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Children: Affordable Childcare — Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords at 11:43 am on 9th January 2014.

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Moved by Baroness Massey of Darwen

That this House takes note of the case for increasing access to affordable childcare.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour

My Lords, I am very pleased to have secured this important and timely debate and am delighted to see so many speakers here today with a variety of expertise and experience. I thank colleagues from the Library for their excellent briefing and those in the voluntary sector who work tirelessly on behalf of families and children. I hope that we can deliver a wake-up call today not just to this Government but also to future Governments. Like many other issues, this should not be a party-political issue—it is too important for families. I believe that with the issue of affordable childcare, we have a situation that is out of hand.

Healthy child development should surely be at the heart of this discussion. It is an issue that often gets lost, yet research is clear about what children need to thrive—security, attention to physical, emotional and intellectual needs, and love. The long-term impact of early years care is well known. In today’s world, parents may be caught in the conflicts of what is best for their child. The situation has certainly changed from when I had young children, where it was usual for one parent—usually the mother—to be at home looking after the child or children until they went to school. I was fortunate in being able to do and enjoy that. Some women said that they were better mothers for having their children looked after by others for at least part of the day and being able to work.

Pressures on my—our—children’s generation are different and more complex. The pressures of the cost of living, the workplace environment and taking time out have increased, even though maternal and paternal leave after birth has thankfully improved. Parents want an alternative to the family situation where their child or children will be well looked after. As I and I am sure others have seen, most parents go to great lengths, whatever the cost, to decide what that care will be, whether it is with a childminder, including a relative, a nursery—either private or local authority—or other arrangements. I know many young parents feel guilty about this but for many reasons childcare has to be the way forward for them. How does that work out? Is high quality childcare affordable? Governments—any Governments—need to ensure that parents have affordable, high-quality choices about what happens to their children at a key stage of life.

Some facts are clear. Since the last election, the cost of nursery places has risen by 30%—five times faster than pay. The average cost for a part-time nursery place of 25 hours a week has gone up to £107. There are 576 fewer Sure Start centres with three lost every week. There are 35,000 fewer childcare places. The Government offer of childcare for disadvantaged two year-olds is struggling because one in three councils do not have enough places. Some 60% of local authorities in England have sufficient childcare for working parents and in 36% of local authorities parents have reported lack of childcare to their family information service. Only 30% of English local authorities—16% in Wales—can provide sufficient holiday care for working parents, despite the obligation to do so under the Childcare Act 2006. Six local authorities report an average cost of holiday childcare exceeding £175—the maximum amount of help that a parent on low income can claim through working tax credit support for childcare costs, leaving many parents out of pocket.

Some 91% of nursery care, 94% of sessional and pre-school care, and 67% of after-school care is delivered by the private and not-for-profit sector. It has been estimated that 7% of childcare costs in group settings is due to rent or mortgage costs. A parent buying 50 hours of childcare per week for a child under two now faces an annual bill of almost £11,000 per year—£14,000 in London. Many colleagues will know such parents and how they struggle to make ends meet.

The Every Disabled Child Matters coalition is concerned that access to high-quality, affordable childcare is seriously problematic for these parents. The cost of childcare for a disabled child is prohibitive and discourages or prevents parents of these children from working. Policy developments are failing to recognise this.

Since 2007-08, local authorities in England and Wales have been required to carry out childcare sufficiency assessments and identify gaps in the provision of childcare. In 2010, only 23% of local authorities said that they had sufficient childcare for disabled children. By 2013, the situation was worse with only 14% of local authorities reporting sufficient provision.

Where childcare is available for disabled children, it is costly. Thirteen per cent of respondents to a survey by Working Families stated that they were paying £10 an hour more for childcare for a disabled child, and 66% complained of extra costs. In addition to costs, parents of disabled children are also concerned that the care for their child should be of good quality—a very significant issue. As Every Disabled Child Matters states:

“It is vital that we remind ourselves that childcare is not only about enabling parents to work but ensuring that children benefit from it.

Recently, Ed Miliband has set out plans to extend free childcare for three and four year-olds from 15 to 25 hours a week for working parents, funded by an increase in the bank levy, and to increase the legal guarantee of access to wraparound care from 8 am to 6 pm in primary schools. He has said that parents are facing a childcare crunch as they seek to balance work and family life. Does the Minister agree?

A Resolution Foundation report has acknowledged that the Government announced in the Budget last year that they will spend an extra £1 billion per year on two types of childcare support: 600,000 working families eligible for universal credit will potentially be eligible for extra childcare support from 2016, and 2.5 million higher income families not eligible for universal credit will be able to claim tax-free childcare through a new system of vouchers worth up to £1,200 a year per child. A higher level of childcare support is welcome for those families on universal credit who will be eligible for more help. However, the proposed extra support will not benefit the majority of families with children, particularly those on low wages, who struggle most with the increasing cost of childcare. Low-paid second earners who work part time will be worse off if they increase their hours than if they did not work at all.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted late last year that more than half of families living in poverty are in work. The cost of childcare is a significant contributor to their problems, particularly due to the way that income support works, with a taper sharply reducing support as parents enter work and childcare costs increase. Sadly, the report concludes that parents are no happier with their work-life balance and attitudes to family-friendly working appear to have gone backwards among employers during the recession.

At a recent conference of the Family and Childcare Trust, issues of childcare were discussed in depth and many questions asked. The keynote address states that it must be remembered that only one-third of children attending formal childcare are aged three or four and therefore qualify for the universal element of the free early education offer. Although the number of childcare places has risen, parents still have difficulty finding affordable childcare at the times they need it. More staff are qualified, but childcare is still a low-wage profession and the annual turnover of staff is three times the average of that of a good school. That will clearly impact on quality and availability. Quality of staff in early years settings and recognition of the profession’s impact and importance is an issue that has often been raised in your Lordships’ House and needs to be an ongoing concern.

I turn to some of the responses to the issue of affordable childcare. Many professionals in the field of child and family welfare have raised several key points. First, childcare is a fragmented sector, with the expansion in the private and voluntary sectors. In a fragmented sector, there are challenges in achieving profitability without an impact on quality. There is potential for isolation and there are weak links to quality support.

Secondly, vision, direction and long-term strategy from political parties must not be lost in competing on policy, whether it be from the expansion of the free offer or tax-free childcare. Thirdly, the free offer is at the heart of childcare and hugely popular with parents, but problems remain. Many parents are not in control of when and where they access free childcare. Around 20% of parents are not happy about being able to access a good provider.

The key to affordable success, it has been suggested, lies in a simpler funding system. Multiple funding streams directed separately into a market environment lacking coherence will not achieve high-quality and flexible access for parents. Such a system also leads to administrative deficiencies. Those funding streams must be brought together. The Scandinavian model gives power and funding to local authorities to plan local provision and gives parents legal access to services. Interestingly, the Institute for Public Policy Research has produced an interim report on childcare as a strategic national priority. This report states that a wide-ranging expansion of childcare would pay for itself over time. It estimated that attracting 280,000 mothers back into the workforce would generate an extra £1.5 billion in tax revenues and make savings in benefit payments. We await the final report of the IPPR, which will indicate possible ways forward. I hope that they will be noted by policymakers.

I have tried to show that this is a complex area and needs simplifying. What is clear to me is that the Government do not seem to have policies on long-term strategies which are compatible with providing quality, accessible and affordable childcare for the majority of working parents, particularly those on lower incomes. I hope the Minister will reassure us that this is being thought through with all parents in mind and that we shall see greater clarity, simplification and understanding about the welfare of children and parents.

S

Although my children are now grown up, I was discussing this issue with a friend who pointed out that athough she could see why free childcare was given to lower socio-economical groups because they need help where they can get it, she didn't understand why more help wasn't being given to those families in work when this government does nothing but encourage everyone back into work, including mothers of small children. She then said that she paid over £1,600 per month for her two children to go into childcare. This sum seems eye-watering to me. When I lived in Australia, the whole system was linked to your tax-file number and you paid a percentage of your earnings - the poor paid little and the rich paid a lot - seemed like a jolly fair system to me.

Submitted by Sue Burt

Photo of Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Conservative 11:56 am, 9th January 2014

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, who speaks with so much experience and expertise, for providing us with the opportunity to debate this important topic. In thinking about this debate, like the noble Baroness I inevitably cast my mind back to my own experiences, 20 years ago, and to how we coped and managed with two small children. My sister, who lived nearby, stayed at home and was a fantastic support. My sons had two loving and committed grandmothers who lived close enough to help and did more than their fair share. The children went to a great nursery and later I was lucky enough to have a flexible job. Housing costs were considerably lower, with a decent family home costing three times a salary. Many parents today have to work longer hours for what I, at least, took for granted. I now appreciate more than I did at the time how easy I had it compared to many parents today but even then I felt guilty, and at times stressed and under pressure.

A quick trawl through the Mumsnet forums on this subject shows no change and no agreement. From the comments of stay-at-home parents who feel that they have to justify their choice to working parents who feel guilty for working long hours to keep on top of their careers, it is clear that whatever it is, there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution. However, without flexibility, affordability and good quality childcare what is really quite a short period of one’s life can, instead of being a fulfilling and exciting time filled with love and adventure, become a stressful and miserable experience for both parents and children. Needs change for babies and pre-schoolers, of course, compared with school-age children. Families are different and, obviously, childcare needs should be as flexible as possible to cater to the many individual circumstances and challenges that families face. All these families need to be supported in the choices that they make and I welcome the introduction of flexible parental leave so that parents, not government, can decide how to manage their lives when they have a baby.

