aims of the Bill.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Pat Glass for her sterling work in challenging the Minister as the Bill made its way through Committee. She is, as everybody here will know, a ferocious champion of quality provision for all children, and she has particular expertise in services for children with disabilities. Having read the Hansard record of the debates in Committee, it is obvious how valuable her contributions were. She will be a miss to the shadow Education team, but in her new role she will be a robust champion and defender of Britain’s membership of the European Union as we approach the forthcoming referendum, whenever that may be.
New clause 1, tabled in my name and in the name of my hon. Friends, requires the Government to evaluate the implementation and effectiveness of the Bill, should it become an Act. As well as spending five years on the shadow Justice team, I spent five years serving on the Procedure Committee. In that time, we pondered the value of pre-legislative scrutiny and longed for a position in which Governments consulted meaningfully on their plans. I believe post-legislative scrutiny would be of similar value. The principal problem with the Bill is that it does not do what the Prime Minister claimed it would. During the election campaign—I know those are heady moments for all of us and there are those in my party, too, who occasionally get carried away—the Prime Minister, in one particularly effervescent moment, proclaimed in a press release:
“For families with young children, this is not one issue among many—it is the issue. They’re asking ‘How can this work? How can we afford it?’ It shouldn’t have to be this way. It is why we already fund 15 hours of free childcare a week to working parents of three and four-year-olds.”
“I can tell you today we’re going further a lot further. We’re going to take that free childcare and we’re going to double it.”
It’s fantastic stuff, isn’t it? There is more:
“With a Conservative Government, you will get 30 hours of free childcare a week”.
Marvellous! Had I believed it, I might just have voted for it myself.
The trouble is that thousands of families did believe the Prime Minister when he promised to double the 15 hours of free childcare per week. How disappointed they will be to discover that the promise was false! Even those who dug deep and read the small print will be disappointed. When he made the promise, there was a caveat in the notes at the bottom of the press release: children will get the free childcare only if their parents are working more than eight hours a week. Thousands of families in which both parents worked more than eight hours a week each could plan on that basis, or so they thought—the Bill says nothing about eight hours. The Government now say that both parents must be working at least 16 hours a week, at the minimum wage, or, just to confuse things a bit more, earning above the equivalent earnings of 16 hours per week on the minimum wage but in fewer hours.
The Government, in their spin, misled the public, then they misled families with the detail, and now they are confusing parents and providers with the implementation. That is why I support new clause 1. It is necessary to ensure the Government examine the consequences of the enactment of the Bill, which could have some serious unintended consequences. The first potential consequence I would like the Government to monitor is the impact on the supply and quality of childcare places.
All parties at the last general election promised to increase the free entitlement. Labour promised to increase it from 15 hours to 25 hours for working parents. The Conservative party promised to increase it from 15 hours to 30 hours for working parents. Whom would she have included or excluded from Labour’s definition of working parents?
As I will explain, the problem is with who the Government are excluding. People earning more than the minimum wage but working fewer hours would be entitled to the Minister’s 15 additional free hours, whereas someone working 15 hours on the minimum wage will not be entitled to them. If I am wrong, I will gladly let him intervene to correct me.
The hon. Lady mentioned Pat Glass, who, at the end of the Committee stage, said it was a good Bill and that she could find nothing in it with which to disagree. I hope, in their handover, they had that discussion. The eligibility criteria are very straightforward. Eligibility will be judged on income. If someone is under 25 and earning the national living wage, they will need to earn £107 a week. If they are over 25 and earning the national living wage, which the Government are introducing, the calculation will be the national living wage times the number of hours they can work. It is very straightforward.
Well, I am glad that’s as simple as it gets. I said at the outset that I supported the Bill reasonably enthusiastically, but it is a bit arrogant of the Minister to suggest that it is a perfect Bill and that it has no complexity. As he just demonstrated incredibly well, there is huge complexity. Somebody on low earnings and working fewer than 16 hours a week will not qualify, but someone on higher earnings—
The Minister says that universal credit will help improve the system. I venture to suggest that it might well further complicate the situation.
The new clause is designed to ensure that these perceived and anticipated complications do not have unintended consequences. As I have said, I accept that they are unintended, but the Minister would be rather naive to think that these consequences could never occur.
