I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Before I start, may I thank the Clerks and the Whips who have helped me to get to this point today? In particular, I thank the Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury, Rebecca Harris, for her kindness and indulgence over a number of weeks.
I begin by recognising the contribution and hard work of the army of childcare providers in this country. Each day, thousands of families entrust their children to professionals who have dedicated their lives to caring for this nation’s young people. It is a vocation and it can be challenging, but without it we would all be so much worse off as a country.
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the necessary measures taken to keep us all safe have had a huge impact on children, and we now have an opportunity to work even harder to make up for the time that has been lost. We will all have seen in our constituencies the childcare providers who went all out to support the children of key workers. They put themselves in the frontline to keep our country going, while ensuring that children could continue their early years learning, even in the most stressful and difficult of situations.
I want every family in Reading, Caversham, Woodley and the whole United Kingdom to have the best possible start in life when it comes to their own childcare arrangements. I know that all Members of the House share that wish. We all want every young person to have the best possible start, and we all want to bring an end to the inequality that results from where someone is born, which can, even before their first birthday, shape their opportunities in life.
As the Chancellor of the Exchequer said in the Budget on Wednesday,
“the first 1,001 days of a child’s life are the most important.”—[Official Report,
I genuinely welcome the announcement of investment in early years provision that the Chancellor made this week. It is clear that he and I, and I believe the whole House, share a view that we must level up childcare and early years provision in this country to support our children, support their families and, ultimately, support our economy. All the evidence shows that children who access early years education go on to achieve so much more.
This short Bill is entirely complementary to those Budget commitments and the House’s shared aspiration for our country’s children, and I will explain why. I will focus on three areas: first, the importance of a good start in the early years; secondly, the current system and where there is room for improvement; and thirdly, why it should be a national conversation and why we should have a serious debate about the future childcare system we want.
Every £1 invested in the early years is the equivalent of £8 invested in later education. Imagine any other industry or sector in which a £1 investment produced an £8 return every time—we would all be rushing, cheque books in hand, to invest. That is exactly what early years provision and childcare do for our children. Along with the love and support of parents and extended families, they provide a balanced and well-rounded introduction to life, which in turn reduces the cost to the country later. Every £1 invested gives children the skills and confidence that they need to learn, grow and thrive. It is what I wanted for my children, and what I want now for the nation’s children.
A well-resourced and comprehensive childcare offer in the early years is an engine that can drive social mobility. Early intervention, through early years provision, gives children a greater chance of accessing higher education and of securing apprenticeships. Those interventions really open doors later in life.
Every Member will have visited primary schools in their constituencies and heard from teachers of reception and year 1 classes who tell us that there is a marked difference in the development of children who have been immersed in early years support compared with those who have not. More people are accessing childcare now than a generation ago. The Nuffield Foundation reported that almost all children attend some form of early years education or childcare arrangement before entering school. That is a huge step forward for the country.
My Bill seeks not to amend or change the current provision in any way, but to champion it and to do all we can to ensure that everyone who is entitled to support knows about it and gets what they need. Clause 3 places a new duty on the Secretary of State for Education to prepare a strategy that promotes the availability of childcare and the benefits of early years provision to all eligible parents. As that is a devolved matter in the other nations of the United Kingdom, the Bill relates only to England. It would make the Secretary of State the named champion of childcare in England and it would compel the Department for Education to consider how the whole Government and the wider public sector, together with voluntary and private partners, can support and promote this important sector.
Crucially, the strategy would also have to consider how that information was delivered to parents in disadvantaged groups, which is levelling up. That is important because the research from the sector and think-tanks—I mentioned the Nuffield Foundation, which has done some excellent work on it—suggests that the children who would benefit most from free early years childcare are, sadly, least likely to access it.
According to the Nuffield Foundation, a third of children eligible for the funded two-year-old places are missing out, which is a tragedy. I want those children to access the help and support their families are entitled to, so that they can reach their full potential when they start primary school.
I am grateful for the Minister’s support and I know that he believes passionately in this agenda. Clause 3 seeks to do that by using the power of the Government and of the wider public sector and other partners to promote childcare availability to children who need it most—a modest ask that could make a huge difference to our whole country.
I turn to clause 2—I am approaching the Bill from the bottom up, which may be appropriate in the world of levelling up—which addresses the elephant in the room: what sort of childcare system do we want in this country? Much like clause 3, the clause does not seek to change current provision. I want to be clear about that to all Members present, and I believe we can work consensually on this important matter. I stand here today not to present answers but merely to facilitate a debate, with the support of the Minister and of other colleagues.
Governments of all political parties have been involved in shaping the childcare sector available to families today. From the Sure Start revolution of the last Labour Government to the new family hubs recently announced by the current Government, every Government have left their fingerprints on the sector. I am afraid this has led to a patchwork of provision in which postcodes, rather than local need, may determine services and in which anomalies have unfortunately been allowed to flourish. This does little to close the educational attainment gap, about which I spoke earlier.
Some areas are blessed with maintained nurseries, and Reading is one of those lucky areas. It is a system in which teacher-led provision, maintained by local authorities, provides the early years foundation curriculum in a more formal setting. I pay tribute to the maintained nurseries in my constituency and in other parts of Reading for their excellent work. However, local authority funding is currently challenged and there has been a decline in the number of places available across the country. Some maintained nurseries, luckily not in my area, have closed their doors.
Other communities are fortunate to have well-run provision in the private and voluntary sectors, either independent or linked to a primary school or multi-academy trust. There is a good mix between early years, as a precursor to school, and other long-established community providers that have often cared for successive generations of each family.
