Cost of Child Care — [Mr Jim Hood in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 20th November 2013.

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Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:30 pm, 20th November 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I am grateful for this opportunity to lead this afternoon’s debate on the cost of child care—a growing concern to many Members across the House. Perhaps I should start by declaring an interest as the proud mother of a little girl. Like many Members, I have come to realise how difficult it can be for families to find the right kind of child care place. I am in the fortunate position of not having to make the same kinds of financial decision about what works for my family. I am very lucky, but I am conscious that many people face difficult situations.

Once again, it is the Labour party that is highlighting the cost of living crisis. We are all too familiar with the challenges that our constituents find in accessing affordable child care and the increasing burden that they face. The failure to keep down the cost of child care has put immense pressure on household budgets and directly contributed to the cost of living crisis facing so many families across our communities. That failure applies equally to pre-school provision and provision for school-age children.

By 2015, families with children will have lost up to £7 billion a year of support. Right now, families with pre-school children face a triple blow of spiralling child care costs, a reduction in nursery places and a cut in financial assistance. Some of those families are losing up to £1,500 a year due to tax credits changes.

Parents often say that child care can really become a logistical nightmare once children reach school age. Despite that, the previous Labour Government’s programme to support school-age children has been abandoned by the Department for Education, leaving many parents struggling to juggle work and family life. The Minister will no doubt claim that the Government are making progress; unfortunately, however, creative number crunching cannot hide the fact that the Government’s plans are failing to support the majority of families. It has been left to Labour to respond to the current crisis, with our proposals to extend child care for working parents of three and four-year-olds and to introduce a legal guarantee for primary schools to make child care available from 8 am to 6 pm.

The previous Labour Government understood the importance of the issue. The 1998 national child care strategy recognised for the first time that child care was not just a private family matter, but one where Government had a role to play in ensuring the affordability, availability and accessibility of high-quality child care places. Much was achieved during those 13 years of Labour Governments.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I should say to the hon. Lady and other Labour Members that the number of child minders fell significantly during their party’s time in office. It will be interesting to hear more about availability.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, for whom I have a lot of respect. She takes a keen interest in these matters and wants to make sure that families have real choice among the options available when finding child care places for their children. I will make the very point put to her during yesterday’s debate: we need to make sure that child minders are of the right quality and can provide the best possible care for children. Unfortunately, some child minders, who are no longer registered, were not able to make that leap forward in providing the best possible high-quality care that we all want for the youngest children in our society.

The early-years entitlement was pioneered for four-year-olds in 1998 and it was extended to three-year-olds in 2004. Labour introduced the extended schools programme to help meet the needs of children, families and the wider community. Labour created Sure Start children’s centres and established more than 3,500 of them across the country.

Before the last general election, I was, like many others, relieved to hear the current Prime Minister acknowledge that Labour was right to prioritise child care support for families and pledge to protect Sure Start. However, like so many people, I have been bitterly disappointed that more than 500 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010 and that more than half of those still open are no longer providing on-site child care. All we heard today from the Prime Minister was a confirmation of that.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North

Is the hon. Lady familiar with the situation in Norfolk—a fine county that is home to my constituency and that of the Minister? Its current Labour administration refuses to give any protection to libraries in carrying out the cuts that it now has to make. Does she share my concern that libraries are also used by many families with young children, who need those services? The Conservatives did protect those libraries when they were in a position to do so.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Perhaps the hon. Lady could have a chat with a colleague at the Department for Communities and Local Government about the disproportionate cuts passed on to local councils. My local council is facing some of the biggest cuts in the country, having been given a disproportionate and unfair burden. Councils are being forced to take really difficult decisions about the kinds of services that they can provide.

I value the important role that libraries play in our community, just as I value Sure Start children’s centres. However, councils face impossible demands and are really struggling to balance the books. I suggest that the hon. Lady continues to lobby for her constituents, but it is her Government who are passing on those significant cuts—

Photo of Ben Gummer Ben Gummer Conservative, Ipswich

There were no cuts in Suffolk.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Opposition Whip (Commons)

A significant body of evidence shows that pre-school years are critical to a child’s development. Despite that, pre-school child care is becoming inaccessible to an increasing number of families. The cost of nursery places has risen by more than 30% since the last election—five times faster than the rise in wages over the equivalent period. It now costs, on average, £107 a week for a 25-hour nursery place. Parents working part time on average wages now have to work from Monday to Thursday before they have paid off their weekly child care costs.