Is the hon. Lady looking at the wrong piece of paper? I shall go on to explain what is in new clause 1, and if she listens carefully, she will understand what we are trying to get at.
The new analysis by the House of Commons Library reveals a black hole of £480 million in the funding of this childcare offer. That shortfall represents £470 per child each year for those taking up the full 30 hours of free childcare. Independent research undertaken by research company Ceeda, as commissioned by the Pre-School Learning Alliance, suggests that the Department’s funding review has underestimated the cost of delivering childcare. The researchers found that, if funded at the average rate of £4.83 an hour—£4.88 minus the early years pupil premium, which the Department claims is worth 5p an hour—announced by the Government on
What could be the consequence of that funding gap? Childcare providers will have some difficult choices to make. There is every possibility that in an attempt to make ends meet, the gap will be met through driving down quality, while some providers might leave the market altogether, resulting in less choice for parents and a lack of supply. The Pre-School Learning Alliance warns, rather ominously, that as the existing scheme is significantly underfunded, it is now “crunch time” for the sector. The sector is already in a precarious position, and the Minister needs to reflect on the fact that the Family and Childcare Trust reports that a quarter of local authorities have a shortage of places for children in their existing schemes. There are 40,000 fewer places now than there were in 2010. Given that the Government failed to build capacity in the sector, how are the extra hours going to happen and how does the Minister think providers are going to pay for it? New clause 1 flags up those issues for the Government and asks Ministers to monitor the effect of the new arrangements.
I thank the hon. Lady for being so generous in giving way. The Conservative party promised at the election to increase the average funding rate and it is delivering on that promise. The Labour party did not promise to increase the hourly rate. If the hon. Lady is arguing that the funding rate is not enough, will she tell us what the Labour party considers to be the right funding rate for the entitlement?
I do wish it was my Bill that we were debating here. I really do, but it is not; it is the Minister’s Bill and it is for him to defend it and to argue against my new clause. That is why we are here. This is not a re-run of the election campaign. I am sure we are all glad about that—I know I am!
New clause 1 also asks the Government to evaluate the impact on parental employment and the administrative burdens placed on parents and providers. What parents want, aside from high-quality and affordable provision, is a scheme that is easy to understand and predictable. After someone has had a baby, deciding when to return to work and for how many hours is a difficult and finely balanced choice. Employers and parents need certainty. As parents fret over the balance between work and family life, employers and co-workers also make choices about their hours and staffing. We want those parents who choose to work to be able to do so. Any opaqueness about eligibility is damaging to take-up of the scheme and harms the confidence that the Government will not move the goalposts once complex family arrangements have been put in place. The proposed scheme, under which someone earning £107 in half a day would be eligible for 30 hours per week of free childcare but someone who works 15 hours a week on the minimum wage is not eligible, will seem bonkers to most people. I therefore urge the Government to do as new clause 1 suggests and monitor the impact of this change, in particular on parental employment patterns.
It is not just the complexity of the scheme that will put some parents off; so, too, will the potential administration involved in proving they are entitled to the free additional hours. How exactly does the Minister envisage parents will be asked to prove to providers that they are entitled? What about parents working on zero-hours contracts, who have unpredictable hours? We are all aware of the difficulties encountered in the tax credit system when earnings fluctuate. What will happen when a parent is entitled to 30 hours of free childcare, but then their hours dip below the threshold for some reason? Who will be responsible for policing that or putting mistakes right?
I notice that there are provisions in the Bill for HMRC to become involved, as well as tribunals and local authorities, and the Minister has explained previously that he secured £1 million—well done—of emergency funding from the Contingencies Fund to pay for the development of a joint online childcare application checking system, to be devised by HMRC. The Minister says he thinks this system will be simple and straightforward and save parents valuable time. New clause 1 simply asks that the Minister be held to this assertion. We are not asking him not to do it; we just want to hold him to it.
Experience tells us that schemes that are administratively burdensome are open to abuse, deliberately or inadvertently, and are off-putting to potential beneficiaries. So the purpose of new clause 1 is to ensure that these unintended consequences of the Bill—of which the Government have been warned by stakeholders in the sector, not just by us—are closely monitored, so that steps can be taken to ensure the new measures in no way harm availability or quality and do not place unreasonable burdens on parents or providers.