Consistency varies across the country and funding arrangements, due to their complexity, can be off-putting. Some two-year-olds may be eligible for free childcare depending on household income or entitlement to certain benefits, such as universal credit or tax credits. People who earn less than £16,000 before tax and are in receipt of tax credits will be eligible for a free place for their two-year-old. If their child is entitled to disability living allowance or personal independence payment, they may also be eligible for a free childcare place at the age of two.
However, everything changes when the child turns three, when all children become eligible for 15 hours of free childcare regardless of whether their parents are working. Working parents may be entitled to an additional 15 hours a week, taking it up to 30 free hours, but these extra hours are available to some other parents depending on household income and circumstances. My description shows how the system is complicated and difficult for parents to understand.
Although the system for three-year-olds does not sound too dissimilar to the arrangements for two-year-olds, I am afraid it is. The eligibility for two-year-olds is aimed at the lowest paid and the unemployed, but the eligibility for the additional 15 hours for three and four-year-olds is for those who work more than 16 hours a week and who have a household income up to £100,000. This means that the additional hours are disproportionately going to the children of wealthier parents who are in work and whose educational development is less likely to be held back. Unfortunately, this extra money is going to those slightly better off families.
Will the hon. Gentleman give thought to why there is 15 hours of free childcare only in term time, when many people are trying to go back to work and a full-time job requires them to work in the school holidays, too? Why will the Government fund childcare only outside the school holidays?
The hon. Gentleman talks about an independent person. Does he not see the benefit of the Children’s Commissioner? They are already in place and effectively already have that role, or will the independent person be under the Children’s Commissioner?
I will go on to make some further suggestions for the type of independent review, and I am grateful for that suggestion on the Children’s Commissioner.
The Bill does not propose changing the system itself, but it would allow the Government to appoint an independent person to lead a review of free childcare schemes in England. I believe this could have the same powerful impact as previous education reviews led by respected figures with cross-party support. I am thinking of—this goes back a bit into history—the Dearing review of A-levels in the 1990s, or the more recent Augar review of higher education funding. Sometimes, getting a fresh perspective can tease out problems and help to construct collaborative and co-operative solutions that are driven by the sector. Clause 2 would bring together, under the leadership of that independent person, providers, parents, research organisations and others that they saw fit, to take a proper look at how we take childcare forward in this century.
I am particularly interested in this Bill, as a former special adviser at the Department for Education. Clause 2 sets out the different things that the review must consider. Would the hon. Gentleman consider, perhaps in Committee, including the strategy to increase awareness, as set out in clause 3(3)? Some of the most disadvantaged people do not take up the provision that is currently available, so a review could be helpful if it also considered how to better engage those groups with what he is trying to achieve.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; he makes a thoughtful point. He is absolutely right that there is a connection between raising awareness of this vital sector and the role of the review, and I would be grateful to work with him on that. As a former civil servant in the Department, I am very aware of the pressures and difficulty of trying to make the most of our ability to communicate with parents and the difficulty of reaching hard-to-reach groups.
The review would seek answers and pragmatic, practical solutions to the challenge that we have discussed today. That is very much what is needed at this stage. It is not just me calling for this; over 13,000 people signed a petition requesting a review. The National Day Nurseries Association has stated that childcare providers want the system to change in order to ensure that it works for all parents. The national day care alliance estimates that the childcare sector is facing other issues, which could also be discussed by the review, such as the potential shortfall of around £2 billion a year in Government funding, which the alliance believes is needed to meet the costs associated with providing free childcare on offer. As a result, nurseries are forced to charge higher costs to fee-paying families to cross-subsidise those eligible for free care. This, I am afraid, is robbing Peter to pay Paul and drives up the cost of childcare for everyone in the country.
Finally, during the recent debate in the Petitions Committee, Vicky Ford, the then Minister, said a review would not be appropriate before the comprehensive spending review. We have now had the Budget and the CSR, so I believe the timing is right. I am grateful to the current Minister for engaging. I believe that, as a new Minister, he may have a wonderful opportunity to take this forward. This is the perfect time to look at the system and ask ourselves whether it is the very best it can be.
The Chancellor spoke on Wednesday of moving to a post-covid economy. To support that post-covid economy, we need a post-covid childcare system that underpins and supports as many parents as possible back into work. We need a system that works for parents, providers and the whole country, but most importantly we need to invest in our children. I will work with anyone in this place to ensure that our children are given the best possible start in life.
As I draw my remarks to a close, I would like to spend a moment, with the House’s indulgence, thanking some of those who have so graciously supported this work. This place can be a maze of process and procedure but, with patience and good humour, the Whips and the Clerks are there to help. I again pay tribute not only to Rebecca Harris, but to the Clerks and other people who have supported me. I also thank the media, including Grazia magazine, which is also campaigning on this issue, and others who are supporting me. I would like to offer my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), who have supported my endeavours with this Bill and provided sound advice where it was needed. To the Minister, I say once again that I believe—and I believe that he sees it in this way—that politics does not need to be confrontational. It does not have to be angry, as we have seen in the last few days. We can work together and seek compromise, and find better solutions, precisely because we are working together.
The Minister has been generous with his time, and despite our political differences, he has engaged in constructive debate and discussion. Whatever happens today, I hope that in his contribution he will consider the good faith that I bring to the Bill, and will feel able—perhaps because of his own experience—to meet me and representatives of the sector to see how we can progress this issue.
I believe that investing in early years education is one of the first duties of Government. It is the right thing to do, and now is the time to do it. I commend the Bill to the House.
I think this is the most convivial Friday morning session that I have ever experienced in the 29 years-plus for which I have been an MP. How wonderful! I call Jane Hunt.