To make matters worse, all this has happened while there have been 35,000 fewer child care places than in 2010. The fact is that for many parents, especially single parents, there is no longer a viable choice. With prices rising faster than wages, thousands of parents are being forced to stay at home to look after their children when they want the opportunity to work.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Against that backdrop, is it not regrettable that, as part of their plans for universal credit, the Government intend to put the lowest-earning parents in the position of being helped with only 70% of their child care costs? Better-off parents, however, will receive help with 85% of such costs. Is that not perverse?

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. She has consistently raised such concerns with Ministers and she continues to challenge the Government about them. Her point is of particular concern. We want to support the poorest families to access child care, but what she has mentioned will no doubt make that a lot harder.

The reality is that it is predominantly women who have been hardest hit by the rising cost of child care. Female unemployment is at its highest for a generation. According to the Office for National Statistics, more than 1 million women in the UK are out of work—an increase of 82,000 since May 2010. Affordable child care gives women the independence to make choices that are right for them and for their families. Every woman who is forced out of the workplace suffers a significant personal blow, while the rest of society loses her talent, knowledge and expertise.

As we heard in yesterday’s debate on this issue, the Government’s own social mobility and child poverty commission is clear that, for many low-income parents, cost, rather than quality, was the main factor in choosing child care. A recent survey by Asda showed that child care costs prevent 70% of stay-at-home mums from working.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that, in economic terms, it is absurd to lose the valuable contribution of women in the workplace. Higher unemployment rates increase the benefits bill and reduce tax revenues, while higher rates of women’s employment support stronger economic growth.

If the economic recovery is to harness everyone’s potential, the Government should ensure that work pays for all families. That is why Labour is proposing targeted measures to bring down child care costs. Our plan has two major components. First, child care for three and four-year-olds will be extended from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents. That support will be made available both to single-parent working households and two-parent households where both parents work. Those plans will be fully funded through the bank levy.

In the last financial year, the banks paid a staggering £2.7 billion less in overall tax than they did in 2010, while over the last two years the Government’s bank levy has raised £1.6 billion less than they said it would. I hope the Minister agrees that, at a time when resources are tight and families are under pressure, that cannot be right.

The second component of Labour’s plan will be a focus on the primary school guarantee. Some 62% of parents with children of school age say that they want to be able to combine working and family life. For that to happen, they need to be able to access care before the school day begins, after it ends and during holiday periods. Nearly 30% of those who need such care were unable to find it. That is unacceptable.

Research from the Minister’s own Department backs that up. In September 2011, the Department published research highlighting that extended services provision can have an important positive impact on children, families, communities and schools themselves. Under the previous Government, 99% of schools provided access to breakfast clubs and after-school clubs, but more than a third of local authorities have reported that that has been scaled back in their area in the past three years. That is why Labour will legislate to guarantee that parents can access child care from 8 am to 6 pm if they choose.

Tackling the cost of child care is only one part of the solution. We must also consider how we can improve its availability and accessibility. Evidence shows that families from lower-income backgrounds, including in parts of my constituency, are among the least likely to use formal child care. We need to help our constituents understand the support that is available and how they can access it, along with the benefits that can come from having a child in nursery or child care provision. Furthermore, many parents in my local area work shifts, so child care services must become much more flexible to meet their needs and the circumstances of their employment.

The location of child care services is another important consideration. For many people in my constituency, transport is a major problem, owing to a lack of train services and a limited and expensive bus network, and I have been campaigning to change that.

We need a joined-up approach to child care. We need health visitors working with housing and child care providers, and councils working with the Government. Of course, families will always have the freedom to make arrangements that best suit their circumstances, preferences and needs, but the Government’s role is to ensure that every effort is made to provide support that is affordable and available when needed and accessible where needed.

Labour is the only party listening to parents and acting on their concerns. Child care is as important to the future of this country as investment in infrastructure. High-quality child care is key to tackling child poverty and improving social mobility. Labour has a clear plan for delivering that. It is the right thing for families, and it is the best thing for our country.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 2:42 pm, 20th November 2013

It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland upon Tyne South—

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I got that wrong—I apologise to Bridget Phillipson, whom I congratulate on securing this debate. I appreciate that we had a debate yesterday on a similar topic, and I welcome this opportunity to contribute again on this important matter.

