‘( ) A child is a qualifying child for the purposes of this Act until the last day of the week in which falls the 1 September following the child’s 11th birthday (or 18th birthday in the case of a disabled child).’
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan.
Committee members will be aware that the provisions in clause 14 relate to qualifying children and lay out the criteria that children must meet in order to be eligible for the scheme. The clause is therefore fundamental to the entire Bill, so it is of the utmost importance that we get its provisions right. Failure to do so would risk undermining the entire scheme.
I understand that the Government’s intention is to frame regulations such that a qualifying child is defined as one aged under 12 or, in the case of a disabled child, under 17. Will the Minister clarify whether that will be aligned with the start of the school year, or with some other date? Such a definition would not fit easily with section 6 of the Childcare Act 2006, which places a duty on local authorities to provide sufficient child care for working parents with disabled children aged up to 18 years, as far as practicable. In practice, the sufficiency duty is constrained by local authorities’ limited resources—we have all seen the considerable cuts that they have suffered recently. That said, the Department for Education publishes annual statutory guidance that sets out what can be expected of local authorities in meeting the duty.
I am sure that fellow Committee members will be aware of the report published in July by the independent parliamentary inquiry into child care for disabled children, in which my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham took a leading role. The inquiry identified a key gap in access to child care and activities for older children and young people. Many such activities and the gaps faced by parents simply do not fit easily into the current support framework, in which child care costs and access are based on supporting parents into work. Undoubtedly, one reason for that is the limited financial support available to parents with older disabled children, the result of which is the limited market for provision that we currently see.
The 2006 Act’s sufficiency duty is not compensating for the failure to provide child care for disabled children. In short, older disabled children, as well as those with particularly complex needs, are missing out. That has knock-on consequences for parent carers who, as a result, are excluded from employment opportunities. Although not directly contradictory to the provisions of section 6 of the 2006 Act, the Government’s planned course of action is certainly not in keeping with their spirit. The Government should be taking action to address the shortcoming not by narrowing the parameters within which a child will qualify for the new scheme, as proposed, but by adopting the amendment.
Acting to align the maximum age of eligibility for the tax-free child care scheme and the child care element of universal credit with the 2006 Act would ensure that older disabled children can benefit from financial support, and it would also help to address the current poor provision for that age group. Failure to accept the amendment will effectively mean that disabled children as young as 16 will lose out on the provision; we all know that there would be considerable advantages to the well-being of the young person and their family if support continued until after their 18th birthday.
I urge the Minister to increase to 18 the maximum age of eligibility for disabled children in the tax-free child care scheme and, in future, the child care element of universal credit, in order to align the scheme with the prescriptions of the 2006 Act’s sufficiency duty. That would not only support families with disabled children but help to nurture a market for provision for that particular group. How does the Minister intend to address the shortcoming I have described?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan.
I should say something about the parliamentary inquiry I conducted earlier this year into child care for disabled children, because the issue has been mentioned a couple of times already.
I spent most of my career in education, until 2010, and I was aware that there were problems on all kinds of issues for disabled children. However, I was really shocked by what I saw in that inquiry—we heard the most horrendous stories from parents. To take some of the factual stuff, it is 12 times more costly to get child care for a child who is disabled than for one who is not. Who among us can afford 12 times the cost of anything?
That, however, is just if people can find child care. The stories we heard about people trying to find places were absolutely awful, and they were not just from one sector—they were from the private and voluntary sectors, and even from some outstanding nurseries. We heard the most awful stories about outstanding maintained nurseries coming up with things such as, “Oh, I’m sorry. We can’t take your child, because we’re full,” only for the next person to come along to be told that, yes, there were places. Another reason given was, “We’re not qualified to meet your needs.” That is completely illegal, but outstanding maintained nurseries in London were saying such things to parents. There was also the usual, “We have insufficient support,” rather than, “We’ll take your child in, assess them and get support from the local authority if we need it.”
We heard stories of parents who were losing their jobs. If parents do not have child care and cannot go out to work, not only are their jobs at risk, but they are in danger of losing their homes. Parents were having to move from one part of the country to another to be near their families, who were then able to support them. We also heard of families splitting up. The figures on families who split up show that the proportion is much higher among those who have a child who is disabled than among those who do not.