The hon. Lady raises important questions around parents on zero-hours contracts and how they will be monitored. The first point is that parents on zero-hours contracts are self-employed; they are all entitled to the childcare under this scheme. HMRC will check the income levels, and in the case of the self-employed will know how much they earn over a period of time. In addition, and more importantly, there is a grace period so that if someone falls out of work for a period they will not lose their childcare.
I am grateful to my constituency near-neighbour for giving way. I was pleased to serve on the Bill Committee and I have never seen a Minister intervene so often during others’ speeches with reassurances such as “the Prime Minister’s promise will be fulfilled,” or “There will be sufficient quality places,” and all manner of other such statements. Would not the Minister be seen to be really reassuring us if he accepted new clause 1 and the scrutiny put down in law?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and does so very well. We all like a keen and perky and eager Minister, but it would be good if he were more willing to hold himself to account, after the introduction of this Bill, by adopting new clause 1. However, I shall move on to new clause 2.
This new clause, also in my name and that of my hon. Friends, requires the Government to monitor and report on the state of the attainment gap between young children, and it specifies between “different genders”, “different ethnic backgrounds”, “different socio-economic backgrounds”, those living in different parts of the country, and those
“who do and do not have a disability”.
Our experience tells us that unless Ministers monitor, and are required to report on, the gap, focus will be lost and equality of opportunity for all young people will never be achieved.
I would like to acknowledge the invaluable work of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in helping us to prepare new clause 2. I believe that setting up the commission was relatively easy for the Government, but listening to it and acting on what it says seem to be a step too far for them. The new clause would provide an opportunity to put that right in a very small way. The commission states that the Britain we should all aspire to help to build is
“one where opportunities are shared equally and are not dependent on the family you were born into, the place where you live or the school you attend. It is a society where being born poor does not condemn someone to a lifetime of poverty. Instead it is a society where your progress in life—the job you do, the income you earn, the lifestyle you enjoy—depends on your aptitude and ability, not your background or your birth.”
The commission’s most recent report warns that Britain is on the verge of becoming a “permanently divided nation”, and exposes some of the deep divisions that characterise our country. Those at the top in Britain today look remarkably similar to those who rose to the top 50 years ago. For example, 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior armed forces personnel and 55% of civil service departmental heads attended private schools, compared with just 7% of the general population.
Britain could become the most open, fair and mobile society in the modern world, but the policy and practice of this Government need to change, and that all starts with the early years. All children, whatever their background, should be school-ready by the age of five. However, less than half of the poorest children in England are ready for school by that age, compared with two thirds of the others, and a deep gender divide means that girls from the poorest families do almost as well as boys from the better-off families at that point. The commission has found that,
“efforts to improve the school-readiness of the poorest children are uncoordinated, confused and patchy.”
It also comments that,
“the complexity of the childcare funding system is hampering efforts to increase maternal employment.”
The commission has some straightforward suggestions for the Government to help to narrow the gap at the age of five. It says that the
“Government should end the strategic vacuum in the early years by introducing two clear, stretching, long-term objectives: to halve the development gap between the poorest children and the rest at age five; and to halve the gap in maternal employment between England and the best-performing nations, both by 2025.”
Further, the commission argues in relation to childcare that the Government
“should radically simplify the multiple streams which finance it”.
New clause 2 tells the Government that willing the gap in attainment and development of children to narrow is not enough. However, I believe that they have the will to do it. I have heard some of their mutterings and comments, and I believe that they have the will—
No, they are very quiet now.
Willing the ends without the means will cause more resentment and division, rather than less. The new clause would force the Government to assess and report on the gap in development and attainment, which would ensure that progress was measured. Unless that happens, opportunities to intervene will be missed and inequality will be further entrenched.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. As the equality gap widens in Tory Britain in 2016, is not the most important decision for a young person to choose their parents in the womb if they want to get on in life?
I dread to think what my kids would say to that.
New clause 2 is a modest request, given the scale of the challenge that we face. It is also something that the Government should be doing anyway. The strategy to narrow the gap with properly co-ordinated policies and regular reporting to Parliament is urgently needed. The measures in the Bill have the potential to diminish the supply and quality of childcare, and we want to know that that gap-widening risk will be closely tracked and acted on by the Government.
