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My Lords, the Government announced in the mid-term review that they would support families with childcare costs. They are considering options and will make an announcement shortly. Earlier this week, they published plans to improve high-quality childcare which represents true value for parents, children and the taxpayer.
The noble Lord will appreciate that improvements in quality do not amount to affordability. We cannot expect, and the Government cannot call on, women to take half the top jobs and half the places in boardrooms without childcare help, because they are squeezed out in mid-career by unaffordability. Childcare for a woman in full-time work is just as worthy of tax relief as secretarial assistance for the businessman, who receives the full allowance on that. The difference in treatment of employees with workplace nurseries and those without is unfair, and it is even worse for the self-employed. Therefore, will the Minister please consider basic-rate tax relief being available for the employed and self-employed alike who wish to work full time?
My Lords, the factors that the noble Baroness has referred to are exactly the kinds of considerations currently being undertaken. Of course, the Government are extremely keen, not just in this area but more generally, to ensure that women can achieve their potential. She will be aware of the steps that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at BIS is taking to ensure that a higher proportion of women is appointed to boardrooms up and down the country.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that there are many different kinds of families and parents in different economic situations? How will the Government differentiate between the different kinds of families-for example, single-parent families and so on-and decide who needs more relief or less relief?
I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness. She will be aware that the Government have already focused funding on childcare and free childcare for the most vulnerable. That is why we will be increasing the number of two year-olds who get 15 hours' free childcare from about 20,000-the number funded under the previous Labour Government-to about 260,000. This is one of the most tangible ways of focusing childcare support on people at the bottom end. Those getting that additional free childcare support in the first instance will be children on free school meals and looked-after children-that is, those from the poorest families.
My Lords, following the Government's recent announcement, is the Minister aware of the widespread concern among practitioners about the increasing ratio-to above 3:1-of the very youngest infants to carers? The additional investment in training that the Government have offered to reassure these practitioners is welcome. However, can the Minister go further in reassuring them, given the utmost importance of the highest quality of care for children at this tender age in terms of their future welfare and indeed their future productivity, as well as the deep adverse consequences for them of early poor-quality care in terms of their future outcomes?
Absolutely, my Lords. That is very much the thrust of the proposals that were announced at the beginning of this week. We have looked in particular across the EU, where childcare and nursery care is in some cases thought to be better than in the UK and two things have emerged: first, that we need to have better-qualified people involved and, secondly, that the ratios that the noble Earl spoke about are tighter in the UK than virtually anywhere else. However, the two go together, and that is why in our plans for early years teachers and educators we are putting a lot of emphasis on improving the qualifications of people working in childcare, while having more flexibility in the numbers.
My Lords, would it not be unfair to introduce this tax relief for working parents with children while denying effective tax relief through transferable allowances to those parents who choose to stay at home with young children and who are currently penalised through the tax system for doing so?
My Lords, obviously one of the problems with simply having a tax relief-based scheme is the one that the right reverend Prelate refers to. That is why we are looking at a number of options, some of which are tax based and others of which are not. I hope very much, however, that the Government will be in a position to make an announcement on this very shortly.
My Lords, going back to the question from the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, does the Minister agree that one of the real problems in the provision of childcare is the very low rates of pay that are awarded to people who are in fact qualified and have a great deal to offer, but who are in the main only able to earn extremely low wages? If the Government's plan is to put more burdens on those people by increasing the numbers of children that they can look after, is it likely that that will do anything at all either for the childcare or for the people delivering it?
My Lords, I think the question that we have to look at in terms of the number of children is why it is that those countries that, by common consent, have the best childcare provision in the world have higher ratios of children. The answer is partly that we need to have a combination of things of which better training is one. The pay is very low, but the Government will fund the additional free support which I mentioned earlier at a higher average rate of pay than is currently paid across the sector.
Yes, my Lords. Vouchers are one of the possible ways of dealing with this, and they are one of the options being considered.
My Lords, I think it is recognised by common consent that having better qualified teachers and assistants in this area is beneficial to the pupils and the young children being cared for. If we want, as we do, to improve the quality of the care given, part of it will involve soft skills but another part will involve basic competence.