I congratulate Matt Rodda on presenting the Bill, and on the good faith in which he brings his ideas to the table.
Balancing childcare with work can be challenging for many parents and guardians across the country, so it is right for the Government to do all that they can to help mitigate those challenges and support working families by helping them with the cost of childcare. I know that the Government take that responsibility very seriously, being one of the most generous providers of childcare in the world. In 2020, £3.6 billion was provided for the provision of 30 hours of free childcare for three to four-year-olds, as well as an additional 15 hours for disadvantaged two-year-olds. What better example is there of truly levelling up? From the bellfoundry to Barrow in Loughborough, this is an important aspect of childcare and child support. As my hon. Friend Mr Holden said in his intervention, we should use today’s debate to promote what is currently available, and encourage our constituents to take advantage of what is already on offer.
In addition to the statutory entitlement of 570 hours of free childcare per year for three to four-year-olds, there are a further 570 hours of funded childcare for which some children may qualify. I know from conversations with local residents that this support makes a huge difference, especially to single parents and those without support networks, as it gives them the opportunity both to make a living and to provide for their families. One resident told me that without the 30 hours of free childcare, the couple could afford to send their son to nursery for only two days a week, but with the additional support he could go there for five days a week. That not only ensures that his parents can pursue their careers, but hugely benefits his mental, academic and social development.
We know that early years provision is crucial to giving every child the best possible start in life, and I want to thank early years providers throughout my constituency for all the work that they do to support families and children—providers such as Watermead Day Nursery in Loughborough, which the Minister was kind enough to visit not long ago; unfortunately I was not able to join him, as I had covid at the time, but I thank him very much for his visit. It is a superb day nursery. There are many other good examples throughout my constituency, but Watermead is incredibly effective in developing those children, and it is a great place to be.
I welcome the support that early year providers have been given over the past year to help them to weather the pandemic, including a business rates holiday, business interruption loans, the furlough scheme and help for the self-employed. This is in addition to the £44 million investment in early years education for 2021-22 announced in the 2020 spending review, as well as the £208 million announced in the Budget on Wednesday which is earmarked for high-quality education, childcare and family services, raising standards and helping parents to work. That will include £170 million by 2024-25 to increase the hourly rate to be paid to early years providers to deliver free childcare offers. Local authorities have of course also been able to increase rates paid to childcare providers for the free childcare entitlement offers by 8p for two-year-olds and, for the vast majority of areas, 6p for three and four-year-olds.
The Bill seeks to make further provision to increase efficiency in the administration of free childcare schemes and to promote the availability of free childcare, including to disadvantaged groups, but it lacks any real substance. For instance, its description of what a review of free childcare schemes should include is too broad, in my opinion, and does not identify any supposed problem areas. It also does not set out what such a review would look like, or what it would seek to achieve. Launching such a wide-ranging review without clear aims is not necessarily a good use of time or resources.
Furthermore, the Government are already taking action to ensure that families, in particular vulnerable low-income families, have access to information, advice and guidance about the support available to them through the establishment of family hubs—I particularly congratulate my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom, who have done a huge amount of work in this area—as well as through the delivery of the action areas set out in the early years healthy development review. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Reading East, I feel that he talked frequently in his speech about it being not a challenging but a supporting document, and not proposing change. For those reasons, I am afraid I will not be supporting the Bill today.
I thank my hon. Friend Matt Rodda for bringing forward this Bill, and for working so closely on the Bill with me, the shadow Education team and Members across the House, including Rebecca Harris. I think this is cross-party working at its best, especially on a topic that is so important and so often overlooked. He is truly a champion for working parents and for children whose life chances are going to be shaped by early education and early years education. I also thank all the organisations that have helped him with the Bill and worked so closely with us throughout the process, including the Nuffield Foundation, the Sutton Trust, the National Day Nurseries Association, the Centre for Research in Early Childhood, the Coram Family and Childcare Trust, and the Early Years Alliance.
I will go quickly through the parts of the Bill. First, the Bill addresses a discrepancy between the appeals system for the Government’s schemes for tax-free childcare and free childcare entitlements. The change will allow more disputes to be settled by agreements with HMRC rather than at tribunal, which will save parents time. Any MP with small children sitting in Parliament today, during half-term, will recognise the importance of time. It will save parents time, for anyone who is disputing the Bill, and it will also save taxpayers money. So it is simple fix for a discrete problem and we as a party will support the Bill.
Secondly, the Bill will begin to address the problem, which has been referenced a few times by Conservative Members, that not everyone who is eligible for childcare support is actually accessing it. A Sutton Trust report on the 30 hours free childcare scheme found that this problem came from a lack of awareness among parents and also supply-side issues such as poor availability and the affordability of childcare places in many parts of the country. The Bill would make Ministers look again at how we can promote childcare schemes more effectively so that all families who benefit from the support are able to access it.
It is also clear that the existing childcare support is not sufficient. That brings me to the third substantive part of the Bill, which is a review of the entire childcare system to ensure that it delivers high-quality, value-for-money early education that also enables parents to work. This must be our ultimate goal and I hope, as a Parliament, cross-party, we can work to achieve that. A recent Pregnant Then Screwed survey found that 95% of working parents think that the Government are not helping enough with the cost and availability of childcare. We know from recent research by the Sutton Trust that the 30 hours free childcare offer can often exclude the poorest children, because only 20% of families with earnings in the bottom third of the income distribution qualify.
In no way do I want to ruin the non-confrontational mood of Parliament today, which you have spoken of so highly, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it would be remiss of me to stand here and not mention the fact that the early years sector is currently struggling with a £660 million gap. I hope that we can find the time to review childcare schemes and how they are funded, if we are really serious about addressing early years education and making sure that children, no matter their background or where they were born, get to achieve success in life.