Whether it is the ability to find a childminder, a nursery in the right location with available places, a work-based creche or a school that can offer after-hours care, we know that too many parents cannot get that mix of childcare that they need. It is lack of flexibility that can lock many parents out of the workplace. This is why affordable and accessible childcare is so important in our society, not just for the well-being and success of future generations but for the well-being and success of parents. Data suggest that more than half of stay-at-home mothers, one-third of the total, would prefer to be in paid employment, but in the UK one-quarter of women who go on maternity leave do not return to work, resulting in a significant cost to companies in recruiting and training their replacements, as well as the loss of knowledge, skills and expertise.

Let us look for a moment at the costs. The UK has reached Nordic levels of public expenditure on childcare but has come nowhere near reaching Nordic levels of coverage among low earners. Public childcare subsidies, at 1.1% of GDP, are among the highest in the world, yet the average cost of childcare is still 28% of household income. In Sweden, where they also spend 1.1% of GDP, childcare costs are 6% of household income while in Germany, where they spend 0.4% of GDP, the out-of-pocket cost of childcare is 14% of household income. As I read those figures, even though I know I have checked them, I still find them very hard to come to terms with.

So we spend more than the OECD average on childcare, yet British parents are still paying some of the highest costs in Europe. Clearly, neither taxpayer nor parent is getting value for money. The limited options available to parents for such high costs are due in large part to overcomplex funding systems and unnecessary bureaucracy, which are stopping childcare providers from growing and flourishing, thus preventing many parents and children from taking advantage of the excellent childcare that exists across the country. Let us take a quick look at the most common options available to parents— childminders, nurseries and school nurseries.

Childminders are popular, flexible and local. Many parents prefer home-based care, especially for the younger children. They also suit parents who work shifts; I used one myself when my elder son was small, and it worked well. Despite this, though, as the noble Baroness has pointed out, the number of childminders has almost halved over the past decade, to the point where just 1% of funded early-year places are provided by childminders. This appears to be due to two issues: difficulty in accessing funding and the mass of paperwork involved in registration. Childminders have to register with Ofsted. They have to spend about £80 on a medical check, £100 on a preregistration course, up to £100 on paediatric first aid training and more on public liability, car and home insurance, a website, professional membership, DBS checks, buying equipment, toys and books and sorting out marketing and accountancy. The whole process costs around £800, clearly contributing to high costs for users of the service.

Since September, any good or outstanding childminder can automatically offer funded places for two to four year-olds. Previously, fewer than 4,000 childminders were accessing funding but now 32,000 are automatically eligible. To help to reduce the bureaucracy, childminder agencies are being set up to help with admin and to simplify the process. They could spread the costs, reduce the hassle and use economies of scale to make it cheaper, and for parents they should make it easier to find an employer childminder. In France, where creches familiales have similar functions to agencies, they have five times as many childminders per person than England. I welcome the new childcare business grant scheme that has been introduced to boost the provision of childcare and to incentivise entrepreneurship. It will encourage and support the starting up new childcare businesses by providing a flat-rate start-up grant of up to £500.

Nurseries, which provide about one-quarter of all childcare, are equally essential, providing a valued and trusted service to parents. Their funding should be simple and accessible. Any good or outstanding nursery will be able to access money just like childminders, without jumping through further bureaucratic hoops. Through this measure, the Government estimate that about 80% of nurseries would automatically get funding. They should be encouraged to expand and grow, just like any other business. Planning rules should be more straightforward so that premises can be converted without requiring additional planning permission, allowing nurseries to grow and flourish.

School nurseries are perhaps an underappreciated part of childcare yet they make up one-third of the national childcare market, with some 800,000 early-year places. However, the hours that they offer can be inflexible; most do only 9 am to 3 pm, if parents are lucky. An extra four hours a day would change many parents’ options. More school nurseries could look to the model of a mixture of funded and fee-paying care, which in turn helps local government funding to go further. Such schools can generate income from the nursery and by good, flexible timing of their sessions they can fill the spaces.

Of course, availability is not the only problem that many families face when looking for suitable childcare. Even when many families find the perfect solution for them, they are locked out of the market due to the high cost. Parents are locked out of the workplace and children are left out of sociable learning environments.

The average annual cost of a part-time nursery place for a young child is now more than £5,000. At an hourly rate, this is about two-thirds of the minimum wage. Even as the economy is picking up, with nursery costs in some parts of the UK rising more than twice as fast as family incomes, childcare is a big item on tight family budgets.

Every three and four year-old gets 15 hours of free childcare a week. This is now much more flexible so that parents can take it in blocks. Funding has been increased for low-income two year-olds and just one month after launching the scheme, 92,000 children benefitted, reaching an estimated 70% of the deprived children who most need help. On top of this basic entitlement, low-income working families can get help for up to 70% of their additional childcare costs.

Are we missing other innovative ideas? Should the Government revisit some of yesteryear’s solutions for inspiration? In World War II, shipyards in the United States established pioneering company-sponsored childcare centres. They were in operation 24 hours a day, had a nurse on site for any ill children and provided hot meals during the day. They were opened to ensure the company had the workforce to build ships and were closed after the war ended, but could this large-scale, open-all-hours creche be a possible option?

In the past, communities came together to look after children if their parents were not available. Could the Government look at childcare collectives put together by volunteers? Sweden, for example, has a long history of parental co-operatives run by many pre-schools. They are organised and staffed by the parents who use the service. The idea has echoes of the big society agenda where regulatory barriers are removed to encourage voluntary groups and communities to take action. This might also provide an opportunity for another resource we may not be using effectively.

We hear much about loneliness in old age. Could we not look to lonely older people, some of whom are already grandparents and some whom would love to be, to assist in supervising after-school homework clubs and other after-school clubs? Obviously they would need some training and checking, but need it really be prohibitively bureaucratic and expensive?

I welcome the fact that the Government are committed to ensuring that all families in the UK, of whatever size or income level, have access to a variety of flexible childcare options. We are improving the quality of childcare options by clarifying standards and taking the focus off of red tape and paperwork so that childcare professionals can focus on the children. Surely we can all agree with the Minister’s aspiration, included in a recent speech to the Family and Childcare Trust, which was referred to by the noble Baroness:

“Our vision is of childcare where families want it, at the time they need it, provided by people they trust, at a cost they can afford”.

For the sake of parents and children everywhere, let us hope that this vision can be realised.

Photo of Baroness Prosser Baroness Prosser Labour 12:07 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for providing us with the opportunity to debate this important issue. It is important to children, to parents and to the economy of the country. However, this discussion gives me a very gloomy sense of déjà vu. The question of good quality affordable childcare for those parents who want or need it has been a rallying cry from women’s groups and individual women for at least the past 40 years. Back in the 1970s we had childcare campaigns organised and working in different parts of the country. I became the secretary of the Southwark childcare campaign. There were London and national umbrella campaigns. In Southwark, we had virtually reached agreement with the then GLC for the provision of a childcare centre in Bermondsey when the GLC was abolished. That was very disappointing at the time.

A number of these campaigns, including ours in Southwark, grew out of the trade union movement. My old union, the Transport and General Workers’ Union, put resolutions to the TUC women’s conference. One such resolution in the early 1980s called for a parents’ charter which itself called for not only good quality affordable childcare but for parental leave for mothers and fathers. Yes, there were and are examples of the trade union movement being in the vanguard of debate.

In the 1990s, I went to Sweden and Denmark looking at their childcare policies. The provision of affordable childcare was something of a given. Interestingly, leave for fathers was available, but was not being well used at that time. Acceptance of such provision requires a cultural shift, which takes time and effort to bring about. Hopefully, in this country, we will continue both to encourage fathers to take leave but also, crucially, to campaign for better financial compensation to enable the person who earns the most within the household to be able to afford to take advantage of the leave offer.

Also in the 1990s, the Equal Opportunities Commission produced a research report on the value to society of affordable childcare. One of the possibilities proposed was to embrace the then French system which spread the cost between parents, local government and central government, the burden therefore not falling too heavily on any one partner. Needless to say, this was not embraced by the UK Government.

Then came the debate on nursery provision in the workplace. While I accept the case for a contribution from employers, I can also see that this can hardly be described as core business. Also, of course, it does nothing to ensure that there is an overall strategy towards working parents, so some will be lucky enough to have this benefit provided by the employer and many others will not.

Finally, on the workplace nursery front, it is not always easy or even possible for parents to cart their children to the workplace, plus it takes children away from their local environment, meaning that when they start at primary school they are unlikely to know the other children because they have not been associating in that area.

The Labour Government of 1997 to 2010 introduced the Sure Start programme, providing care and support for thousands of children and families. In the run-up to the 2010 election, David Cameron accused Labour of scaremongering about the Conservative Party’s negative intentions. “Sure Start will stay”, he said. Well, as we heard from my noble friend Lady Massey, as of today there are 576 fewer Sure Start centres. So much for the validity of that statement of commitment.

In 2010, the Equality and Human Rights Commission produced a report entitled Working Better: Childcare Matters. The report found strong evidence of the importance of quality, flexible and affordable childcare for improving life chances and social mobility for parents, children and families. Yes, the economic case for investment in childcare has been well made.

The Women and Work Commission report, Shaping a Fairer Future, which I chaired, sat for 18 months inquiring into the reasons for the gender pay and opportunities gap. We reported in March 2006 and noted in our conclusions that:

“Women are crowded into a narrow range of … occupations, mainly those available part time, that do not make the best use of their skills”.

This crowding or job segregation is most prevalent among women who have children. These are generally the women who have started off in decent jobs with career options and reasonable pay. The main reason they leave the jobs for which they have been trained—many, for example, from the health service—is that unless the woman is earning a considerably good wage she will not be able to afford to stay in that job and pay for childcare. Some women manage with the first child but, for certain, once two children have to be paid for then it is financially impossible to balance the books.