I thought that, rather than just reading out my entire transcript from yesterday’s Hansard, I would spend a bit more time saying a little more on the issue. The aspirations set out by the hon. Lady—affordability, availability and accessibility—are critical. As she said in the answer that she kindly provided me, the reason why so many child minders fell out of the system in the 13 years of Labour Governments was quality. She is absolutely right; we need to ensure that high quality—in fact, world-class quality—child care is widely available.

That is why I support what the Government are doing to try to raise the quality of child care. The issue is also about improving our young children’s access to education. As has been pointed out by many on both sides of the House, it is key that we do our best with our youngsters to ensure that they are able to access the opportunities available to everyone. That is also an important part of social mobility.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The figures on child minders have been cited on a number of occasions. Does the hon. Lady accept, as the Minister did yesterday, that the figures have declined in the three years under this Government? There are 2,423 fewer child minders in the system now than in 2010.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I understand that, but having 2,400 fewer since 2010 is a little different from having 53,000 fewer in 13 years. I am not going to go over again the ground that we have already discussed.

It is fair to say that there are an extra 800,000 nursery places through schools.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Is the hon. Lady suggesting that those additional places were created in the past three years?

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

My understanding is that the provision has grown in that time. I am sure that the hon. Lady will correct me if she thinks I am wrong. I meant “grown”, not “groan”, unlike the joke yesterday.

Returning to affordability, there is no doubt that the cost of child care has risen significantly. Some of that will have been due to supply and demand; there is no question about that, where demand exceeds supply. It is important to expand the number of child minders to help with that.

One of the things that the Government are doing right is allowing schools to shed some of the regulatory burden on the ability to provide a wider range of child care opportunities on site. Labour suggests that legislation is required to have a primary school guarantee, but I do not believe that. What is important is that a school should not have to register separately with Ofsted if it offers provision for under-four-year-olds or that it should not need such tight planning when it wishes to expand. The same should apply when existing nurseries of good and outstanding quality wish to expand.

We are changing things so that Ofsted-registered and good or outstanding nurseries will start to receive funding directly, cutting out the recycling of money through the local council. That is another good measure to accelerate the needed provision of high quality child care.

Another good thing—the Minister may talk at more length about some of these—would be to streamline qualifications for early years, instead of having a choice of about 400 potential qualifications. In that way, parents could readily and easily check the quality rather than have to do their own research. Having an accreditation with fewer qualifications is a streamlining simplification that will help not only providers of child care but parents to make an appropriate assessment of what the right thing is.

On the cost of child care, I think the Government accept that having some of the most expensive child care in Europe—we are second highest behind Switzerland —is not sustainable. We need to address that. Coming from a Conservative tradition, I would try to do that not just by constantly upping the subsidy, but by providing wider choice, which will bring down cost. However, I commend the tax-free child care scheme, which will be available to working families.

I am sure that Government Members would be delighted if we could persuade the Chancellor to bring that scheme forward by a year, but I accept the fiscal constraints under which the Government operate. In any case, I am pleased that the scheme will be forthcoming in April 2015. That is a real positive for working mothers and fathers.

Other useful measures that the Government are introducing include shared parental leave. I understand that our coalition partners are keen to extend that even further; that is a debate for another time. I am pleased that we are pressing forward with that important development, and I am sure that Opposition Members welcome it too.

The reason why I do not think we need legislation to implement the primary school guarantee is that we can just get on with the scheme if that is what primary schools wish to do. We may require a statutory duty to force that to happen, and we have to consider that, but I see leading schools providing it already.

One point that I made yesterday is key. Governing bodies should work with head teachers and parents to ensure that the school day is not artificially reduced simply to have as short a lunch time as legally possible, but to ensure that time spent at school is available for extra-curricular activities and to be mindful of the fact that parents are working.

On Sure Start, we can have the back-and-forth. I have not had time since yesterday’s debate to go into the full detail, constituency by constituency, on the back-and-forth about whether 500 or just 45 have closed. As I said yesterday, I am happy to rely on the Minister’s assurance.