New clause 2 encourages the Government to do some of the strategic thinking that we need. If it is adopted, the Government would have carefully to track the take-up of the offer among, say, the 40% most disadvantaged, better to understand the reasons for low take-up, and then they can seek to address them. The key to improving the attainment of the poorest children—high quality early education as opposed simply to childcare—is at risk due to the question marks over funding, which is why I encourage the Government to support the new clause. We know that poorer areas have a higher proportion of providers than the maintained sector, mainly pre-schools and children’s centres. Those providers face particular capacity challenges, and the National Association of Head Teachers has warned that they are unlikely to be able to deliver the increased hours, as they tend to take just two groups of children—one in the morning and one in the afternoon—and physically do not have the space to double their numbers.
Schools have also tended to cross-subsidise the funding of their early years provision from elsewhere in their budgets to ensure quality. The Government have committed £50 million of new capital funding to help with that, thereby acknowledging that there is a problem, but the figure is unlikely to meet the need and may leave some areas without new provision. All this clause does is seek to ensure that this problem does not result in a widening of the attainment gap.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister could win his place in education history by accepting this new clause, which has some great ideas? He believes that those ideas will narrow the attainment gap, and that everything will work. What has he got to fear from the scrutiny associated with this particular clause?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Not only would the Minister win his place in the history of education teams in Parliament, but it would be the first time ever in Parliament that a Government accepted a new clause tabled by the Opposition on Report. We can live in hope.
“We have already stumbled a long way in the dark in this policy area. It is time to stop stumbling, shine a light on the policy landscape, and plot an effective route forward.”
If the Government plan to spend £6 billion a year on childcare by 2019-20, I would argue—and I think that they would, too, if they were in opposition—that the risks of an ill-targeted and inefficient system should not be ignored. New clause 2 asks that the Government turn their head to narrowing the gap in early years attainment, and monitor the impact of their policy on this issue to ensure that the nation’s investment is rewarded.
Let me briefly speak to amendment 2, which is a probing amendment and is intended to assess the Government’s appetite for supporting a particular group—in this case, student nurses. This matter arose in Committee, and it is worth flagging up our concern about that particular group and its needs at this time. Members will recall that last week thousands of student nurses and midwives marched through London in protest at plans to scrap training bursaries. Many student nurses already have financial obligations such as mortgages, and many also have children. The Nursing and Midwifery Council requires them to have completed at least 4,600 hours while studying, with half of those in practice. The student nurses work the equivalent of 37 and a half hours a week at least. They work nights, days and weekends. It is very difficult for that particular group to get a part-time job to support dependants while training.
Have the Government made an assessment of the cost of extending the additional entitlement to student nurses with eligible children? I tried to do so, but I do not think that the data exist, so it would be interesting to see whether the Minister has been able to obtain an estimate of the cost. My parents were both nurses, and at the time there were hospital social clubs and a crèche. Obviously that was not recent, but the amendment encourages the Government to work with other Departments to ensure that particular groups—in this case, student nurses—are not disproportionately disadvantaged by a combination of Government policies. I commend new clauses 1 and 2 to the House.
I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this important debate, and I once again welcome Jenny Chapman to her position. The amendments that have been tabled raise a number of interesting issues, which I shall deal with in turn. Let me say at the outset, however, that extending the 15 hours to 30 hours is primarily a work incentive. That is why the first 15 hours are universal, but the second 15 hours are based mainly on economic eligibility criteria. In judging and evaluating the impact of the policy we should bear in mind the work incentive.
The hon. Lady is right to ask the questions. However, I shall resist the new clause, and the main reason is that a number of evaluations, which she has asked for, are under way. There are important programmes, as I shall explain, that focus on reducing the gap between disadvantaged children and other children.
New clause 1 asks us to evaluate the impact of the new entitlement for working parents. That is extremely important and I hope that Members will be reassured to know that we have a very strong evidence base about the impact of free early education entitlements. We know, from studies such as the effective pre-school, primary and secondary education project that early education has a significant impact on child outcomes. Children attending high-quality provision for two or three years before school have a seven or eight-month developmental advantage in literacy compared with their peers.
The Department for Education has commissioned another longitudinal study, if the hon. Member for Darlington will listen: the study of early education and development, which follows 8,000 two-year-olds from across England to the end of key stage 1. It looks at how childcare and early education can help to give children the best start in life and at what is important for high-quality childcare provision. The study is being carried out by NatCen Social Research, working with Frontier Economics, the University of Oxford and 4Children, on behalf of the Department.