According to the Family and Childcare Trust, the average cost of care for a child under two years old is now £4.26 per hour. For a parent working full time, this adds up to £11,000 a year. In London, that bill scoots up to £14,000. Since the general election in 2010, the cost of childcare has risen by 30% and the number of available places has gone down by 35,000. We therefore have the situation where business and/or the taxpayer has paid good money to train a female employee. The woman herself has put effort into her career and is mentally satisfied and financially sound. Then down the ladder she goes. The shameful fact of the matter is that, in almost all cases, that is where she stays. Once a worker is out of the mainstream, how does she get back in?

The Women and Work Commission estimated that enabling women to participate in the Labour market at their full capacity could be worth between £15 billion and £23 billion a year to the Exchequer. Partly in recognition of this, the then Chancellor provided funding for retraining and upskilling of women to help them get back out of the rut into which so many of them had fallen. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills ran the scheme from 2006 until 2011, when it was cancelled by the current Government. During that five-year period, the scheme improved the chances of more than 25,000 women, but how much better would it have been not to have lost those trained and capable women in the first place?

Not only have we not moved forward in recent years, we are going backwards. Lack of opportunities for women to get back into better paid jobs coupled with the reduction in available childcare places makes matters worse for mothers and puts pressure on the whole family. We could do so much better. Investment in our people and of course in our children—the very future of our society—should be a major priority for Governments. We need a simple and fair system of financial support towards childcare costs. We need more places to be made available and more employers to be encouraged or persuaded to provide genuinely flexible options so that parents of young children can continue to contribute both to the business within which they are engaged and to society more generally.

Good quality childcare is good for children’s development and good for families, enabling them to participate in society and the world of work in the way that is most suitable to them, and it is good for the economy, bringing, as it would, greater contributions in tax and national insurance and of course in spending power. Please tell me that this debate is not to be based on the same old arguments for the next 40 years.

Photo of Baroness Tyler of Enfield Baroness Tyler of Enfield Liberal Democrat 12:17 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, on securing this very welcome and timely debate. The issue of affordable childcare is so important that it is high time we addressed it directly in your Lordships’ House.

Affordable childcare is central to the current cost of living debate and concern about living standards. According to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, the cost of childcare has risen by 37% since 2008, more than double the rate of inflation, and at a time when real wages have been stagnant or falling. In short, any attempt to alleviate the pressure on family budgets will be incomplete if it fails to offer credible solutions to the current lack of affordable childcare.

Last year I had the privilege of chairing a Liberal Democrat policy working group that looked at the problems of people on low to middle incomes who try to juggle work and family responsibilities. The report we produced, A Balanced Working Life, looked in particular at childcare and benefited hugely from the experience of my noble friend Lady Walmsley. We sought to emphasise in our report not just the financial burden of expensive childcare and its impact on household budgets but its implications for the participation of women in the jobs market, child development and social mobility. I want to emphasise today the importance of looking at childcare in the round.

The loss of female employment after childbirth due to the current lack of flexible and affordable childcare is a serious loss of skills to the economy. Of course, some mothers choose to stay at home and look after their children, and that must always be a matter of individual choice based on their own circumstances. However, some people are denied that choice because the childcare simply is not there.

It is worth noting that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown female employment to be the key driver for increased income among low to middle-income families in the past 50 years. Not only is the lack of affordable childcare a limit on women’s job prospects and professional development, it can also leave some women in a more vulnerable situation if they find that they are unable to support themselves; for example, if a relationship breaks down or a partner dies. It does not have to be this way. Findings from the OECD show that employment among women with children is eight percentage points lower in the UK than in the top five performers in the OECD. If our competitors can establish policies that enable women to return to work, surely we can, too.

From a social mobility perspective, the importance of early years is unequivocal. We have heard many times in debates in this Chamber that, by the age of three, large disparities in child development have already become apparent between children from low-income backgrounds and their relatively wealthier peers, with these gaps widening further over time. If we are serious about ensuring that children from disadvantaged backgrounds reach their potential, guaranteeing access to high-quality and affordable childcare from a young age is the place to start.

The A Balanced Working Life report, to which I referred earlier, set four criteria against which we should judge the childcare market and how effectively it is working: affordability; quality; convenience and flexibility; and the adequacy of provision. Looking at the evidence, the childcare market does not stand up particularly well on any of these counts.

Let us take affordability, which is our prime concern today, and imagine that we are the parent of a one year-old child who has returned to work, five days a week, from 8 am to 6 pm, from financial necessity, just to help make ends meet. The 50 hours of childcare you require per week will set you back on average £11,000 per year, or £14,000 if you live in London. The burden is not eased once you child reaches school age. If your job requires working longer hours and your child attends a daily after-school club, you could be faced with a weekly bill of almost £50.

It is no surprise that two-thirds of parents say that the cost and inflexible nature of childcare has meant that they have been unable either to take up a job or to work longer hours. Once again, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, the comparisons with the rest of the OECD are unfavourable. The average British family spends 27% of their earnings on childcare, which is higher than every OECD nation, bar Switzerland.

I mention briefly a point made eloquently by the noble Baroness, Lady Massey: the position facing parents of disabled children who look for affordable, high-quality childcare. Even when that childcare is available, and in many places it is not, it is often available only at a substantial premium. A survey by Working Families found that around 13% of respondents were paying more than £10 per hour for childcare for their disabled child. With the huge personal toll that providing such intensive care takes on individuals and family life, the need for affordable, reliable care is acute.

On convenience and flexibility, it is clear that, for many parents, the availability of childcare is simply not compatible with their working hours. This is particularly pronounced for parents working atypical hours. Just 9% of local authorities in England reported having sufficient places for these children. More generally, with the typical school day finishing at 3 pm, the question of who will care for school-age children becomes particularly pronounced.

I have spent some time describing the challenges that we face, because I think it is important to be clear about the nature of the issue, but I want to finish by focusing on some of the good things that are already happening and what I would like to see happen in the future. I should like to highlight the community childcare hub model developed by the charity 4Children and currently being piloted in nine locations, with very welcome funding from government. The purpose of these hubs is to integrate local childcare services, increasing their accessibility. Whereas formerly parents have had to plan and co-ordinate their own childcare, working around fixed opening times and making independent arrangements with childminders to cover irregular working patterns, hubs bring together the full range of childcare options, including nurseries, childminders and after-school clubs. Working with the hub, parents are able to establish a complete, co-ordinated pattern of care for their children, and change that when their family or working hours change. Early feedback from these pilots is encouraging; they provide a promising model for shaping and co-ordinating the local childcare market.

I am proud that Liberal Democrats have given the issue of childcare real priority in difficult economic times. Thanks to Liberal Democrat policies, implemented through the coalition Government, three and four year-olds are now entitled to 15 free hours at Ofsted-inspected early-years settings which offer the early years foundation stage. Moreover, that entitlement has already been extended to 20% of two year-olds from the most deprived backgrounds, rising to 40% as of September.

Our A Balanced Working Life report focuses on ways of reducing the cost of childcare by building on that free entitlement, which I think is at the very heart of the matter. I am pleased to say that its recommendations were adopted as party policy at our party conference last September. Therefore, as a party we are committed, as resources allow, to increasing the free childcare entitlement on a stepped basis to: 10 hours per week for all babies between the ages of one and two; 15 hours for all two year-olds; 20 hours for children between three and four; and 25 hours for four to five year-olds.

I believe that those additional hours should be targeted at those families whose joint household income is below £100,000 per year. It is worth noting that that very small provision of 10 hours of free childcare for one to two year-olds will not only help mothers to keep in touch with the jobs market, which is crucial, but provide a bridge, which does not currently exist, between parental leave and the current free entitlement for two year-olds.

Speaking in a personal capacity, I hope that such policies will feature prominently in all party manifestos, including my own, as we move to the next election, but of course mine will not be the final voice on the issue. I simply end by saying that I observe, and note with much interest, the parallels between the Liberal Democrat party policies that I have just described and those that the Labour Party announced in late September, which also aim to extend free childcare for three to four year-olds from 15 hours to 25 hours. Perhaps a cross-party consensus is about to emerge—who knows?

Photo of The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds Bishop 12:26 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, I am very grateful indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, for initiating this debate and for expressing so clearly the issues involved and, indeed still more, for her determined advocacy in this House and elsewhere of the rights and needs of children, especially those children who are most at risk within our society.

Childcare provision in this country has grown like Topsy. As we have heard from a number of examples comparing our own experiences when we were young parents with those of our children as parents now, the need for childcare has become more and more crucial to both parents and children, and as a mainstay of our culture as well of our economy. However, there is such a complex system, which is part universal and part not, with childcare vouchers in their varied forms as an additional complication. Rather strangely, there is also the danger that universal credit will actually make the situation more, rather than less, complex.

There is indeed a very strong case for extending access to affordable childcare, but there is also a case for starting again to provide a coherent system. I wonder whether there ought to be something along the lines of an all-party commission—we have heard a good deal about how the parties are coming together on some of these issues—which could stand back a bit from the immense detail with which we can get involved and consider whether there is a more coherent long-term strategy for looking at childcare.

Within that context, I should like to stress two particular points. First is the need for childcare to be not only affordable but of high quality. There are some welcome signs. The increase in the proportion of paid daycare staff who hold at least a level 3 early years qualification from 54% in 2003 to 84% now is a very encouraging marker. Nevertheless, childcare remains a low-wage profession, and the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, that we have here a system that is at the same time expensive and low-wage, needs looking at carefully.