We welcome the Bill as a means of setting us on the path to a better, more sustainable childcare system—one that delivers the high-quality early years childcare that families need, without breaking the bank or the providers. I once again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading East for promoting this important Bill.
I congratulate Matt Rodda on bringing this very important issue to the House, and on taking the bold step of trying to tackle inequality and levelling up, which is what this Bill tries to do.
I worked for the Centre for Social Justice for many years and we looked at the issue of early childhood intervention. Those early years are so crucial to a child’s outcome for the rest of their life. This Bill shows that the hon. Gentleman cares deeply about inequality and that he wants to make sure that the gaps in society are filled. I thank him for engaging so conscientiously in this process and for seeking cross-Government support, because this is an issue that affects everyone across the UK and it is one of the most difficult issues to tackle.
I support engaging with several Government Departments, not just the Department for Education. My only caveat for the Bill is that perhaps we need cross-Government engagement instead of an independent review. I would love to engage on this issue on a cross-party basis. We need to talk to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Department for Work and Pensions. Often, really vulnerable families will present to the council rather than their school. They might be too far down the line and it is often a social worker or housing officer at the council who flags up that a child and a family need additional support. How, therefore, do we integrate the approach in all Departments? We need to engage more holistically.
Is there a way in which DWP can ensure that every person on universal credit understands that they qualify for additional childcare if they are at a certain level of work? Oftentimes, if a family are in a vulnerable position and at breaking point, struggling to make ends meet, it is difficult for them to know who to turn to. It might be helpful for all Departments, not just the Department for Education, to be informed about the Government’s childcare offers. Under UC, working parents on a low income may be eligible to receive 80% of their childcare costs. Perhaps not all parents know about that wonderful opportunity.
I am 100% supportive of early intervention for as many children as possible, particularly those in vulnerable circumstances, and I will support the hon. Gentleman however I can. I hope that we can work on a cross-party basis to develop a solution across all Departments. I will be a loud and obnoxious voice as I continue to champion this issue, and I thank him again for raising it.
I thank Matt Rodda for raising this really important debate. Some issues go way beyond politics, and making sure that our children get the best start in life is absolutely one of them. I am pleased that there is cross-party support for the intention behind his Bill, and I praise Tulip Siddiq for her words on that.
Members across the House and people across our country, be they of a political persuasion or otherwise, are committed to ensuring that our children get the best possible start in life. I must praise my hon. Friend Jane Hunt for taking us through some of the support schemes that are available and that the Government have put in place. They have made such an enormous difference, not just to working parents, but to parents across the board, giving them the breathing space to know that they can afford that quality childcare and take some time out to do what they need to do outside of looking after their little ones. That is so important. I want to raise one thing from the Budget, which is the £208 million of funding that was announced. That is so important and goes to show how committed the Government are to getting this right.
I am not a parent, so some Members may wonder why I am taking such a strong interest in this particular issue.
Many thanks to my hon. Friend. I am excited to finally get the chance, after covid restrictions, to meet his children later on today, particularly Eliza, who I would quite like to adopt, because she is very much my kind of anarchist. I am not a parent, but I pay tribute to a parent: my mum, who worked in early years for a long time. She worked in a nursery in Sheffield. One of the things I found so moving about my mum’s time there was not just the fact that she always came home from work smiling every day because she enjoyed her job so much, but seeing how much of a personal interest and a personal stake she took in the lives of every one of the children she was looking after. She would come home and there would be stories about what Isla, Elsa and Jake had been doing, and I felt like I knew them. I felt like they were extended members of my family.
I thank my mum for everything she did for the children she was looking after, but I pay tribute to all our early years workers for the excellent work they do. It is hard, messy work. There were always changes of clothes available for all those spills and for some things that were not spilled but also managed to make their way on to parents and those early years workers’ clothes. They are incredible, and I am delighted that, as part of the Budget, there is a commitment to increase the hourly rate for our early years workers. That is so vital to pay tribute and show how much we appreciate the work they do.
Despite her having worked in the field for a number of years, I am not sure even my mum could necessarily run people through the eligibility that different parents have. That is why the point that the hon. Member for Reading East raised about promoting the support that is available is so vital. That is mentioned in clause 3 of the Bill, and I absolutely agree that all of us in this place probably need to get better at it, and not just the Government. Each and every one of us as MPs needs to promote these schemes to our constituents, be it through surgeries, our social media channels or in the media. It is incumbent on us all to help all our parents to know what they are eligible for, and in particular to ensure that those on low incomes know about, have access to and do access the additional 15 hours of funded childcare for eligible two-year-olds. The support is there, so we need to ensure it reaches the people who matter.
I am supportive of the principle behind the Bill, but I believe we should only legislate when legislation is necessary. With that,, I am not sure we need a Bill. We do not need a bit of legislation to go through the House to get this right, because there is a commitment across the board and certainly from Government to look at this, improve promotion and make sure that all our children get that best possible start in life.
She should be right hon. She raised a really important point in her tribute to early years teachers. A lot of my family, including both my grandmothers and my mum, were primary school teachers. Those involved in teaching our children and in early years education—particularly over the past 18 months, when so many across the country have faced challenging circumstances—need a shout-out from this place whenever possible.
My hon. Friend Joy Morrissey raised a particularly important point on the cross-Government approach that is needed. This issue touches so many different areas. Members from all parts of the House have raised the issue of family hubs, which was brought out by my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom. That holistic approach, working with local government so that families have somewhere to go when in need, is very important. There is a broader requirement here, therefore, going a little further than just early-years childcare for two and three-year-olds: we need to look, too, at shared parental leave. At present far too few men are taking up opportunities to spend more time at home with their children, and perhaps a broader education drive is needed to push that, especially in early years. As more women are in higher-powered careers—a great thing for our country—we can perhaps share some of these responsibilities more broadly.