Will my hon. Friend congratulate Portsmouth, where children do extremely well in their early years? The chief inspector’s report of April 2015 ranked Portsmouth as 12th out of 150 authorities, which is a massive improvement and great for the good development of children, who are entitled to free school meals at the age of five.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The quality of early years provision has improved significantly; 85% of early years settings are now rated good or outstanding. The previous Government introduced the common inspection framework for early years education, which has raised the bar and will continue to do so over the course of this Parliament.
Regular surveys commissioned by the Department also provide rich data. These include the childcare and early years provider and parent surveys. The provider survey collects information about childcare and early years providers, including the composition and qualifications of the workforce. The parent survey collects data on parents’ use of childcare and early years provision and their views and experiences.
Various groups have raised concerns about capacity and quality of provision and stressed the need, to which the Minister has just referred, to have the best trained people in order to deliver it. They do not accept his reassurances, but the new clause gives him an opportunity to have his achievements measured all together. I know that he says that some of the issues are covered elsewhere in legislation, but this would pull it all together in one big round circle that he could fill in over time. Why does he not just accept the scrutiny that the new clause offers him?
The Government will be spending £6 billion a year from 2019-20 on early years and childcare. The suggestion that we will be doing that without measuring or evaluating it is simply not true. The question is where we carry out this evaluation and whether it needs to sit in primary legislation. Had the hon. Gentleman been listening, he would have heard me explain that we currently have a survey following 8,000 two-year-olds across England, so what he is asking for is already under way. We do not need primary legislation to evaluate the impact of the important investment to achieve very important goals in this sector.
The latest early years foundation stage profile data reveal that an increasing proportion of children are achieving a good level of development at age five—66% in 2015, compared with 52% in 2013. That is an impressive 14.6 percentage point increase over the past two years. I know that there is more we can do to understand the impact of this extended entitlement. However, as drafted, the proposed amendments are not workable. They call for an evaluation of the impact of discharging the Secretary of State’s new duty within 12 months of the
Act coming into force, which is far too soon to make any judgment about impact. That would not be adequate time to collect the data, assess the impacts and produce a report.
Many kinship carers of young children are pensioners, so they will not meet the work thresholds to access the 30 hours of free childcare, despite arguably being in greatest need of support and respite. Does the Minister plan to take any steps to address the needs of these unsung carers in our nation?
Every three and four-year-old is entitled to 15 hours of free childcare. The question is who is entitled to the second 15 hours. [Interruption.] If Opposition Members will bear with me, I will answer the question. Lone parents are entitled to it, as are self-employed parents and parents looking after disabled children. I will seek inspiration from the officials’ box specifically on kinship carers. But the issue is that everybody gets the first 15 hours if they work, and the second 15 hours is a work incentive. If people are not working, they do not need that amount of childcare.
But that is not the point. Kinship carers are some of the most pressed individuals in our society. They need respite care. The Minister says that there might be 15 hours available, but they need respite care and comprehensive support, perhaps even more than working parents. Surely he should be considering this.
Under the current regime, kinship carers will get three hours of respite care a day for five days of the week. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously arguing that he wants more than three hours of respite care a day? If so, why was that not in the Labour party’s manifesto?
I thank the Minister for being so generous in giving way. I want to echo the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend Alex Cunningham, and reinforce it by pointing out that many kinship carers are pensioners who cannot work and cannot meet their thresholds. When it comes to respite care, children often need additional educational or emotional support, which takes an incredible toll. Those carers are saving the state huge amounts of money, because they are not foster carers.
Again, the hon. Lady has made a very good point. If the children of kinship carers need additional care, the early years pupil premium that was introduced by the Conservative-led Government will ensure, to the tune of £50 million, that any additional educational needs are funded. That is a completely different issue from that of how many hours of childcare are needed.
Does the Minister not think that it would be more appropriate for very young children to be in settings where there are mixed social and accessibility needs, so that if they have special educational needs, there is no division between them? Such children will not require access to the additional funding that the Minister has mentioned, but they will need socialisation in those early-years settings.
The hon. Lady is now asking a very different question. If a disadvantaged child has additional educational needs in a mixed setting, there will be additional funding for that child. In response to the hon. Lady’s original question, I can say that a kinship carer who formally takes parental responsibility for a child will be able to access the 30 hours of free childcare.