We are talking about choices. Yesterday, Catherine McKinnell—I got that constituency right—talked about the level of cuts, an issue referred to today by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South. I have looked briefly at the website of the Department for Communities and Local Government. Using the spending power formula, which the Local Government Association recommended to the Government, I am able to say that spending in Newcastle upon Tyne has gone down by 1.4% this year; in Sunderland by 1.5%; and in Middlesbrough —I see that Tom Blenkinsop is present—by 0.5%. I did not have time to look at Wolverhampton.

Those figures come from the spreadsheet that I have opened. Meanwhile, spending has decreased in Norfolk by 1.6% and in Suffolk by 2.1%. In spite of that, Suffolk county council is keeping open its Sure Start centres. Yes, the management of some centres has been merged. The two in Felixstowe are run by one lady, the magnificent Jennifer Clarke-Pearson, who is working hard with families in Felixstowe to make that happen.

As I reiterated yesterday, it is important that in this wider debate about public services, which my hon. Friend Chloe Smith mentioned, we must ensure that front-line services are protected—as constituency champions, all hon. Members in this Chamber will continue to do that. However, we should not get hung up solely on bricks and mortar. We must focus on the outcomes.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

I agree that we should not just focus on bricks and mortar. However, although centres in my local authority in Trafford are being merged, as the hon. Lady described, the availability of services has been significantly reduced. A number of programmes that were appreciated by families, some of which were available universally in the past, are now not available.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I am genuinely sorry to hear that; I am not being flippant. It is important that local councils continue to provide valuable services that are doing good for local families, but, again, sometimes the Whitehall solution does not always work in the constituency or council area. The Department for Education issued statutory guidance in April to try to encourage councils and children’s centres to refocus—not on universality, perhaps, but on the families that Sure Start was originally set up to help.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

That is my understanding, although the hon. Lady shakes her head.

I praise the valuable work of Home-Start, locally—certainly in Suffolk. It is going into the homes of people that Sure Start is not attracting into its centres. If Sure Start is stage two for these families and parents, that is to be welcomed. Sure Start should be focusing on the needs of more vulnerable families and less wealthy families, rather than being a universal thing, when other providers can provide child care. We have heard that Sure Start centres provide only 1% of child care opportunities.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am not sure which year the figures the hon. Lady cited relate to; I suspect it is the financial year 2013-14. The point that I was making yesterday—she mentioned the speech I made yesterday—is that councils have to look two, three or four years ahead, to work out how to manage their finances. The cuts that we are talking about have not yet come.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I accept that point. The hon. Lady is accurate in saying that I was referring to 2013-14.

More widely, I appreciate councils’ concerns. Our own councils are going through this challenge; it is not unique to councils in the north-east, Trafford or wherever else. It is happening across the country. However, we need to be mindful that reducing support to local councils is being made up for, in some part, by other opportunities for councils to raise money. That may not be popular; it is certainly not popular with one of my constituents, who complained that they were going to have to start paying council tax on a house that had lain empty for three years. Such policies are not always popular, but they are revenue opportunities, as is business rates retention, which I am sure the hon. Lady supports. That is to encourage new start-up companies in areas such as hers and to attract companies’ inward investment, through relocation to the north-east, for example.

I shall bring my remarks to a conclusion, because I appreciate that many hon. Members want to participate. All parties are united on affordability, availability, accessibility and quality, which the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South mentioned accurately at the start, although we have different ways of achieving those things. But all our reforms are working and I hope that they will continue to blossom. I look forward to the Minister’s explaining in further detail why we in the Government are leading the child care revolution.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Labour, Wolverhampton South East 2:54 pm, 20th November 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Hood.

Like my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson, I declare an interest. I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old. One is still going through the nursery system and one has recently done so. As well as declaring my interest, I also confess that before I had children I did not appreciate the importance of this issue to families or the costs or choices that people were forced into when trying to organise and pay for child care.

Before talking about costs, I want say something about the benefits. A good-quality nursery education can be hugely beneficial for young children. It can contribute enormously to their social confidence; it gives them their first friendships outside the immediate family; it helps them to learn the basic building blocks—colours, shapes and numbers—and it improves their speech. It is hugely beneficial. It enables them to be more confident, outgoing children. That is important, because we should all agree that we want children to get a good start in life. We know that it is in the early years, and the early months, of a child’s life that the first inequality often sets in. Good-quality early years care can be important in improving life chances and extending opportunity.