The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, cited the statistic that turnover of childcare staff is as much as three times that of a good school. This must have an effect on quality. I know from my own experience how much my own grandchildren value the particular relationships that they establish through the childcare that is provided for them, and how difficult it can be for them and their friends when there are changes in that childcare. That turnover of staff is something that needs to be combated. What strategy do the Government have for improving the status of the childcare profession and the requirement for adequate training and qualifications so that it is comparable, for example, to teaching or nursing?

Secondly, despite the increase in free provision, childcare is taking an increasing proportion of the income of our poorest families, especially of those in work. More than half the families living in poverty are in work. We need to ensure that the main beneficiary of childcare is the child. Children in poverty need the high-quality childcare that enables their parents to work and so contributes to the well-being of the whole family. It is perhaps particularly important for lone mothers. Gingerbread has recently published startling evidence of the improvement in the mental health of lone mothers when they enter employment.

The Government need to be careful in the financial arrangements they make to support lone mothers and others who are unemployed in accessing affordable, high- quality childcare to enable them to return to work. Yet the current proposal for a childcare element of universal credit provides 85% of costs from 2016 only if both parents earn above the income tax threshold. The lowest-income working parents will receive only 70% of childcare costs. If earnings fluctuate, as they do in so many of these families, it will be unclear to them whether they are entitled to 70% or 85%.

Through tax credits and housing benefit, families can now receive up to 90% of their childcare costs. Those in most need will see help reduced to 70% in 2016. How will the Government ensure that support for childcare costs is given to the families in most need? This is a key part of the weft and woof of our society in these days. It is something that needs and deserves the attention that we are paying to it in this debate today, but this needs to be extended to serious consideration in all our parties and in this House as a whole. I hope that this debate will be a developing part of a concentration on childcare that will stress its importance for families, for parents, for our society and, above all, for the children themselves.

Photo of Baroness King of Bow Baroness King of Bow Labour 12:34 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, I thought I would start with a reflection on what a strange breed working mothers are. All you really need to know about us is that we never sleep and continually stress over childcare. Between 1 am last night, when I gave the baby his last feed and started jotting down a few notes for this speech, and 5 am this morning, when my husband got up to feed him, I was woken six times. I have four children so I have no one else to blame but myself. It is my bed and I made it; I just wish I could lie in it, but that is a problem entirely of my own making.

What is not a problem of my own making is that when I drag myself out of said bed and complete several school runs, as I did this morning, and when I finally arrive at my two year-old’s nursery, I find that I must pay £1,100 per month if I want her to go full-time, five days a week. Despite the fact that I am, by definition, extraordinarily privileged because—look—I am standing in this gilded Chamber as a Member of Britain’s most prestigious LinkedIn group, the fact remains that I cannot afford £1,100 a month. So my daughter does not go full time; she goes half time—two and a half days a week. For that I pay £660 a month.

When I previously had two pre-school children, the cost for me to place them in the local children’s centre was £880 per child, or £1,760 per month. That is why, as my noble friend Lady Prosser said, once you have two pre-school kids it is simply impossible for most people to afford that childcare. At the time I had what most people would consider to be a really good job. I was senior policy adviser to the Prime Minister but still I could not afford to spend £1,760 a month on childcare. So I left Downing Street and got a job where I could afford more childcare. So what? Who cares? My point is this: if you are a woman working in the Prime Minister’s Office and your employment choices are governed by the lack of affordable childcare, then you know that women with fewer resources and fewer networks have no chance at all of being able to pay for childcare out of their salary. They are forced to stay at home or make arrangements for their children that put those children at risk and do not take care of them.

Many others can hold down a job only if they have a sympathetic boss. Working mothers and working parents, therefore, often become unfairly beholden to the individual views of their boss. I was in a situation—a lot of us have been—in which I had a sympathetic boss. My boss in Downing Street was, after all, the first Chancellor and then Prime Minister to recognise the importance of massively increasing funding for childcare. He recognised that it was a national investment, as important in terms of infrastructure—certainly to women—as, say, transport.

Notwithstanding that, when I arrived at the local childcare centre that I mentioned and found a sign on the gate saying, “Closed due to staff sickness”, I felt sick in my stomach because I was due to have my first one-to-one briefing with the Prime Minister on my policy area. It was Sod’s law. I arrived in Downing Street with a 16 month-old on my hip and was shown in to see Gordon Brown, who had a face like thunder. To be fair, he often has a face like thunder, so I was not entirely sure if it was because I had a baby on my hip. However, I knew that I would not be pleased if a member of my staff turned up with a baby on their hip for a meeting. The baby started to cry, I was jiggling him and when I turned back, Gordon had disappeared. I thought, “Oh my God! He’s just walked out and is going to sack me. He is outraged and I do not really blame him that much”. Then his head popped out from the side of his desk. He was on his hands and knees and he said, “Maybe your son will like this little train set. My sons play with it”. He pushed it round and round for 10 minutes, and then said, “I think he’s settled now; we can get down to business”.

The point is that even though he was a sympathetic boss, let me get away with bringing the baby into the office, presided over a sea change in funding for childcare, and created and funded Sure Start, the fact is that now we see the gains falling back. Too often we see Sure Start being used as a political football or, indeed, not being used at all. When Labour was in power, Michael Gove said, “The Tories may well be wary of Sure Start because they believe it is the nationalisation of childcare”. If childcare is affordable and of high quality, I frankly do not mind who provides it, whether it is the voluntary sector, the private sector or the state. In reality, it is only the Government who can ensure that affordable, quality childcare is available to all children who need it. I thought that the point made by my noble friend Lady Prosser about the role that trade unions have played in providing childcare was important. I am reminded of the school run that I do each morning. Every day I pass a small blue plaque at the bottom of my street saying that this is where Sylvia Pankhurst set up the first crèche for working women—those otherwise known as the matchstick girls. Of course, times have changed since then, but not enough. Although we have poured in that money—and I recognise some of the very important points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin—we need to be smarter about how we invest it. We need to do as well as or better than our European competitors. However, I imagine that as well as spending the money more smartly, if we are to deal with all those children—and parents—who need childcare we are also going to have to bite the bullet and invest more.

This is where we come to the nub of this debate. What is the case for increasing access to affordable childcare? We have the economic case and we know that it is worth £15 billion to £23 billion per annum to the Exchequer, but what is the social case? In my few remaining minutes, I want to talk about how childcare impacts on tackling inequality and on improving social mobility, and how it can also improve parenting across social classes. I hope that we will also take note of the early intervention debate and how we can improve outcomes.

Let us remember that childcare is first and foremost about care of the child, and the best way to take care of children who would otherwise be at risk is to invest in their early years. I want to quote briefly from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. It says that,

“by age 3, there are already large gaps in cognitive and other areas of development between children with high-income or well educated parents and those with low-income or less well educated parents. These gaps get harder and more expensive to tackle as children get older”.

The point is that if we cannot come to a political consensus in this country that we need to invest in this area then we will just spend more and more of our money at the other end of the system in crisis, and that is not an intelligent way for us to spend our money. The OECD has stated that greater spend and higher enrolment in early education is correlated with increased social mobility. Universal, affordable and high-quality childcare helps in two ways. First, it lifts maternal employment rates and, secondly, it improves child development for the most disadvantaged children. I hope that we will note the report of the Early Action Task Force, entitled The Deciding Time—Prevent Today, or Pay Tomorrow, which reinforces those points.

In summary, investment in early years education and childcare is possibly the single most effective policy that government can implement. That is why I am proud of Labour’s vision on this issue, and I am glad to hear that we may have cross-party consensus here. However, over the long term what we need is more radical than what we have heard mentioned. Over the long term, we need free universal pre-school childcare. As Labour’s shadow Minister for Childcare, Lucy Powell MP, has stated, there is a clear economic argument for it: it will pay for itself over time.

Therefore, my only question for the Minister is a big, overarching one: does she agree with Labour—and, by the sound of it, the Liberal Democrats—that in the long term we must deliver free universal pre-school childcare? I hope that she does. I would certainly get a bit more sleep at night if she were able to consider that.

Photo of Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope Chair, Information Committee (Lords) 12:44 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, it is, as always, a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, and her very powerful contribution. The vignette of the former Prime Minister playing with a train set in Downing Street goes a long way to explain a lot of the paralysis that occurred in the Labour Government. I also want to say to her that she is very welcome in bringing the younger members of her family into this House. If I knew more about it, I would do more to help her, but she sets a very good example and I hope that she will feel at home in blending her important work here with her important family duties. She has made an important speech and her personal experience illuminates the issues in this debate very well.

I am pleased to be sandwiched on these Benches between my noble friends Lady Tyler and Lady Walmsley, who both know a great deal more about this issue than I do. I can therefore indulge some of my more esoteric interests, which focus on the contribution that childcare can make to in-work poverty in this country. We are going to have to face up to in-work poverty much more squarely in the middle to longer term in this country and I am convinced that childcare can contribute to strengthening work incentives and getting families in a position to trade themselves out of the indebtedness and the poverty that we all see.

There have been some powerful speeches, one or two of which have mentioned issues relating to the long term as opposed to the short term. In the long term, if we do not have a qualified workforce coming through to generate wealth, then the dependency ratios that we face in this country will cost an enormous amount of public resource to deal with properly. If we do not increase the life chances of people at all levels of the current income distribution in our nation, we will be storing up enormous problems for ourselves in the long term.

Childcare increases, as I say, the opportunities to work; it increases the life chances of children and adds to their potential. I am not thinking of young people merely as economic units but, if they have better qualifications and a better start in life, they will carry more weight in generating the wealth that will, it is to be hoped, pay my pension in due course. I therefore declare an interest to that extent.