New clause 1 concerns evaluation. While we are committed to monitoring and collecting data on the impact of the Act, assessing all the issues together would not be feasible, or the most effective way of evaluating the policy. As I have said, the Department has already begun to consider the feasibility of conducting an impact evaluation, and to consider what data would be necessary effectively to monitor the take-up and impact of the new entitlement. I assure Members that the implementation of the extended entitlement will be tested before roll-out. It will be introduced a year early in some areas, from September this year, which will provide an important opportunity to test it and to show that it can be rolled out in a way that meets the needs of working parents. I am pleased to say that local authorities and providers expressed a strong interest in taking part in the early implementation phase, and that the successful candidates will be announced shortly.
When the Minister and I met after the Committee stage, we talked a great deal about how we would implement the entitlement and make it work for the parents of disabled children. The Minister referred to the early implementers, and we talked about how he would measure their success. Has any progress been made? We discussed talking to parents’ groups, for instance, to ensure that they could contribute to the early implementation process.
It was a pleasure to meet the hon. Lady in the Department, along with some of my officials, to discuss how we could test the early implementers for children with special educational needs and disabilities. I assure her that that will be at the heart of the process. We will conduct specific research with parents’ groups to establish how they access childcare and what challenges they experience during the early implementer phase.
More broadly, the Department and HMRC recently commissioned a feasibility study to consider how best to evaluate the labour and childcare market impacts of both tax-free childcare and the free early education entitlement, both of which policies are aimed at working parents. The study is due to be published in February, and will inform the development of an evaluation framework for both the 30 hours and tax-free childcare.
Will people undertaking apprenticeships be eligible for the 30 hours, and what scope is there for the childcare sector to support more apprenticeships themselves?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The eligibility criteria are based on whether a person is under 25 and working 16 hours a week on the minimum wage, so the amount they earn is roughly £107. If an apprentice is earning that, then of course they will be entitled to the free entitlement. I agree that the early years sector can benefit from the huge investment in apprenticeships that this Government are making.
Although I endorse and support the main thrust of what my hon. Friend is saying, and indeed the Government’s agenda, will he and the Department, and ministerial colleagues, make certain that parents who decide that getting back to work is not for them and prefer to stay at home to look after their children, particularly in the early years, do not feel penalised or ostracised from Government thinking? A number of my constituents have said to me that having taken that decision they feel slightly obligated to take a different one to try to meet different agendas.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about a concern felt by some parents. The first 15 hours is universal, but it is voluntary—parents do not have to take it. The previous Government were very mindful of supporting parents who chose to do something else, so we introduced the marriage tax allowance, which supports those parents. In terms of school readiness, the key thing is that the evidence shows that it is helpful for children to attend an early years setting little and often. The universal part of this offer is 15 hours so that those children do not lose out.
Where a family choose to work because that is right for their family circumstances, it is right that the Government respond to the cry from many parents that childcare is too expensive. That is precisely what this Bill does. Rather than widening divisions in society, as the hon. Member for Darlington suggested, this Bill, by enabling more parents to fulfil their aspirations to work, is helping to narrow the economic gap that she mentioned.
The Minister is making quite a bold assertion about the impact of this measure. He does not know that his Bill will narrow the gap, nor does he know that the most disadvantaged children will be able to benefit from the 15 hours, because in fact they will not.
The early years foundation stage profile data show that the gap is already being narrowed. Economically enabling more parents to work if they want to is a positive thing for us to do for the growth of our economy.
Funding has been mentioned several times. This Government have invested a record amount—more than any other—in the early years entitlement and in childcare more broadly, but we also know that there are inefficiencies in the system. For example, not all the money that is allocated is distributed fairly to different local authorities, and not all of it reaches the frontline. We will therefore engage in a comprehensive package of reform by introducing a national funding formula for the early years so that funding is transparently and fairly matched to need, and fairly distributed between different types of provider in different parts of the country.
I welcome the announcement of the funding increase, which is very important as a reassuring message to many providers who sometimes have concerns about what it costs to provide these places. May I urge the Minister to press local authorities to pass as much of this money as possible on to their frontline and to review their own funding formulas where appropriate?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If central Government make the funding available but we do not have an efficient way of distributing the money to the providers on the frontline, we should not be surprised if those providers then say that they are not seeing the increased funding. That is why it sits alongside a package of reforms to ensure that the money reaches the frontline—the providers who are delivering these high-quality places for parents.