In a recent speech, the chair of Ofsted said that some children begin school 18 to 19 months behind in their development, compared with other children. Any society that cares about equality of opportunity or life chances should be concerned by that stark statistic. This is about cost, but it is also about quality and opportunity.

We cannot have a situation where some are effectively able to pull up the drawbridge on children who do not get good life chances, and allow these patterns of inequality to remain unaddressed. I do not seek to blame the present Government for that pattern. Inequality of opportunity is deep-seated and has existed for a long time. However, as my hon. Friend said, things are getting harder, with the closure of Sure Start centres and rising costs.

Let me turn to the costs and the choice faced by working families. We now have decent maternity provision in the UK. We used to be pretty much at the bottom of the European league. We are not at the top of the league, but we are in a respectable mid-table position. Mothers are entitled to 52 weeks leave, of which they will be paid for 39 weeks, although only the first six weeks is to be paid at the high rate of 90% of their salary. After that, mothers are dependent on contractual provision, which varies among employers. Fathers are now entitled to paternity leave for the first time, which is a welcome change introduced by the Government of whom I was a member. Before that, there was no recognition at all in the system of the role that dads might play around the time of birth or of the degree of support that they could offer to new mums.

The costs of child care really kick in when maternity leave comes to an end and mums want to go back to work. In London, a full-time nursery place can easily cost £1,300 to £1,400 a month. Let us pause and think about that. That is £15,000 a year, cash up front. There is a little bit of tax relief for this, but it is essentially cash up front. If people have two children in nursery, which is not uncommon, the cost may fall a little as the child turns two and three and the 15 free hours kick in, but a family could easily be looking at a cash figure of £25,000 a year for two children in nursery. That means that someone with two children would have to earn some £40,000, well above the national full-time average salary, just to pay for child care.

Outside London, the costs are lower, but still expensive. In my Wolverhampton constituency, a full-time nursery place costs about £600 to £700 a month or around £8,000 a year. It has to be remembered that that is £8,000 a year in a constituency where full-time average salaries are just over £20,000 a year. Even though child care is cheaper outside the capital, it is still a huge proportion of a full-time salary. No wonder that mums, particularly mums with two or more young children, are quickly forced into a choice between working and looking after the children. It is sometimes dads, but mostly it is mums who are taking longer parental leave and making that choice.

Some parents may want, and are able to afford, to stay at home, which is their choice, but most families need two salaries to survive. Facing such costs, mothers end up either working for very little—often because they fear that years out of the labour market will make it difficult for them to go back and that they will lose all sorts of opportunities—or being forced to give up their job simply because they cannot afford the child care. That is a huge waste of talent and experience. If capable people who are willing to work cannot do so because the costs of child care prove an insurmountable barrier, we have to care and do something about it because the country is losing out by forcing women into that choice.

This has gone on for far too long. I expect the Minister will stand up at the end of our debate and extol the importance of the 15-hour offer for three and four-year-olds and tell us how it has been extended to some two-year-olds. The offer was introduced by the previous Labour Government, and it makes a really big difference by giving important help to parents. Even I, as a member of that Government, do not pretend that the offer is the whole answer. The offer is often made in five chunks of three hours, which does not allow someone in a part-time job to rely solely on that child care; they still have to top up with other paid-for hours. What we need is child care built around the working day, which would be most valuable for working parents. The 15-hour offer is valuable and important, but I do not pretend that it is the full answer.

I am often struck by the comparison between how we fund early years and how we fund higher education. The time spent by children in nursery and by students doing a degree is pretty similar—typically three years in both cases. The costs are now similar. A full-time nursery place in Wolverhampton costs £8,000, and studying at university costs a similar amount. The difference is that the further south someone goes, even if they study at one of the best universities in the country, the cost of a nursery place becomes higher than the cost of a student place. For higher education students, there is a system of subsidised loans, with repayment terms contingent on earnings and forgiveness of the debt after a number of years if they do not earn enough. No such help exists for working parents, who are paying similar, and in some cases higher, costs. Working parents are expected to meet all those costs up front. They get almost no help other than a little bit of tax relief at the margins, which has a hugely damaging effect on the labour market and our economy.