My office manager Oliver Denton Lieberman is today going off for a whole year on paternity leave. I want to applaud the fact that more men are doing so; it is good to recognise that.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s office manager for doing that; it is great to see people leading by example. It has been good to see the Prime Minister taking some proper paternity leave as well in recent years, and Ministers, too. It is still at far too low a level, however, and I think the hon. Lady would agree that we need to promote this more broadly across the board.
The hon. Member for Reading East raised some interesting issues. We need to look at the ratios of staff to children. It seems to me to be iniquitous that for a four-year-old in early years education the ratio has to be 1:8, but for a four-year-old in a school it can be 1:30. Perhaps we can look at childcare more broadly to ensure that it is cost-efficient and can deliver for parents.
I also want to pick up on some of the points made by my hon. Friend Jane Hunt. One of the great pieces of news in the Budget was the increase in per-hour spending per child. That will go even further if we address those ratios, and it will help improve pay levels in the sector as well. Many of the childcare organisations in my constituency have been telling me that is a real issue, as it is in other sectors such as social care. We want jobs in those sectors to be seen as high-skilled professions offering careers where people can not just work, but go on and succeed more broadly.
I welcome the cross-party approach of the hon. Member for Reading East; it is exactly the right way to proceed as we share a common view on this matter on both sides of the House, particularly with more parents being in employment. Credit is due to the Government over the last year and a half for the excellent support they have put into the economy to ensure that there are jobs and that vacancy rates are at record highs. Indeed, perhaps this great economic success makes the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman even more pressing.
However, I agree with my Conservative colleagues that, rather than legislating for a review, the Government could perhaps take this forward without legislation being necessary. I leave that thought with the Minister.
I congratulate Matt Rodda on bringing the Bill before the House and on his tone. He is already working across both sets of Benches in the House, and I agree with my hon. Friend Mr Holden and many others that this issue touches us all; it is important to every one of us and the conciliatory tone is—as you have said, Mr Deputy Speaker—very welcome, because we want to find a solution. I agree with other Conservative Members in not being able to support the Bill in its current wording, but I support the intention behind it and look forward to working on it with the hon. Member for Reading East.
I have said this quite a few times so I know it will bore some Members on my side of the House, but as a former teacher—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I know that comes a surprise to some, but as former teacher this issue is of course important to me. I worked with 11 to 18-year-olds and we would make the point time and again that what we inherited in secondary school was the foundation work set by primary school and even earlier than that, in the early-years sector.
It is probably only in recent years that we have started to take seriously just how important the early years of a child’s education are. I am proud to say that I am the father of a 15-month-old, Amelia, who is at nursery today dressed as a pumpkin for her Halloween party. Having that responsibility of being a father at first hand really does make one conscious of just how important getting that education right is. There are so many well-meaning parents up and down the country who want to do the right thing but perhaps did not come from households where the role modelling was in place for them or do not have support networks on their doorstep because of a lack of transportation, as they do not own a car and there is no good-quality public transport in place to access certain services. It can feel as though they are out of touch or things are out of reach, and that is certainly an issue in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, and in Kidsgrove and Talke. Those areas have poor public transport, with the number of bus journeys having gone down by 10 million in the past decade, meaning that people have lost confidence in that public transport network. Some 30% of people in the city do not even own a car, so how do we make sure we get that support to those parents? That issue is critical.
I wish to praise my hon. Friend Jane Hunt for managing to remember all the fantastic things the Government have done in the past decade to support children in the early years. The Budget was extremely supportive, and I was delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Will Quince, tweet and then share this on his Instagram. I am not on Twitter, for the good of my mental health, but I saw there was £560 million for children’s social care homes, which is very important, and £300 million for the Start for Life package, for which my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom and my neighbour, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, have rightly been pushing—£80 million of that is going to be for family hubs, and that is superb.
The Minister will be aware that a letter was sent only yesterday from myself and Councillor Dave Evans, the cabinet member for children and families in Stoke-on-Trent, calling for Stoke-on-Trent to be one of the places for those family hubs. We were calling for at least one, Minister, although we are bit greedy and we would like three. The family hubs support children from 0 to 19, as well as offering support to the family. Whether through parenting and childcare support, debt advice or many of the other things available, that is essential. The £5 billion towards catch-up, as we have seen in the primary and secondary school years, and the £150 million for workforce training in respect of the early years is also extremely welcome. When my partner and I dropped Amelia off to nursery, we had the great delight of finding that Miss Angela, one of her teachers, is a former student of my partner, Nkita, at Burlington Danes Academy in London. Although that was a shock, it was a welcome surprise. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham said, we want more people entering that workforce; it is a fantastic career, as they get to shape the lives of so many children.
As other Members have said, the cost of childcare absolutely needs to be looked at as best as we can. I am fortunate to have this job, with the salary that comes with it, and my partner is a senior leader in a school, which comes with a very good salary, one that is well above the national average. Even so, £1,600 a month for childcare five days a week is an awful lot of money. We are lucky that we have that financial security, but this is not an option for many families. So although the 15 hours of free childcare for those on low incomes is absolutely important and we should use this opportunity today to encourage parents to take up that 15 hours, not enough in Stoke-on-Trent are doing so. I urge them today to sign up to that free childcare opportunity and use it to their full advantage, because it should not be thrown away.