The hon. Member for Darlington touched on the attainment gap, and I now want to turn briefly to new clause 2 on the important issue of attainment and development. Let me reassure hon. Members that the Government want all children to have the best possible start in life and the support that will enable them to achieve their potential. We want high-quality early education and childcare for all children, wherever they live and whatever their background.
The early years foundation stage framework sets the standards that all early years providers must meet to ensure that children learn and develop well and are kept healthy and safe. The framework recognises that children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates. It is an inclusive framework that seeks to provide quality and consistency in all early years settings so that every child makes good progress and no child gets left behind.
Our approach is working. As I mentioned earlier, more children are achieving a good level of development. There have also been improvements in provision for disadvantaged children, for whom high-quality childcare can help to mitigate the risk of falling behind early on. For children with eligibility for free school meals, there has been a 6 percentage point increase in the number achieving a good level of development in 2015 compared with 2014. That is the equivalent of an extra 5,800 children with free school meal eligibility achieving a good level of development, which the whole House should welcome. Furthermore, the gender gap has also continued to narrow. Although girls continue to outperform boys, the gap is narrowing—falling from 16.3 percentage points in 2014 to 15.6 percentage points in 2015.
Children with special educational needs and disabilities are also benefiting from our policies. Early years providers must ensure that the necessary arrangements are in place to support children with SEN or disabilities, and providers delivering funded places must have regard to the SEN code of practice. In preparation for that, we will of course meet our duty, under the Equality Act 2010, to consider the potential impact on groups with protected characteristics. We will also undertake the families test and consider the potential impacts on family relationships.
Finally on the new clauses, I will briefly mention the qualification levels of the early years workforce, which have risen in recent years. Continuing this increase is a key aim of the Government’s workforce strategy, through the introduction of early years educator qualifications, which are equivalent to A-level standard, and early years initial teacher training.
As far as evaluation is concerned, I hope I have reassured the House that a substantial amount of work is already going on to evaluate all our policies in the early education area. [Interruption.] It is a two-year study. If the Labour Front Benchers had been listening to me, rather than chuntering from a sedentary position, they would know that I have discussed it in detail. We are following 8,000 children from the age of two, and we will publish the study’s conclusions.
The hon. Member for Darlington mentioned student nurses and their eligibility for the free entitlement, and I will now turn to amendment 2. The current funding system means that two out of every three people who want to become a nurse are not accepted for training. In 2014, universities were forced to turn down 37,000 nursing applicants. This means that the NHS suffers from a limited supply of nurses, and has to rely on expensive agency nurses and overseas workers. The changes announced by the Chancellor in his autumn statement will place trainee nurses on the same system as all other students, including teachers and doctors. As I outlined in my letter to Pat Glass, the Department of Health and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills plan to run a consultation on the detail of the Government’s reforms early this year.
Specifically in relation to support with childcare costs from 2017, students can be reimbursed under the student support regulations for up to 85% of their childcare costs—up to a maximum of £155.24 a week when they have one child and up to £266.15 a week when they have two children. The child must be under 15 years of age, or under 17 years of age when they are registered with special educational needs. In addition, students may also be entitled to the means-tested parent learning allowance of up to £1,573. That recognises some of the additional costs that a student incurs from supporting children while training.
I make it clear that, aside from the support available under student support provisions, parent student nurses, along with all parent students, can and will continue to benefit from the existing 15 hours of free early education for all three and four-year-olds. This is a universal entitlement, regardless of whether or not parents are in work. Parent student nurses may also be entitled to 15 hours of free early education for two-year-old children, depending on their circumstances.
I hope I have reassured the House that although student nurses do not qualify for the second 15 hours, other student support programmes, reimbursing them to the tune of 75% of their childcare costs, will achieve the same objective as that of amendment 2. In addition, those entitled to any tax credits would receive support in that way.
I hope my arguments have reassured hon. Members that we care about the robust evaluation of our policies and that it would be inappropriate to evaluate the impact of the policy according to the timescales in the new clauses. We care about children, and no one wants to get this right more than the Government. We put the Bill into the Queen’s Speech—the first childcare Bill in a Queen’s Speech—and we are determined to get it right. That is why we have put evaluation at the heart of what we are doing. I do not believe that stating that in the Bill in the way drafted in the new clauses—within a year—would actually work.