There is an urgent need for more affordable places and for the same amount of national policy attention and energy to go into child care as has gone into higher education over the years. The truth is that child care has not received such attention and energy. When the costs of higher education go up, we often see students marching on the street. I confess that, when I was a student, I marched on the street for various causes. If the parents of one, two and three-year-olds were not so busy looking after their children and having to cope with the choices that we are talking about today, they would be marching on the street too.

Parents need our help. They need the same amount of policy attention as has gone into the costs at another point in young people’s lives. That is the priority that we should give to child care. Children need a good start in life, and parents need help. It is time that we made that a much higher priority.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North 3:04 pm, 20th November 2013

It is a pleasure to follow Mr McFadden, whose surname I have just acquired, with an extra z, from his fellow Scot, my husband.

Parents in Norwich North are taxpayers, too, and in this debate we must think about what they are paying. I am delighted that the Government I support have taken many of the lowest-earning parents out of income tax altogether, which is a good thing, but we ought to approach the debate honestly. Those young parents, who, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, are very busy, do not necessarily have time in between looking after their youngsters to take an extremely close interest in the goings on of this Chamber, but they should not be paid the disrespect of our talking dishonestly about the size of the pot and who pays for it.

Like my hon. Friend Dr Coffey, I am grateful to Bridget Phillipson for calling this debate, which gives us an opportunity to talk about these important issues. The hon. Lady might not be surprised if I begin by saying that, if she knew how hard it was going to be to reduce the deficit, she might have thought twice about her support for her party’s running up of the deficit in the first place. I know of no woman or man, no mother or father—indeed, no rational person—who would desire to leave debt to their children without having had the courage to address it themselves. It ought to be commonplace in this debate to say that addressing the deficit now ensures that future generations are not burdened with unsustainable debt, higher taxes or diminished public services. Of course, I will address the public service aspect today.

Among the many claims and counterclaims that have been made in recent weeks, the salient point, with respect to the taxpayers who have to trust us to do such things for them, is that the Leader of the Opposition has pledged to extend free child care for three and four-year-olds, but he is trying to pay for it using a concept of money that he has already used more than 10 times. It is just not good enough to face young parents with such false accounting, and I am confident that the Minister agrees. It is not good enough to say, “Yes, we’ll borrow more to fund it,” because that borrowing only comes back on the children who we might otherwise be trying to help.

I am pleased that the introduction of tax-free child care that the Minister has so passionately advocated will mean that parents get £1,200 towards each child’s child care costs in addition to both our extension of the hours of free child care and our cutting red tape for schools, so that they can offer more affordable care after school and in the holidays. Those are practical and affordable actions, and we must have this debate in that context. We have to take decisive action for the reasons that we have all tried to set out, but we have to do that by addressing the cost and quality of child care and by having respect for those who entrust us with the job of honest politics.

It is essential that the Government maximise the contribution that women can make to the economy, not because of political correctness but because it is an economic reality. Growth will get this country back to where it ought to be after Labour left it lying in a ditch. Such growth will come about only if we have women in the workplace doing their best for themselves and their family and gaining satisfaction from the careers that we would all like to see. We must remove barriers to the workplace, which is why I am here today to add my voice to the support for what the Government are doing to promote child care policies that help women get back into the workplace.

That leads me to yet another of the numbers that we might want to focus on in the debate. Yesterday, in the main Chamber, a couple of points were made about the number of women in work and the way we might look at the statistics. One statistic, which is important to use in today’s debate, is that almost 200,000 women in coupled families with dependent children have re-entered the workplace since 2011, compared with 185,000 between 1996 and 2011. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal had to deal with the notion that a few years of achievement now are worth more than 13 years of non-achievement in the past, and that point stands on the same side of the argument.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Does the hon. Lady acknowledge that many of the women who are entering the work force are doing so in part-time jobs, although they probably need more hours to pay their bills, and on zero-hours contracts and poor wages, terms and conditions? Seven out of 10 women say they cannot go back to work, because the child care costs are so high that they deter them from doing so, while those who do go back are simply not earning enough to pay their bills.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North

