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My Lords, I declare my interests in property as noted in the register. I begin by warmly welcoming the Government’s success in achieving a record high of 74.5% employment in the first quarter of this year. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Freud, who has championed this area for many years, who has written the report on employment and who has met with such success.
In his debates on poverty in your Lordships’ House, my noble friend Lord Bird has eloquently argued the case for employment as a road out of poverty. Louise Casey, when she was homelessness tsar, made one of her first priorities finding purposeful activity for rough sleepers. The noble Lord, Lord Freud, has himself spoken many times of the benefits to mental health of employment. I recently raised with him my concern about the increasing number of boys and girls growing up without a father in their home. Since then, I have been advised that high male unemployment is followed by increases in couple breakdown, so I welcome the Government’s success in securing record levels of employment, while recognising concerns about the use of sanctions, the quality of employment and that two-thirds of children in poverty have a parent who is in work. I particularly welcome the reduced risk for boys and girls of growing up without contact with their father that high employment appears to bring.
I regret that I was unable to be with your Lordships between 6.30 pm and 8 pm this evening. I was entertaining a group of care leavers supported by the Drive Forward Foundation. They were speaking to me about their housing experience—and I, too, welcome the additional investment that the Government are making in housing. One theme has been the trap that young care leavers can find themselves in. They may have housing benefit to pay for accommodation, but, as soon as they seek work, they risk losing it, so there is every incentive for them simply to sign on and not go into employment.
One very brave young woman described her experience as a care leaver with severe impediment to her vision. She has successfully secured an apprenticeship in a City firm, but has been immensely challenged trying to rent in the private sector to allow her to turn up regularly, as her job demands. It is inspiring to hear from such young people, and I am particularly grateful to Jordan Morgan, the care leaver who helped organise this meeting and has produced a report on homelessness and care leavers.
On productivity, I was surprised that no mention was made of investment in ensuring that children have the very best start in life. The Minister might wish to speak to his colleagues the right honourable Andrea Leadsom MP and the right honourable Iain Duncan Smith MP, who have great expertise in early childhood. The evidence is that high-quality early years education and childcare can produce a huge boost later in terms of educational attainment and arguably provides good protection into later life against mental ill health and helps productivity.
On that note, I welcome the Government’s extension of free childcare to 30 hours a week to working parents of three and four year-olds. I appreciate the early years funding review and the significant financial investment that the Government have made in childcare. However, I share the concerns of the early years sector, the Pre-school Learning Alliance, the National Day Nurseries Association and the Family and Childcare Trust about the sufficiency of future funding after this year. I am concerned that future funding may not sustain the sector and ensure the vital high quality of provision.
I would like to see an annual review of funding of early years provision to secure quality and sustainability of provision into the future. What role do early years care and education play in the Government’s strategy for employment and productivity? What means will they use to assuage concerns about adequacy of funding beyond this year? I quite understand if the Minister might prefer to write to me. High-quality and sufficient early years provision is vital to sustaining high employment today and a future generation of productive citizens. I look forward to the Minister’s response.