The 30 hours of free childcare for working parents is essential and is helping children when they hit three and four, but we have to think about those one and two-year-olds, because it is not right that one parent has to decide whether or not to give up a career in order to stay at home, so as not to have to lose so much of their income to childcare. A look at that would be welcome, although I agree with my Conservative colleagues that we do not need necessarily to legislate for a review. The Children’s Commissioner can pick up the baton today and look into this herself with the powers she has. This could then be fed into the Minister, working with the hon. Member for Reading East, and then things could be taken forward to see what further strategies could be implemented. That would be a really positive step.
Overall, there is an awful amount being done. Let us not forget the announcement that disappointingly went under the radar a bit on Wednesday: the £200 million a year commitment from the Government for a holiday activities and food programme. That is absolutely welcome. I thank my predecessor, Ruth Smeeth, who was a doughty champion of this issue. She worked with Carol Shanahan, the co-owner of Port Vale football club and the Hubb Foundation, and Adam Yates, a former professional footballer who is now running the Hubb Foundation and is on the Government’s steering group for the holiday activities and food programme.
That programme has not just helped primary and secondary children; it has also created intervention programmes over the school holidays, including the current October half-term, for children in early years. That has been of huge support. It has been done smartly, by using the school building to its full potential, so that there were no additional costs. The programme used facilities that were already in place, that parents trust, and that children feel safe and can be safe in. That was a really good idea.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading East for his tireless work on the issue. I am sure that he will have those conversations with the Minister, who I know from first-hand experience is keen always to extend the hand of friendship across the House and find solutions. I hope that we can come to some agreement. Unfortunately, with the current wording of the Bill, I cannot lend the hon. Gentleman my support, but I certainly support his intention.
It is always a privilege to follow my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis—not to forget Kidsgrove and Talke. And he does talk; he talks with passion and is very knowledgeable about this subject, so it was fantastic to listen to his contribution.
I pay a huge tribute to Matt Rodda. In my former role as Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department for 19 months, I got to sit in on Westminster Hall debates, in which he participated. I recognise the considered and genuine approach that he brought to all debates on childcare and special educational needs, and I now understand why. I did not realise that he is a former civil servant in the Department for Education. It is great that he can bring that background to his role as a Member of Parliament.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman fundamentally on the importance of funding and investment in early years. My background is working in investment banking, so I am always looking at return on investment. I also looked at it as a parent myself. I decided to stay at home and look after my children. It was really important to me that I could put that investment into them, but I also took the opportunity to put my children into childcare and nursery when they were little, because I recognised its importance for socialisation.
Let me turn to the funding. I was delighted when the Chancellor announced the investment that was going into the first 1,001 days of a child’s life, from birth to the age of two. I acknowledge the work of my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom, who has been such a champion on this matter. She has been working on it for such a long time, over a couple of years, with other colleagues in the House. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Cherilyn Mackrory, who worked with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire, and thank her for the experience that she brings to the issue.
I was delighted to hear about the investment in family hubs. That is a 2019 general election manifesto commitment and I can really see its value. I was able to visit my maintained nursery in Guildford with the former Children’s Minister, my hon. Friend Vicky Ford. It was a fantastic opportunity to see how childcare was being delivered in my community—and in a deprived part of my community as well. What I recognised was the number of children with special educational needs. I thought that the ratio of those children to other children who were attending was quite high. I understood the concerns of the nursery about the funding that it was receiving to be able to manage not just the number of neurotypical children who needed those childcare places, but also the number who had extra needs, which was sometimes quite high. Quite a lot of staff are needed to look after those children.
We also have to look at the structure of nurseries, including the layers of management and the people who are doing all the face-to-face work. Sometimes, we need to ensure that the structure is right so that the children are getting that time and energy, and it is not being put into having to tick boxes, fill in forms and so on. That was a fantastic visit, and I hope that the new Children’s Minister will be able to visit other nurseries in my constituency.
I also pay a huge tribute to nursery teachers. A nursery teacher was instrumental in identifying that my son had additional educational needs and suggested that he needed what is now an education and health care plan—it had a slightly different name all those years ago—and get help with speech and language therapy. The people who go into those roles care so genuinely for young people, and that gives a parent the support that they need.
Clause 3, which would promote the availability of free childcare, is important for families like mine and others who do not have social networks and structures around them. I did not have them because I was an immigrant who had to make all my friends—it was a lonely time being a new mum in a new country—but we also need to address loneliness in other parts of our communities. I hope that in bringing forward the Bill and hearing supportive comments from hon. Members across the House, the hon. Gentleman feels that he has started to have some success in raising awareness, particularly among the disadvantaged groups that he wants to talk to.
I echo the comments of my hon. Friend Jane Hunt and recommend that anyone reading my speech goes back to hers, because she listed everything that the Government have been doing. Having worked closely for 19 months in the Department until recently, I saw the care and commitment of Ministers to children in their early years and to children who are vulnerable. I also echo the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North. Childcare is expensive and choices have to be made by people—often women—who ought to be able to carry on with their careers without such a high burden of cost. They should not have to take themselves out of the workforce.
We must also look at the supply side and encourage young people towards childcare when they are looking at their career options, because it is an amazing career and parents such as me value what those people put in. I also encourage men to step forward. The sector has many young women and more mature women in it, but we need men, too. There was a fantastic man in my son’s nursery, and those men can bring role modelling. Let us have a conversation about taking away some of the stigma and making childcare an easier choice for men. It is a worthwhile career. I thank the hon. Member for Reading East for bringing forward the Bill and look forward to working with him, as I am sure everyone in the Chamber does, to realise some of its aims.