Childcare also reduces child poverty. However, the current Government have next to no chance of achieving the 2010-20 child poverty targets, and that is a matter of concern. I was interested to read the important work that has just been carried out by the Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty, to which I shall return in a moment. Mr Alan Milburn, the distinguished chair of that important organisation, pointed out in his recent report that two-thirds of children in poverty in 2010-11 lived in working homes. That is completely new. I have been interested in these issues for more than 30 years and we have never before been in a position where that is the case. It is not going to get better any time soon unless we address it with some urgency.

I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, who is an acknowledged expert, and compliment her on the tone in which she introduced the debate, which was very useful. We are striking allegiances as we go along, which shows viability, and the way in which we approach these matters is important. My noble friends Lady Tyler and Lady Walmsley did an enormous amount of work in our Liberal Democrat working group, which produced a viable document. I hope that other colleagues across the party divide will take the time to look at it because I certainly found it valuable.

I wish to make a point about co-ordination, which perhaps will come more easily from me because I come from Scotland. We need to remember that tax rates are set, rather obviously, on a UK basis but that childcare policy is now largely—certainly in Scotland—a devolved matter. We need to be careful, therefore, that the context in which some of these policy changes are being made has been properly thought through. I should like an assurance from the Treasury Bench —I know my noble friend understands these issues perfectly well—that the necessary steps are being taken to make sure that there are no surprises in the different tax positions being taken at a national United Kingdom level and in the devolved legislatures. It is important to make sure that the interface is kept as efficient as it can be.

Turning to the short term, I was struck by the evidence that was submitted by the Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty in response to the Government’s current plans on childcare. I know that this is a cross-departmental issue and that the Treasury has an obvious interest in all of this, but I would really like, more than anything else, to take away from this debate an assurance from the Minister that that report, submitted by Mr Alan Milburn and his distinguished group of commissioners, will be absolutely and thoroughly studied. He has made a number of recommendations, two of which I think deserve particular attention. It would be possible to switch some of the resources— £750 million, £800 million, whatever was announced in the Budget earlier this year—to some of the lower echelons, particularly for low-income families who may be able to take advantage of universal credit, whenever that happens; I am not holding my breath for it to happen any time soon.

Mr Alan Milburn has suggested that rather than having a ceiling of £150, 000 you could make it £120,000, save some money and switch it into putting an 85% support level within universal credit. That makes perfect sense. It would cost no extra money at all—the money is already in the plan, and from a social justice point of view, that is an incontrovertible idea that needs to be addressed. If it is rejected, then I, for one, would like to hear the reasons why.

The second thing that Mr Milburn said, and I agree with him, is that within universal credit the current plans have got a split, a 70% or 80% cliff edge. He makes some valid criticisms which I absolutely associate myself with, and that deserves an answer as well. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds also made some important points, and Barnardos has made some valid criticisms, with options for change which are entirely reasonable and need to be studied to help us understand how we can deal with some of these issues going forward.

I remind the House that the current tax credit levels of childcare were originally set in 2005 at £175 for one child and £300 for more than one child. If the current plans hold, they will exist all the way through to 2016 at that level. The Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty estimates that by the time we get to 2016—there have been various estimates about the increases in childcare that have occurred and are obviously evident—childcare costs will increase by 80%. All the powerful points that have been made earlier by colleagues indicate that it will get worse between now and 2016 rather than better.

My final point, which I have mentioned glancingly, is that I am very concerned that universal credit will not now beavailable to low-income households until the end of the next Parliament. That might be a slightly pessimistic view but I am well known for my pessimism, especially when it comes to IT projects and central government. Will my noble friend go back to the department and say “Have we got some contingency planning for some of this?”. I agree with universal credit, I think the architecture is perfectly good and I have been a stout supporter of the principle. However, if we are really thinking of a 2017 introduction and a 2018 rollout for everybody, we really need to make contingency plans now to deal with this issue if that is what actually happens.

In the long term, we need to engender the concept that this should be a core public service available to everyone, and I agree with everything that has been said in that regard. In the short term, we need to seriously consider switching resources from some of the money that has already been allocated to support the needs of low-income families in work in the United Kingdom.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell Baroness Bakewell Labour 12:55 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, I welcome this debate enormously and pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for initiating it. I agree with what has been said so far, that this is a core undertaking for our society at this time.

I pay tribute to the previous speakers for their detailed knowledge of the complexity and sheer bureaucracy involved in trying to acquire childcare at all. However, I thought that I would take a longer view and look at how we got into this mess in the first place—of patchy, expensive and unsatisfactory provision, which must be addressed. I go back a long way. For the generation before mine there was no childcare. My mother left school at 13 to help look after her seven siblings. The women of my generation who went to university and certainly wanted to have jobs made do with au pairs—untrained, unchecked young students from abroad who had to be given time to study and who “babyminded” for a few hours each day. They were not always satisfactory. One of them filled the wastepaper baskets in my home with syringes, another started to wear my clothes when I was not there and a third set the house on fire. This form of childcare is not recommended.

However, in the 1960s, John Bowlby developed his attachment theory, which was an extremely important part of the research into childcare. He wrote Separation: Anxiety—what a phrase. This enormously important research seeded a sense of guilt across the whole female population about their responsibilities to their children. Before then we had not realised how guilty we should feel about the way we treated our children.

From another direction came Dr Spock and Penelope Leach, who told us how important it was for children to be at the centre of family life. They became the focus of attention and concern to a far greater extent than they had ever been in the past—indeed, that was certainly not the case in Victorian times—so we have a collision course between child-focused families and guilty parents.

Women will rush into the workplace more and more; there is no going back on that social trend, which is the most important one for women that has occurred in my lifetime, but public policy is slow in catching up with that trend. Eventually, flexible parental leave and maternity leave were introduced, so progress has been made. We now have job sharing, LA funding and the provision of childcare places. Progress is slow and, for historical reasons, is patchy. No one has really taken on board the fact that this is a large-scale, ongoing social change that cannot be defied. We have to go forward. However, in some regards we appear to be going backwards. It is amazing that that could happen after a history of some 50 or 60 years of progress.

I am glad to see that a plaque has been unveiled to Mrs Pankhurst and acknowledge her achievements in the area of childcare, but that occurred a long time ago. There are now 575 fewer Sure Start establishments than was the case previously. That serious and important loss will increase the anxiety and guilt felt by mothers looking after children. We are seeing the costs go up all the time. That, again, creates anxiety for women. I hope that it also creates anxiety for fathers. It is interesting to note that this debate is dominated by women recounting their experiences, anxieties and guilt. Can we make this a social issue which needs to be resolved for everyone?

We have heard about the importance of this issue in terms of social mobility and its value to the economy. There is no doubt that the direction of travel must be sustained. I simply ask the Government to endorse the fact that this major social change has to go forward. Will they please resume the progress that has been made so far, take on board the status of this issue, pledge resources and planning to it and remove the bureaucracy and problems that have stood in the way of women and which continue to make them feel anxious and guilty? They should not feel that way.

Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Liberal Democrat 1:00 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Massey—who I would also called my noble friend—on introducing this debate. At a time when the country needs all those who wish to work and are capable of working to be enabled to do so, there is a very hard-headed argument for providing families with high-quality childcare when and where they need it. Working parents juggle the demands of work and family life precisely because they know that poverty will hold their children back and will not contribute to their welfare and happiness. Although enabling both parents to work if they wish is a good thing, the main issue for me is the development, physical and mental health, and happiness of the children. This comes first. As the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, said, there is a good child-development argument for enabling children to come together under the guidance of properly trained people to learn to socialise, to make decisions, to speak and listen, and to concentrate, as well as to develop their physical skills and enhance their emotional and cultural development. This is usually done by childminders or in groups in early years settings run by other professionals, but let us not forget that it can also be done informally in community playgroups and parent-led co-operative childcare groups, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington.

Research has shown that children benefit from high-quality settings where the staff are well trained but can be harmed by spending long periods in poor-quality settings. Sadly, the poorest-quality settings are to be found in the most deprived areas, where the children desperately need the stimulus and care that is found in a good setting to compensate for their poverty of experience at home. However, research also shows emphatically that infants with secure attachment histories become better adjusted and more skilled at solving problems, seeking assistance, dealing with difficulties and tolerating frustration in later life. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, would agree with that. I also agree with her that a happy mother means a happy baby—we need to achieve both. We need to balance the child’s need to spend enough time with its principal carer, with the opportunity for loving, touching and interaction, with the child’s need to socialise with other children and receive the stimulation he needs to develop, as well as with the family’s need for sufficient income to keep them out of poverty. This is quite a difficult balancing act.

One has to accept the statistics which that show that, despite the large amounts of public subsidy that are, rightly, put into providing early years education, the cost of childcare to some parents in this country is relatively high. I say “some parents” because many of them solve the problem by using loving grandparents and other family members, who generously give up their freedom in later life in order to look after their grandchildren for nothing. Of course, most of them love doing it and provide love as well as care to the children.

I also use the word “some” because there are—we have to accept this—thousands of families in this country who benefit from the 15 hours of free entitlement and also receive a subsidy of 70% or more on any additional hours purchased or receive a tax refund on what they spend. I welcome all that. When you look at those facts you have to realise that this Government, and the previous one, have done an awful lot to help families to enable both parents to go out to work. So how is it that costs are so high? Some believe that it is because the mandatory ratios of adults to children are low compared to other countries, apart from the Nordic ones. I do not agree with that. I am one of those who believe that we have got the ratios right and they should not be changed. It is interesting that the sector feels that too, despite the fact that it would stand to gain if the ratios were to be increased. Indeed, many in the sector choose not to use the higher ratios which the law currently allows them to use in the interests of providing a high-quality service.