For all those reasons, I urge the Minister to look at the inquiry and the report that came out of it, which makes very difficult reading. I urge the Government carefully to consider the needs of parents and families of disabled children when they look at any child care provision.
Good morning, Mr Sheridan. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Stockton North and for North West Durham for their contributions. This is an important clause, and it is important to put the context of disabled children’s child care needs at the forefront of what we are trying to do in the Bill. I particularly pay tribute to the hon. Member for North West Durham for her report, which I have read. The inquiry and the comments in it—the very raw views and experiences that were highlighted—are a salutary reminder to all of us not only in this Committee, but in Parliament, of how disabled children’s needs have historically been overlooked, particularly when it comes to the care component and the relative costs involved.
Having listened to the debate, I am obviously hugely sympathetic, and I understand the points both hon. Members have made. It is absolutely right that the parents of disabled children are wholly supported in the right way if they choose to work. We have been careful to make sure that that is reflected in the way the scheme is designed.
Clause 14 allows the Government to make regulations to define a qualifying child for the purposes of the scheme. We intend to make regulations to focus support primarily on children under the age of 12, for whom child care costs are at their highest. Eligibility will end in the first week of the September following the child’s 11th birthday. I want to assure the hon. Member for Stockton North that we are aligning the scheme with the school year—a point that he mentioned.
We also recognise, as I have stated already and as hon. Members highlighted, that child care costs are very high for parents of disabled children who are in their later childhood years. Therefore, parents of such children will continue to be eligible for support until the September following the child’s 16th birthday. We want the eligibility conditions to be straightforward for parents.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes the point well. We recognise that, completely.
We want the eligibility conditions to be straightforward. For example, a child will be considered disabled for the purposes of this scheme if disability living allowance or a personal independence payment is paid for the child, or they are certified blind. We are looking into the package of measures and the wider support, outside tax-free child care.
Amendment 17 would extend the scheme to parents of disabled children under the age of 19. I recognise why comments have been made and the genesis of the amendment. In the evidence sessions, it was suggested that such a measure would bring the age limit parallel to that in universal credit. However, that is not so. The child care element of universal credit is available to parents of disabled children under 17. This is already in line with existing schemes, particularly employment-supported child care and the tax credits scheme. It is right that we make the new scheme consistent with the current framework.
Unsurprisingly, increasing the age up to which a child will be entitled to support across the schemes would carry significant Exchequer costs, and that will have an impact on the welfare cap and on the wider universal credit system. The Government are clear that they support disabled children and disabled people more widely. As we have said previously, universal credit provides more generous support for disabled adults and disabled children than it does for people in similar circumstances who are not disabled.
As I have set out, under the new scheme, parents of disabled children under 17 will continue to be eligible for support, in recognition of the fact that child care costs for this group can remain high in later years. This will provide support for qualifying child care, which includes care regulated by the Care Quality Commission—we have discussed that—and that will allow parents to access and use domiciliary care. Again, I highlight my commitment to look at increasing the maximum amount for the parents of disabled children. As I confirmed on Tuesday, working parents will be able to use the scheme to pay for respite care, where this enables them to work.
I am conscious of the additional child care costs that families might have to meet. I will therefore explore the possibility of increasing the maximum amount that they can pay into their child care account, which in turn will attract a top-up payment from the Government. I will engage—I am committed to doing so—with all interested parent groups to establish how this might best be done. I will take the time to get this right. Again, it is important that we ensure that any necessary changes to the regulations are made before the scheme goes live.
We designed the scheme to meet the needs of parents of disabled children. We worked with Scope, for example, which has been encouraged, and has been positive, in terms of working with us. It recognises the needs we have identified, and has welcomed our measures to enable disabled children to benefit from tax-free child care. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Stockton North to beg leave to withdraw amendment 17.
I am grateful to the Minister for providing clarity about which dates apply to the provisions, but I remain disappointed that a child of 16 could still no longer qualify for any support from the Government scheme. That said, I appreciate that the Minister has also talked about considering the wider provisions on support for particular groups of people.
I would ask that, in the next few weeks, prior to Report, the Minister explores and perhaps talks about how the additional costs of the provisions I have suggested would affect the Government. She talks of considerable Exchequer costs. I should be interested to know exactly what those costs are and whether it can be demonstrated that we cannot afford, as a country, to look after some of the most vulnerable children in our society.
Although I reserve the right to reintroduce it, depending on what comes forward on Report, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.