I suppose that usually the menopause follows childcare, but we seem to be doing it the other way round. None the less, I hope that we will find agreement on this subject as we did on the previous one. I join others across the House in congratulating Matt Rodda on introducing the Bill and making a number of comments that were spot-on. Families are the bedrock of society and of our communities, and he was right to identify the challenges that have occurred recently in particular from children being at home alongside parents who are working from home in difficult jobs.
We must recognise, as I think we have, that society has changed in the last decades and that, whereas in the past it was normal to have a stay-at-home mum, increasingly both parents in a family are working. It is therefore important to reflect that social change in a debate about childcare and its availability. It is important that we also recognise, as the hon. Gentleman generously did, the support that the Government have given to parents, including the £44 million invested in early years education in this financial year, and the other support that was elaborated on by my hon. Friend Jane Hunt.
I, too, welcome the announcement in the Budget of £14 million for family hubs, which, once set up, will provide expert guidance, advice and advocacy for families. They could make a real difference and I congratulate all those who have campaigned on the issue, including my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom and my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce.
To turn to the detail of the Bill, as other hon. Members have said, I query whether primary legislation is required. Clause 2 calls for a review, which perhaps the Secretary of State could do without the need for primary legislation. Similarly, the establishment of a strategy in clause 3 is laudable but perhaps does not require a new law.
I sensed from the speech of the hon. Member for Reading East, however, that the purpose of the Bill was not to put it on the statute book but to raise awareness of the issues involved, which has been done articulately. I hope that the Government have listened to his points and I look forward to his argument seeing the light of day in Government policy.
I am grateful to be called to speak in this important debate. I congratulate Matt Rodda on the campaign that he has run to emphasise the importance of being able to access the free childcare to which hard-working parents are absolutely entitled. He reminded us of its value, which I am acutely aware of, having been the governor of a primary school and nursery many years ago. The benefit of access to early childcare was made clear to me then.
I will pick up on clause 3 and, I hope, provide some reassurance in terms of awareness. I gently suggest that what the hon. Gentleman is calling for represents duplication, in that a huge amount of information is easily accessible. I will take the opportunity of mentioning it in the House to remind people who watch the debate what is already there. If people search for “free childcare” on Google, Bing or any other search engine, within less than a second the gov.uk site is the first to come up. That takes people to an entire portal designed to assist parents in accessing that childcare.
The portal is clear and easy to understand, and there is even a function where people can enter their postcode to find out their local authority so they get the right information for their area. I am pleased to say that, for Government IT, it does work. I tried it this morning for Aylesbury and I was clearly and correctly directed to the Buckinghamshire Council website and all the necessary facts. Another excellent Government site is called childcarechoices.gov.uk, which is very easy to navigate and attractively set out. Those websites work alongside the plethora of help and support across civil society, including citizens advice bureaux and charities, to make sure that we are well informed.
There is also statutory guidance to local authorities that tells them that they must
“Maintain a service that provides information for parents”, and that, importantly, says that those who do not have access to the internet must be able to get the information they need about eligibility for free childcare and how to obtain it. I hope that I have highlighted that there are those requirements and that information is available.
The overriding point made by the hon. Member for Reading East is well intentioned. It is incumbent on us all, including MPs, to promote awareness in our local areas. I congratulate him on his work to highlight that availability.
I thank Matt Rodda for using the opportunity of his private Member’s Bill to bring the important issue of delivering a high-quality, cost-effective and efficient early years system to the House’s attention. I thank all hon. Members for their thoughtful and constructive contributions to the debate.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is representing and championing his constituents in this matter, but that he also has a passion for improving our early years provision and childcare offer for parents. This is, as he knows, a passion that we share. I have no doubt that he and I will continue to work together in the spirit of collaboration with which he has presented his Bill today.
The hon. Gentleman’s prompt for us to look again at how effectively our childcare system is set up and its benefits communicated to and understood by parents is, I know, very well-intentioned and timely, especially when these issues are currently being made prominent by campaigners. I know that we all have the same aim in doing all we possibly can to make the most of our childcare offer, and I hope that this debate will be the start of an ongoing discussion and dialogue among us on how we can make that happen, including during further debates in this place or, indeed, in Westminster Hall.
As a parent of young children, I know at first hand how important it is to have the right support during those early years. I also know how challenging it can be for parents to juggle their responsibilities—their keenness for their child or children to have the best possible start in life and their obligations to their employment.
As a new Minister, just a handful of weeks into the job, it is important that I look at all aspects of my portfolio and identify not only what is working well, but the challenges and opportunities for improvement. Childcare and early years is no exception. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman already knows that that is, in fact, a priority of mine. There is no question in my mind but that early years education is hugely important in providing an opportunity for young children to develop, and it is an important factor when it comes to breaking the barriers to employment. It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman or the House that I am keen to explore how we can improve our offer.
Turning first to our offer, we have made an unprecedented investment over the past decade and extended access to early education and childcare to millions of children and parents. Our support includes the 15 hours free universal early education per week for all three and four-year-olds. In 2013, that was extended to disadvantaged two-year-olds—those with additional needs and whose parents are on low incomes. In 2017, we doubled our universal 15 hours for three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week for working parents.
I turn now to other Government childcare offers, which were raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), for North West Durham (Mr Holden), for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) and for Guildford (Angela Richardson). Help with childcare costs comes from across Government, including parental leave, support from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs via tax-free childcare and from the Department for Work and Pensions, which was referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield in the form of the childcare element of universal credit.
I appreciate that, at times, the offer across three Departments can appear somewhat fragmented—that was heard across the House—and I am committed to working together across Government to see what we can do to streamline that offer better, to ensure that it delivers most effectively for those parents who access it and is visible to those who need it. All hon. Members across the House can also play their part by working with their local authorities in their constituencies and urging families, particularly those from lower-income backgrounds, to take up the support that is already available to them. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham rightly raised the additional hours for disadvantaged two-year-olds. The take-up is too low and we want to see that rise.
