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Childcare Ratios — Statement

– in the House of Lords at 11:13 am on 9th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 11:13 am, 9th May 2013

My Lords, the Government announced in January, in the More Great Childcare document, the intention to give nurseries more flexibility over staff/child ratios where they employ suitably qualified staff. We have consulted on what those qualifications should be. The consultation closed at the end of March. We are now considering the responses and will make further announcements in due course.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that response. The people of this country rightly want politicians to listen to their concerns. I realise that the Government are consulting, but given the scale of public opposition, especially from parents and all those involved in childcare, will the Government take this chance to rule out this dangerous policy, which simply will not work?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

As the noble Baroness says, we are considering the consultation. We are motivated entirely by better quality childcare and we believe that our proposals will deliver that.

Photo of Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton Labour

My Lords, there is a fear in the country now that the Government know the price of everything and the value of nothing, despite the response from professionals to government proposals. They ignored the view of the police about police officers being more important than the money spent on police and crime commissioners, as well as the views of other professionals, for example on the curriculum and history teaching, and even the health service, which the coalition government manifesto promised would not be reorganised top-down. When will this Government please start to listen to those who know more than they do as a result of their professional training?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, we have the tightest ratios in Europe for under-threes. Other countries manage better childcare more efficiently. Our childcare is very expensive and we are motivated to deliver better-quality childcare and more choice for parents. These ratios will not be mandatory; they will be in childcare facilities only where suitably qualified staff are located and parents may choose whether to send their children to those facilities.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench

My Lords, are the Government aware that the working mothers of this country do not have time to organise and lobby and that groups such as Mumsnet are not necessarily representative? There are women who go to work and who are ambitious and high up the scale; there are women low down the working scale who cannot afford childcare. The Government have to listen to working women who need affordable childcare. I have been involved in setting up nurseries and, over 40 years, the ratios have changed this way and that way—more square footage this way, more square footage that way—but it does not make a scrap of difference if you have well intentioned staff, and you will of course have several staff in a nursery. The children are no worse off than would be five children at home with a mother on her own. The Government must listen to working mothers who need affordable childcare.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, we are in consultation and we are listening. We are focused, as the noble Baroness said, on better-quality childcare with more qualified staff.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

My Lords, is it not right that, if we are consulting, we should go through the consultation process and not pronounce until that is finished? Surely it is right in those circumstances that members of this coalition Government keep their views to themselves until that consultation has been completed.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I am grateful for my noble friend’s question and confirm that we are considering the consultation.

Photo of Lord Hughes of Woodside Lord Hughes of Woodside Labour

In the traffic this morning coming into the House, I happened to have the radio on and heard the very eminent professor who conducted the study on childcare. She said that she was totally opposed to the changes and the ratios recommended by Government. Will the Minister listen to her?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

We have had more than 1,000 replies to the consultation and will examine them all closely.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, what evidence is there that the cost of childcare will drop? What assumptions are the Government making about the cost of childcare?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

As I said earlier, we are driven by a desire for better quality. A third of our children enter primary school without adequate communication and language skills despite a 96% take-up of early-years provision. We are driven by a desire to improve quality, not to save money.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

They will drop if nurseries are able to employ staff on ratios which enable them to operate more efficiently. There are providers in France who provide higher-quality childcare at more affordable rates because they are able to offer these flexible staffing ratios. More efficient providers may well be able to produce cheaper prices.

Photo of Baroness Howarth of Breckland Baroness Howarth of Breckland Crossbench

My Lords, I was a social worker of some years, having begun my career in children’s departments. At that time, more children were cared for by minders than are now—the ratios were different. Certainly, the ratios have swung back and forth. Will the Minister look carefully at the evidence which shows that children need a certain ratio of carers of good-quality training in order to gain the stimulation they need to go on into the education establishment where they will benefit from their learning? If the Minister is looking at other jurisdictions, I ask him to look particularly at the different training and pay of carers. Although our care is expensive, there are other reasons for that expense. I agree entirely with the view that if we have a different ratio all that will happen is that child carers will charge the same and have more children, and we will have poorer childcare with less finance.

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

We will look more carefully at the issues that the noble Baroness raises. I undertake to do that.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat

My Lords, given that the cost of childcare has exceeded inflation substantially over the past 10 years since the current ratios were introduced, and given that the Government are considering tax refunds and support for parents, are they looking at any other mechanisms to make childcare more affordable?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

Those are the main mechanisms that we are looking at. I will write to the noble Baroness if I become aware of any other mechanisms.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

Further to the observations of my noble friend Lord Hamilton, can the Minister assure the House that consultation means precisely that and that, if the weight of evidence indicates that the Government’s course should be changed, the Government’s course will be changed?

Photo of Lord Nash Lord Nash The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I can only repeat that the Government are looking carefully at all the responses and we will of course weigh all the evidence carefully before coming to a final conclusion.