I have a theory about why costs are high. It is because a large number of parents are unable to resist the lure of 25 hours of free childcare in a primary school, so they send the child to school as soon as he turns four rather than keeping him in a nursery setting, where the free entitlement is only 15 hours. One can hardly blame them but the result is that nursery settings have lost all the children for whom they were legally allowed to use higher ratios and are left to make their money only from the younger children, to care for whom they need to employ more staff. Whatever the reason, we need to do something to help hard-pressed families afford good childcare if both parents wish to work and can find a job. The danger of providing additional cash benefits or tax vouchers is that the costs will simply spiral to take up the new money and there will be no improvement either in quality or affordability. So what do we do to keep costs down without compromising quality?

From these Benches, our solution, as outlined by my noble friend Lady Tyler of Enfield, is to increase the number of free-hours entitlement, thereby decreasing the number of hours for which a family needs to pay. This would soon pay for itself, as the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, has pointed out, through the greater economic activity of both parents. It would also bring down costs because nurseries could get back the four year-olds, for whom the adult-child ratios are higher. We and the Labour Party are both proposing that, at four years-old, the child would get 25 hours of free nursery entitlement. We believe that under-fives—indeed, under-sixes—thrive best in a play-based environment, in which their healthy and happy development is the main objective, rather than whether they can read and write at four, and where their development is supervised by trained early years professionals. There is much evidence that children who start formal education at seven catch up with others who started at five by the time they reach nine and overtake them by the time they reach 11. This is because their development and their learning have gone hand in hand so that what they learn is more firmly embedded. As to those families who rely on two incomes to survive the child’s first couple of years, I would like to see an increase in the parental leave benefits to prevent mothers feeling that they have to go back to full-time work too soon for the good of their own health and the well-being of their child.

The other major issue is, of course, the quality of provision and the qualifications of the staff in early years settings. I share the concerns of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds—we will miss him in this House when he comes to retire in about a month’s time, and I am sure the rest of the House will share my wishes for him to have a very happy retirement. I therefore welcome the proposals for a new simplified system of qualifications bringing in the level 3 early educator and the graduate early years teacher, although I regret the proposal that the latter should not have qualified teacher status and conditions like other teachers. However, I am not clear how the Government plan to ensure that these well qualified people work in areas of high deprivation where their skills are most needed. Funding through the different schemes is weighted towards very low-income households, who can receive the vast majority of the approximate £9,000 per year cost of an average childcare place while families in the middle, on an average income of approximately £32,000, receive only £2,500. Although lower-income families receive a great deal more funding, there is no clear way of ensuring that those children are getting the best-quality care. Perhaps my noble friend can say how that is to be achieved.

I am also concerned about inspection. Last year, Ofsted spent £21.1 million visiting and inspecting around 55,000 childminders, at a cost of nearly £400 per year per childminder. Sir Michael Wilshaw admitted at the House of Commons Education Select Committee that,

“we need to think about the future and how we inspect childminding institutions. I do not think we can carry on doing it as we are doing it at the moment: every time a youngster goes into a childminding setting, we have to inspect. That is unsustainable”.

He also admitted, in my hearing at a meeting of the APPG for Education, that the current inspections of childminders are a desultory and tick-box event and have little to do with the quality of care being provided as long as it is above the minimum the law requires. Perhaps this is the real reason why the Government do not plan to insist that Ofsted inspects all childminders signed up to one of the new agencies. I would therefore be very interested in how quality is to be guaranteed.

I share the concerns of others about disabled children. It is common knowledge that many parents of disabled children are unable to find appropriate childcare at all. Even when they do so, they have to pay a premium for it. I am aware that local authorities receive additional money for disabled children, but that does not seem to filter through to the right places to ensure that parents pay no more than any other family. I suspect that it is not the legislation that is going wrong but the practice. I would be interested to know whether the Government have any proposals to ensure that that money does what it is supposed to do.

Photo of Lord Graham of Edmonton Lord Graham of Edmonton Labour 1:10 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, it is a joy and a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness. Our Thursday debates are very precious to me because one hears more about the background of Members of this House—which, quite frankly, is a counterargument to those who talk disparagingly about the make-up of this House. I thoroughly enjoyed the last speech. When I reflect on all the speeches I have heard today, first, I very much want to congratulate my noble friend Lady Massey for providing the peg that allowed so many noble Lords to get these issues off their chests and to recognise, as I do, that no Bench in this House is entitled to say, “This is our issue”. I made the point in my notes that everything that could have been said has been, but not by everybody. The more one hears of contributions from colleagues around the House, the more respect one has for the fact that they have made it to this place, which is of course a great achievement.

I can speak of childcare in the 1920s and 1930s because I was there. My mam and dad had five children. I was the eldest. Dad was on the dole from 1930 to 1939, when war broke out. In fact, it was not the dole but worse—the means test. The means that you had were tested to see if they were right. In 1937, I remember speaking to mam and dad after that test. They had 37 shillings a week to look after seven people. A factor in that was that the princely sum of two shillings—that is, 10 pence—was allocated to each child. I come from a background that was not poverty stricken but where we managed because everybody else was in the same boat where I lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I survived and had a very interesting life. I am proud now to have this platform here.

The Minister who will reply to this debate—whom I respect very much—will have her own contribution to make, but I have learnt from my experience and that of other people of the enormous difference in circumstances now. When my mam had to look after seven people, the question of her going out to work never figured. The way it was, if you had five children and seven in the house, your place was there to look after them. One reflects upon the opportunities now, and my noble friend Lady King of Bow was able to illustrate just how wide the gap has grown from my circumstances to hers. That means that, as in the very first words of my noble friend Lady Massey, it is the responsibility not just for this but of every Government to take seriously what has been said here.

When I moved on into the 1950s, I married and had two children. We were not hard up, but the vogue of going out to work certainly came about and was there. That vogue has grown and grown. I read of the circumstances of young married women who try to do what the Government urge them to: get a job, and get out and work. Then one looks at what is available to enable them to do that. All parties are guilty of not looking at the two ends of that spectrum. We are very good at recognising the concerns of the elderly—pensions, grants and so on—but not this sector for one reason or other, bearing in mind that we are talking about flesh and blood, and the future of our society. As my noble friend Lady Bakewell said very well, how did we get into this mess? The priorities need to be readjusted. The Minister has a responsibility to do that because she will speak to her colleagues and be briefed by civil servants. She has her own experience to bring to the House, but she has a major job to take from this debate the fact that priorities need to be readjusted. There need to be opportunities like that.

When I looked at the marvellous brief produced for this debate by the Library, I was interested by the words of the Minister, Elizabeth Truss. She said:

“Every parent wants the best for their child. They expect childcare to be safe and of good quality, because high quality childcare promotes children’s development in the early years. The availability of affordable, safe and stimulating care is crucial in supporting families by enabling parents to work. It is equally crucial to the development of babies and young children as the foundation for their future success at school and in life”.

How many people could argue against that as a statement of aspiration? She goes on:

“That is why this Government is determined to ensure that the system delivers high quality and good value for children, parents and the tax-payer. I am clear that we can do better. We need consistently high quality nursery education and childcare that attracts the best possible staff”.

No one would disagree with that but only the Minister—that is, the Government, with their priorities—has the opportunity to do something about it. We can stand here, preach, reminisce and urge, but the power to reorder the priorities in the Budget is not in our hands.

At the bottom of the briefing, there is a statement by a journalist, Kathy Gyngell, who states:

“High quality affordable universal child care is a myth and Elizabeth Truss has, unwittingly, exploded it. That’s why her deregulation proposals have offended our sensibilities”.

She goes on to make her case, stating:

“It’s hardly worth a typical second earner going out to work more than a couple of days a week, because the family will be barely better off”.

One has reached the stage where exhortations to work are made by Ministers, policies are created and rules and regulations refashioned, yet the wherewithal to do it is—I will not say denied, because it is acknowledged, but it is not made available.

The debate today has sent a powerful message: first, that Members of this House have their feet on the ground; they have experience and a contribution to make. I hope that when the Minister reports to her colleagues on the value of this debate, she will be successful in reorganising the Government’s priorities. I repeat that we are not talking about bankers, journalists, police or anyone else, but about our own flesh and blood. They have the opportunity to make progress, but they need the Government to take initiatives in this matter. I rest my case.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Ely Baroness Morgan of Ely Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 1:21 pm, 9th January 2014

I begin by thanking my noble friend Lady Massey for securing this important debate on a matter which is having an effect on families up and down the country. I have just returned from two weeks of looking after my 10 year-old and my 12 year-old for the holidays. I am utterly exhausted and have come back to work for a little rest, so I cannot begin to imagine what my noble friend Lady King is going through with her three children and her brand-new baby. I welcome TJ to the world, and I am sure that noble Lords will all join me in congratulating her on the birth of her new child.

I therefore start by paying tribute to all the mums and dads throughout the country and the armies of childminders and pre-school teachers, who are crucial in the early years of a child’s development. Having a child is an expensive business, but under this Government it is a more expensive business than ever. The decision as to whether to stay at home is of course an individual one, and rightly so, but it is based on a number of factors. Today, I fear that that choice is curtailed for many who have often been highly trained and highly educated by the state—people who were making a valuable contribution to the workplace—but for whom the cost of childcare simply does not make it worth their while to go back to work. They drop out of the workforce, they lose their opportunities for promotion and they often lose confidence, and so do not go back into the workforce at the level that they came from.