Although I am not sure Mr Speaker saw me do so, I almost fell over when I tried to catch his eye earlier. As I am doing dry January, I assure hon. Members that it was not for the usual reasons why people fall over in Parliament. In fact, my heel got caught on my bag.
I rise to speak to amendment 1 in my name, which is about victims of domestic violence. I give credit to my hon. Friend Melanie Onn for finding another vulnerable group in kinship carers, whose needs may not be well met by the Bill. I would put them in a similar category to the people I am going to talk about. She made some very interesting points. I hope the Minister will take them away and try to understand what it is like for senior citizens to take on children who have been in very traumatic circumstances.
The purpose of the amendment I have tabled is to ask the Government once again to look at the possibility of exempting those fleeing domestic violence from the 16-hour employment threshold. As someone with years of experience working in this field, I know that one of the single biggest barriers to women attending and seeking recovery services is access to childcare. For example it is pretty difficult for a woman to engage in trauma counselling for the repeated rapes she has suffered with a four-year-old running around her feet.
When women flee their homes and seek refuge for them and their children, they are very often forced to give up their jobs as well. That is usually brought about by an anomaly in the benefits system regarding rates of housing benefit in supported accommodation. Similarly, however, many women find that, in order to give up their home and surroundings, they are forced out of work for a period of time, as staying in work becomes totally impossible logistically. A woman who came to my surgery just a few weeks ago—she was living in her car, while her children stayed on relatives’ floors—had to give up her job as a care worker once we were able to place her in a refuge. That is not uncommon.
I ask all Conservative Members to imagine for a second leaving all their belongings, shutting the door of their home, and giving up their job and their financial security. Most women I have met do this for the sake of their children, but imagine the effect of that on a three-year-old. There are only so many times they can be convinced that it is just a big adventure before the difficulty reality sets in.
Now, this Bill will tell those children that they will lose their place in nursery too. That might be the only consistent thing left in their chaotic lives. I can see that there is confusion among Government Members. If a woman loses her home and her job and is no longer working 16 hours, she will lose the nursery places she had for her children. I just wanted to clear that up. [Interruption.] Would a Minister like to intervene? They seem confused.
The hon. Lady raised this point in Committee and we debated it extensively. I promised to write to her about the needs of women in refuges. Having looked at the matter, I want to give her an assurance. First, I want to put it on the record that £40 million of extra support is going to women who find themselves in that tragic situation. In terms of childcare, they will get the first 15 hours for their three and four-year-olds, as everyone does. If they are entitled to the extended entitlement and, as a result of their situation, their children have to leave childcare, there will be a grace period of three months, which we have discussed.
Perhaps I may finish my point. I am happy to look into how we can extend the grace period for this particular group of people, given the very persuasive case the hon. Lady has made.
Yes, that is the word I will use. There is now a firm commitment from the Government.
I was about to say that I recognise that the Bill includes a three-month grace period, which I welcome, but that the children will still have to give up their place in the end. I do not need to say that anymore because the Minister has made his commitment. He has recognised that it is laughable that a woman, after escaping violence, would be tickety-boo, back in another property and gainfully employed after just three months. Unfortunately, the reducing availability of social housing for families to move on to means that many women and children live in refuge for much, much longer than three months. The cuts in local authority spending have meant that newly localised social funds, which are there to help such families, have limited women in respect of where they can and cannot move across local authority boundaries. That leaves them stuck in supported accommodation, even if they are ready and safe to move on.
These children need and deserve consistency. I welcome the Minister’s intervention because he said that he will give it to them.
I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Lady that such children need consistency and support. To extend the commitment that I have made, I will meet up with her to discuss how we can do that. We will be consulting on the grace period and I want to get her input on what we can do for this particular group.
I was going to say that, whereas other Departments have shown a clear commitment to taking their role in the fight against domestic violence—the Minister has mentioned the £40 million—I had felt, until now, that the record of the Department for Education, with the constant wrangling over personal, social, health and economic education and healthy relationships education, could be described as woeful. I am delighted that the Minister has proven me wrong. As someone who has masses of experience, I would be delighted to meet him and talk about how this policy will work in practice.
I will say no more on the matter, other than to thank the Minister for his commitment.