I turn now to funding, which was raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland, for North West Durham, and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). We have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on the Department for Education entitlements. This financial year, as has already been referenced by my hon. Friend Jane Hunt, we are investing £44 million for local authorities to increase hourly rates paid to childcare providers. We continue to press the importance of the early years sector right across Government, which is why at the spending review on Wednesday we announced that we are investing additional funding for the early years entitlements of £161 million in 2022-23, £182 million in 2023-24 and £170 million in 2024-25.
Let me turn now to covid-19 and recovery. In this debate, I cannot mention childcare without sending all those who work in early years education and childcare my profound thanks for providing an invaluable service to both children and parents, especially throughout the difficult time experienced over the course of the pandemic. It is because of them that children could continue to access that lifeline of social interaction and the early years education that they need. We have recognised the needs of the sector emerging from the pandemic by investing £180 million on education recovery in the early years, to support the youngest children’s learning and development.
Turning to family hubs and points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Loughborough, for North West Durham, for Stoke-on-Trent North, for Guildford and for Gedling (Tom Randall), we are also committed to championing family hubs. Family hubs are a way of joining up locally to improve access to services and the connections between families, professionals and service providers, and putting relationships at the heart of family help. We are already under way with our first £34 million programme. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said. We have received the letter, although I have to say that there are a lot of colleagues who are very interested in family hubs in their constituencies. I am delighted that at the Budget the Government announced, in line with our manifesto commitment, a further £82 million to create a network of family hubs. That is part of a wider, very exciting £300 million package to transform services for parents and babies, carers and children in half of local authorities across England. Like several hon. Members, I too want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and in particular my right hon. Friend Dame Andrea Leadsom for their tireless work in this area.
Turning now to wraparound childcare, alongside our commitment to family hubs and other resources which complement our early years settings, I am so proud of our manifesto commitment to establish a £1 billion fund to help create more high-quality, affordable wraparound childcare, including before and after school, and during the school holidays. Much of that has already been realised in the success—this was referenced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North—of the £200 million holidays activities and food programme, the extension of which for a further three years was announced in the spending review on Wednesday. But we will not rest on our laurels. My Department is continuing to explore what more can be done to help parents access childcare which will suit them, whether that is out of hours or before or after school.
Turning to maintained nursery schools, an issue raised by the hon. Member for Reading East and other Members across the Chamber, the role played by maintained nursery schools within the early years sector is hugely important. I recognise the hugely valuable contribution those schools make to improving the lives, in particular, of some of our most disadvantaged children. I am pleased that we have been able to confirm continuation of MNS supplementary funding throughout the spending review period, providing the sector with long-term certainty. I am alive to the pressures faced by maintained nursery schools and the local authorities where they operate. Members have already been having long conversations with me and across the Department on what more can done. Those conversations will continue.
Turning specifically to the Bill itself, our determination is strong to improve continuously on our duty to protect and educate the youngest in our society. My Department has already used legislation to great effect to achieve that. The Childcare Act 2016 set out the pathway to 30 hours free childcare, and we have used powers within the Act to extend eligibility for parents whose income has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. We are therefore aware of the benefits of securing additional efforts within law, but we also know that such a process can take a great amount of time and resource. As I have already said, the hon. Gentleman’s aims in bringing forward this Childcare Bill are commendable. As well as adding to the Department’s objective of streamlining the application process for 30 hours free childcare, the hon. Gentleman’s Bill seeks to better target families whom he believes will benefit from wider knowledge of the childcare offers currently available. I agree. However, much of what he is intending with the Bill, we already deliver. I have already set out the detail of our funding offer and my intention to work across Government to make our collective offer to parents work more effectively and clearly. We therefore do not think that new legislation is needed to make such improvements at this time.
In conclusion, the early years sector is an integral part of our economy and education, so my Department rightly treats any changes to the system very carefully. The variety, availability and affordability of childcare and early education is something that I, and my Department are very eager to continue, improve and expand. From the introduction of the hon. Gentleman’s Childcare Bill, I can see that that is also very important to him. Affordability and protection for both parent and provider is at the heart of every policy that is developed by this Government for the early years. However, we do not agree that the Bill is an effective use of the House’s time and resources to achieve those aims. I would rather focus our expertise on building on changes we have already forged ahead with. That includes our work on the early years foundation stage, improving the take-up of our tax-free childcare scheme, and, of course, preserving the lifelines that are early years settings as we continue our post-covid economic recovery. I again thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing forward this important issue for discussion and close by offering him an invitation to talk further with me and my Department on reinforcing and improving our existing efforts, which are, at this moment, the best way of benefiting children and families.
With the leave of the House, I beg to withdraw the motion that the Bill be read a Second time. I wholeheartedly thank the Minister for his genuine commitment to this important issue and the way that he has engaged with me. I am extremely grateful to him and look forward to working with him. I listened carefully to his speech and those of others Members. I want to express my thanks and my genuine pleasure in working in a cross-party way. I believe that we as a House have shown something very positive today: that we can work across the House in a thoughtful and measured way to achieve something of great national importance.
I am deeply grateful to everybody who has spoken and for their thoughtful suggestions, which I wholeheartedly agree with. I particularly thank Joy Morrissey for her point and Mr Holden for his knowledgeable points, which showed his experience in the Department, along with Angela Richardson and many others for their thoughtful and timely points. I look forward to working with the Minister and colleagues across the House on this important matter. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.