I reflect on the point made by my noble friend Lady Bakewell about the guilt that mums have to carry when they work. This was brought home to me very clearly when I was an MEP. One day I came home on a beautiful summer’s day, I had my three year-old and one year-old in the garden and I saw a wasp lying on the ground. The wasp was in trouble; he had hurt his wing, or something. I moved the wasp so that my daughter would not put it in her mouth and my son said, “What are you doing?”. I said, “Look, he has hurt his wing”. “Oh yes, he has hurt his wing, he wants his mother”, he said. So I said, “You go and look for his mother”. Two minutes later he came back. He said, “Mum, I have looked everywhere for the wasp’s mother. I think she has gone to work”. That is when you feel bad.

Many people with young families who are already contending with higher fuel bills and transport costs are really struggling now with these rocketing prices—30% up, as we have heard, five times more than pay since the coalition Government came to power. It is worth spelling that out in financial terms. As we have heard, the average cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two is £11,000, £211 a week. Let us not forget that the average salary in this country is £23,000 before tax, so half the money is supposed to go on childcare. That is double the amount that people spend on a mortgage. That is just for one child. We need women to engage in the workforce to increase economic activity, because this is not just a massive financial burden for parents, it is a burden for the wider economy, which is dragged down by the fact, according to the Resolution Foundation, as we have heard, that fewer women with children work in the UK than in many of our competitor countries. In a survey of mothers carried out for Asda, 70% of stay-at-home mums said that they would like to go back to work but they would be worse off in the current climate because of the cost of childcare.

We need to use the talents of everyone if we are to succeed as an economy and keep social security bills down. Making it easy for women to combine work and family is essential to the nation’s standard of living. The OECD states that there is a need for fertility rates to reach 2.1 births on average if we are to remain economically stable. Studies have proved that women have fewer babies in countries where it is too difficult to combine childcare with work.

In the late 1990s, birth rates in Britain were at an all-time low, with 1.6 babies per woman in 2001, but by 2010, the birth rate had risen to its highest level in 40 years, reaching two per woman. More British-born mothers had more children, in addition to immigrant mothers. Why? Because every signal that the Labour Government sent out was that babies and children are welcome in our society. Government childcare and tax credits were a key factor. Maternity leave doubled under the Labour Government, paternity leave was introduced and mothers were for the first time able to request flexible working hours. Child benefit rose and child tax credits added greatly to family incomes. Childcare costs for the poorest were covered up to 80% by credits, with free nurseries for three and four year-olds and 3,500 Sure Start children centres. Let us not forget that the child trust fund gave new babies a nest egg.

A lot of that has changed. We have recently had a triple whammy combination that has formed a crisis. We have fewer places available, despite an increase in demand, a cut in support to parents and an increase in costs. That has led to an economic burden which, of course, has hit the poorest hardest. As we have heard from my noble friend Lady Prosser, the Government’s cuts have led to the closure of 576 Sure Start Centres, a key plank in giving support to those mothers from the poorest communities.

According to Ofsted, there are 35,000 fewer childcare places, despite the increase in demand. The basic rules of economics suggest that to bring prices down you need to increase supply, but this Government are doing exactly the opposite. There is evidence to suggest that the Government’s proposed agency approach to childminders will push prices up even further. Can the Minister give us a guarantee that it will not?

The squeezed middle are also carrying an enormous burden. The average person earning £23,000 would be left with less than £100 a week to pay for everything, if they had already paid for their essentials of housing, fuel, transport and food—no holidays, no treats and not enough to cover one child’s weekly nursery bill. That is the reality of the working poor; it is the cost of living crisis. If a mother decided to work part-time on an average wage, she would have to work from Monday to Thursday to pay off the weekly childcare cost; it is hardly worth going to work.

The problem does not stop when the child starts school. Many parents are now willing their children to grow up fast and start school to relieve the intense cost pressure. I am one of those mothers who spend half their life trying to organise their children’s pick-ups and drop-offs at pre-school and after-school care. Parents need quality and reasonably priced flexible childcare if they are to manage to hold down a job as well.

The Labour Party recognises that the issue of childcare is fundamental to this cost of living discussion. That is why Labour has a costed pledge, funded by an increase in the bank levy, to extend free childcare for three and four year-olds from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents of three and four year-olds. In addition, another measure that will have parents up and down the country heaving a sigh of relief is that the Labour Government will introduce a legal guarantee to access to wraparound care from 8 am to 6 pm at primary schools in England—we need to note that that is just for England. This is reinstating a programme that proved successful under the previous Labour Government, whereby, in 2010, 99% of schools in England were providing access to before and after-school childcare. This programme was abandoned by David Cameron, effectively ending that guarantee of a core offer of activities from 8 am until 6 pm for school-age children. Does the Minister regret the decline in wraparound childcare on this Government’s watch? Will Ministers now support Labour’s pledge for a primary childcare guarantee?

There is a proposal from the Government that things will change in 2016 but that is too late for mums and dads of today. What will happen today, tomorrow and the next day? By 2016, their children will be in school and it will be too late. There are three fundamental problems which have been addressed unsatisfactorily by the Government relating to childcare: the costs have gone up, the places have gone down and there have been cuts in support to parents. The Government really need to get a grip on the issue of childcare and demonstrate that they are on the side of children and families. All the current evidence suggests that that they are out of touch and have no concept of the difficulties facing families today.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development) 1:31 pm, 9th January 2014

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for tabling today’s debate on access to affordable childcare and for introducing it so effectively. She has a long track record in fighting for the rights of children and families, as I know from sharing with her the position of trustee for UNICEF, a position which my noble friend Lady Walmsley also held. I also thank all noble Lords who have spoken in today’s debate. As ever, this has been a very powerful debate and we all agree that the cost and quality of childcare matters. As the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey and Lady Bakewell, my noble friend Lady Jenkin and others have pointed out, life has changed over the past few decades. Of course men and women have long worked but as social and economic patterns have changed, so too has the way that children are brought up. Increasingly, from the Second World War onwards, women took up paid work and, what is more, nuclear families often lived away from other family members. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said, we have here a large-scale social change.

Many of us here had the experience of the huge challenges of arranging paid childcare, as the first ones to do so in our families. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, thought that I might inject my own experience and I must not disappoint him. I recall my experience as a lecturer at UCL, returning to work with a baby and finding that I would have needed to reserve a place in the nursery at the moment of conception, not birth. My baby accompanied me, and I kept him as quiet as I could for the first few months until he secured his place. I knew to act faster when I became pregnant the next time. Although that then almost obliterated my salary, I had a very good and wonderful workplace nursery.

However, I identify with those who felt guilt, as expressed by the noble Baronesses, Lady Massey, Lady Bakewell, Lady Morgan, my noble friend Lady Jenkin and others. I still have this image of Munch’s “The Scream” from when my second child’s face was one large, gaping, wailing hole as I left him one day in the nursery when he was aged about one. I wondered what I must be doing to him. I also recall the black looks of my male academic colleagues at the Wellcome institute as I had to leave work when the nursery closed at 5.30 pm, but their wives were looking after their children and they did not have to worry about it. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, mentioned, I then had to carry my tired children home and the evenings were no fun.

I recall when I was first here phoning home and speaking to my then six year-old daughter, to discover that her eight year-old brother was in possession of a power drill—and did it matter? No adult was at home and the person supposedly looking after them had taken my other son to something. I was phoning from just outside the Chamber while waiting for a vote and the noble Lord, Lord Peston, was on the other phone.

He heard my desperate reaction as I heard about the power drill and reassured me that they would survive, and they did—but they might not have. So I am extremely familiar, as so many here are, with what this actually means.

It is now commonplace that both parents will return to work before their children are fully grown. I am glad also that we have made the moves we have to make sure that there is shared parental leave. We are not talking here only of children who are under school age but of those going through school as well, including their holidays. Of course, not all parents will want to place their children in childcare and parents should have that choice, but for those who return to work who, as I say, are increasing in numbers, it is essential that they have access to good quality childcare. I am sure that we all agree with that and I do not quite follow the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, when there had been so much agreement across the Chamber. We all understand the significance of this.

Childcare is obviously particularly important for enabling mothers to work, as the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, my noble friend Lady Walmsley and others have said. That is because it remains the case that the primary responsibility for children is seen as being the mother’s, rightly or wrongly. We know from many surveys that women still carry out the bulk of caring for children and for the home so, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, said, this is all part of a long process of establishing more equality for women.

The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, asked whether we are facing a childcare crunch. I do not agree; what I said about my own experience and what others have said indicate that as this social change goes on, childcare has been a challenge all the way down and continues to be so. It was so under the previous Government and I pay them credit for what they did. We have been building on that and are taking a number of positive steps that are beginning to demonstrate an impact but, as the noble Baroness and others all said, all Governments have faced this challenge and will do so. We all, from whatever party, need to continue to address this. It is best to be working together on this, in my view.

Research shows that more than half of stay-at-home mothers would prefer to be in paid employment and that nearly a quarter of employed mothers would like to increase their working hours—although they can do so only if they can arrange reliable, convenient, affordable, and good quality childcare, as the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, and others made very clear.

As anyone knows if they have left a child in care, knowing that they are well looked after is absolutely vital. It is complex and not easy to leave your child with another but when you see that they are safe and happy, that is of key importance. When I saw my daughter gazing with adoration at the wonderful person who looked after her, that too made me happy. My noble friend Lady Walmsley is quite right about the benefits of good quality care. As I listened to the noble Baroness, Lady King, I also recalled that when my daughter was about seven days old that same young lady, who is now a university student, left a particularly large wet patch on Paddy Ashdown’s carpet here. I was trying to maintain my career, which meant that my daughter came with me, so that swam into mind. I left very rapidly then and this may be the first evidence that my noble friend Lord Ashdown has that I, or she, was responsible for that wet patch.

The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, mentioned that childcare is a low-wage profession with high turnover. We agree with the noble Baroness that the quality of the workforce is key; evidence shows that this is extremely important. The Government have introduced the early years teacher status from September 2013, in recognition of the impact of graduate teachers on children’s development. We have introduced apprenticeships and bursaries of £3,000 to increase the number of staff educated at least to A-level and to have English and maths GCSE. I learnt quite a bit from the person who was caring for my daughter about how to bring up three children who were close in age and in competition with each other. At that stage she had been taught but had not had her own children, which she now has.

We all agree that we need to aspire to having good quality childcare available at a reasonable cost, and that it is vital that we get that right. Noble Lords have also emphasised the economic benefits that this would bring to the country, as my noble friend Lord Kirkwood and others have emphasised, as well as to the families themselves. We realise the significance of that.

As I say, we recognise what the previous Administration achieved, but all would recognise—this has run through the debate—that more needs to be done. That is why we have taken a number of steps to seek to reduce parents’ childcare bills. In September 2010 the Government increased the free entitlement to early education for three and four year-olds to 15 hours a week—570 hours per year—up from 12.5 hours a week. My noble friend Lord Kirkwood and others are right to emphasise the importance of early years education. It so happens that early years education can also help in terms of childcare, but I would not necessarily conflate the two.

However,96% of three and four year-olds are now accessing a free place. As my noble friend Lady Tyler mentioned, from September this entitlement was extended to around 130,000 disadvantaged two year-olds, and it will be extended still further from September 2014 to two year-olds from working households on low incomes, for whom the costs of childcare are such a burden, and more than 260,000 children will be eligible. My noble friend Lady Walmsley stressed the importance of that educational provision.

The total funding for early years education has also increased by more than £1 billion over the life of this Parliament. My noble friend Lady Jenkin is right about the proportion of GDP that we put into this yet, as she emphasised, we still see the challenges in the cost both to the state and to families. The noble Baroness, Lady King, talked about universal free childcare. As I say, there is universal childcare for three and four year-olds, and the Government are proud of extending that to 40% of two year-olds. There are arguments for extending that further, of course, but the Department for Education estimates that universal full-time childcare for children aged one to four would cost £18 billion. She seemed to indicate support for that by her reference to her colleague in the Commons but it sounds from what the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, indicated that that is not actually an agreed position. That kind of provision was made in some countries, obviously—I remember visiting nurseries in Russia—but it sounds as if the Labour Party has not signed up to that.

Photo of Baroness King of Bow Baroness King of Bow Labour

I would like to clarify that the shadow childcare Minister has said that this is an aspiration to which we are attached. It is a vision that we recognise we should work towards, and I hope that perhaps all sides of this Chamber agree with that.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

I appreciate that clarification. I am sure that that is something that a lot of us would ideally wish to see.

However, on its own, simply providing more funding will not halt the long-term increase in childcare costs or provide the childcare places that we need for the future. Nurseries find it difficult to expand without jumping through many hoops, especially in planning. In addition, a complex registration system and duplicatory inspection regimes have created barriers to new entrants to the childcare market. We are not making enough use of the many excellent facilities in our schools. In Denmark, for example, 88% of six to eight year-olds take advantage of before-school and after-school or holiday care, compared with only 22% in England. What the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said about wraparound care in schools was not exactly accurate; a number of the schools that she was referring to were simply pointing parents in the direction of care, not providing it themselves. Unfortunately, I do not think that in the past this has been cracked, and it is therefore important to be clear about what the situation actually is.

I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, that we are indeed looking at this strategically. Our reforms focus on three key areas: increasing supply—we are working very actively to expand the number of places available with childminders and in nurseries and schools; streamlining inspection so that we can focus on what matters to improve children’s development and ensure that they are safe; and reforming financial support to parents, making it simpler and more consistent. That is an issue that the noble Baroness emphasised. On the simplification of funding streams, the Government are carefully considering how best to achieve that as the universal credit and the new tax-free childcare system schema are rolled out. It is important to get the balance right between stable funding for providers and flexibility and choice for parents.

As noble Lords have said, we need to increase supply. We are doing what we can to halt the long-term decline in childminder numbers—that has been a very long-term decline, as anyone can see from the figures; it is not recent—and provide new opportunities for high-quality private and voluntary nurseries and schools. Noble Lords here will be well aware that we are coming up to day four of Report on the Children and Families Bill, and we are legislating to enable the creation of new childminder agencies to make it simpler for people to become childminders, to provide training and support and to help parents to access home-based care. We are making it easier for schools to expand to take two year-olds and to offer out-of-school-hours childcare. In February we will have the first results from schools regarding our demonstration projects on this, and we will be assessing how they are working and what can be done to expand that. So we are taking a number of measures to try to address this.

The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, asked particularly about disabled children. I assure her that from September, as I hope she will know from the Children and Families Bill, all children with special educational needs and disabilities will for the first time be entitled to 15 hours a week of government-funded early education from the age of two. I appreciate that she is also talking about childcare in addition to that, though, and she is right to ensure that what is being provided covers all children.

A few noble Lords have made reference to children’s centres and indicated that they thought that these were closing in large numbers. We are well aware of the great services that children’s centres provide to their local communities for prospective parents before and after their babies are born, for the parents and children themselves until they are five. The noble Baronesses, Lady Massey and Lady Prosser, for example, thought that 576 Sure Start centres had closed. In fact that is not the case; as of 30 November, fewer than 2% had closed and more than 3,000 were open. The question of Sure Start comes up quite often, and as I looked at this carefully I found, and this is worth emphasising, that children’s centres provide only a very tiny proportion—less than 1%—of all registered childcare places. That does not mean to say that they not of value, but they are not central, and have not been, to what we are talking about today.

With regard to inspection, we have to ensure that while increased choice is important, if provision was not of a high standard it would leave parents with no real choice at all and be detrimental for children. The noble Lord, Lord Graham, made that point very clearly. Growth should not be at the expense of quality. Ofsted has recently announced reforms to early years inspection, and expectations will be higher and accountability increased. I have a lot of detail about the inspection process that I am happy to write to my noble friend Lady Walmsley about. She was also asking about childminder agencies. We are working with 20 organisations to trial how childminder agencies will work. As part of that, we are considering with Ofsted the most effective way of ensuring the quality of those childminders registered with an agency. I am happy to spell that out in greater detail, given what I need to cover.

We remain committed to helping families with the cost of living and supporting parents to work. We are improving support for middle-income families by introducing a new tax-free childcare scheme. Noble Lords will, I hope, know the details of that. Once the scheme is fully established it will benefit 2.5 million working families. For low earners, government will continue to pay up to 70% of childcare costs through working tax credit and universal credit. I am again happy to put details in a letter to noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. The right reverend

Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds and my noble friend Lord Kirkwood asked about this. We are already investing £2.2 billion in universal credit childcare support and making a further investment of £200 million to provide extra support for working families earning enough to pay income tax. We are considering responses to a recent consultation on tax-free childcare and will respond shortly.

These are positive indications that the package of reforms that the Government have put in place are starting to have the desired impact. The signs are promising in terms of the cost of provision and maternal employment. The National Day Nurseries Association reported in July that 58% of nurseries have frozen fees. The average fee increase across all nurseries was 1.5%, which is well below inflation, and 200,000 women with children have gone back to work since 2011, which is more than during the five years before that.

However, we are not complacent. We know that a great deal needs to be done. We need to encourage growth in every part of the childcare market, place quality at the heart of childcare provision, create genuine choice of providers for parents and ensure that work really does pay. We are talking about a long and very important social change. This has been a very important debate. The right reverend Prelate, who will be much missed when he takes retirement, pointed out that it is part of the weft and woof of our society. It is vital that we have flexible, accessible, high-quality childcare available to those parents who wish to access it. We know that for better equality between the genders more parents will be seeking such assistance. I am glad to that so many noble Lords have contributed to this important debate. Their contributions have been very thoughtful. Once again, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, for securing this debate.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 1:52 pm, 9th January 2014

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her response. I also thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate for their very powerful contributions. It has been such a good debate that for the first time ever my notes are longer than my speech was, but I assure the House that my response will not be as long as my speech.

I have learnt a lot today and had some ideas reinforced. I heard an important concept put forward: an all-party commission on childcare. There is a great deal of consensus between us in this House, as always when we speak about children. I shall not refer to noble Lords by name, but they will know who they are. Speakers on all sides said that all is not well, much has been achieved, but we still have some way to go.

Personal reflection is always very important, and we had it about a 16 month-old child on the hip, a wasp’s mother and wet patches, and my noble friend Lady Prosser spoke about campaigning and organising. We have mentioned key issues which could form the basis for discussion on this large social change. Some of these issues seem to be about how the system can be made simpler and more flexible, coherent and accessible. Let us look at structures, including holiday care. Let us look at spending smartly, as a noble Lord said, and at how we can show that childcare can ultimately pay for itself if it is rightly funded. Let us reinforce what we know about women and employment. Childcare is good for women, families and the economy. Let us look at good practice, not just abroad but in the UK. Let us look at the benefits of early intervention and how it can prevent problems later on. At the same time, let us look at the early years workforce. It is key that childcare must be of the highest possible standard and must benefit children. Let us look at inspection. Let us look at issues about disabled children and childcare. Let us look at in-work poverty. Let us look honestly at social mobility and childcare. That is just for starters. Much work has been done and is being done by all parties on childcare, families and children, but, in thanking the Minister again, I ask her to suggest some cross-party forum way where we can forge and examine these issues realistically and honestly.

Motion agreed.