I think that the hon. Lady knows all too well that we will deal with the point inside the policy only by tackling the cost of child care, and my hon. Friend the Minister has set out plans to do that. I think that the hon. Lady also knows all too well that we will tackle the far bigger point that sits outside this issue only by securing an economic recovery, and that is what I want to point my comments at on behalf of the taxpayers and families in my constituency.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am interested to hear the hon. Lady’s economic arguments, but I must correct her on one thing. She suggested that the Labour party left the economy in the doldrums in 2010. In fact, the economy was growing in 2010, but we have had complete economic stagnation since. It would be more honest if she acknowledged that point before continuing.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. I am sure the hon. Member for Norwich North will want to get back to the subject of the debate, which is child care.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North

Mr Hood, I will be only too delighted to get back to the subject of child care.

The point on which I want to finish is about having honesty in politics for the families who we might wish to help. It is not honest to ignore the fact that Labour doubled the national debt or to try to spend the same amount 10 times.

Photo of Chloe Smith Chloe Smith Conservative, Norwich North

I am terribly sorry, but I need to finish my comments, so that other Members can speak.

I want to finish on the point that false claims, scaremongering and, worst of all, false accounting do young families absolutely no good. Younger people—various polls and statistics show that this is demonstrably true—are turning away from traditional party politics. Some will become parents and seek to take care of their children, and it will do none of them any good whatever to hear the false numbers that are being put about in this debate. It will not help a single child, parent or citizen to regain faith in what politics is for if we cannot have a slightly more honest debate today.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury) 3:13 pm, 20th November 2013

It is a pleasure to speak in this timely and important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson on securing it. I appreciate that we had an opportunity to debate some of these issues yesterday, but it is incredibly useful to have an opportunity not only to expand on some of them, but to reinforce some of the points that were made and, in particular, to get some clarity from the Minister on issues that were left unclear at the end of that debate, certainly in my mind.

It would be right for me to declare an interest, as other hon. Members have done. I am the mother of two children aged six and four. Although they are of school age, they rely on child care, which supports my working hours and those of my husband. Obviously, I have an interest in securing good-quality child care at an affordable price for all my constituents, who are deeply concerned about this issue.

Hon. Members have drawn on a number of aspects in explaining why this is such an important debate, and we touched on a number of issues yesterday. Child care is important for the children, because of the pre-school support, confidence and education they get, which give them the right start in life. I have visited child care facilities across a range of areas in my constituency, and it is evident how vital that pre-school support is in ensuring children reaching school age do not start out disadvantaged compared with children from perhaps more economically fortunate backgrounds. All children should have that pre-school input, and the child care offer and the child care debate are crucial to ensuring that we see that equality across the board.

Child care is also crucial for women. I am therefore pleased we have such a great showing of male MPs in the debate, as we did yesterday. That is vital because this is increasingly an issue for fathers as well as mothers, and rightly so. The Labour Government introduced a lot of changes to ensure that we reach the goal of equality between men and women and on child care responsibilities. Ultimately, we know that we are not there yet, and child care is still very much an issue for mothers and women generally.

As a result of child care responsibilities, women are unable to stay in work, and they fall out of the workplace. Many choose not to work, and that should be supported, but we are talking about child care, so it is right to focus on those women who would like to stay in the workplace but are unable to do so. I mentioned the figures from a survey that Asda undertook, and I find them startling. It should prompt any Government to action to know that seven out of 10 mums say they cannot go back to work because the cost of child care makes it too expensive.

Photo of Tom Blenkinsop Tom Blenkinsop Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, which I raised in yesterday’s debate, about female unemployment. In May 2010, female unemployment in our region—the north-east—was 20,657. It is now 25,973. That is a 25.7% increase. What does my hon. Friend think is the main cause?

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

That is a deeply disturbing figure, and we know that women have borne the brunt of the cuts in public services. Many more women than men work in the public services, so they have suffered redundancy and unemployment as a consequence. We have not seen a matching increase in private sector employment for women. As we know, women have lost out in the jobs market as a result of many of the changes we have seen in the past three years.

Photo of Tom Blenkinsop Tom Blenkinsop Opposition Whip (Commons)

Does my hon. Friend think that the fact that we have had £30 billion less investment in small and medium-sized enterprises since this Government came to power in 2011 is a cause of the lack of employment in the private sector among not only women but men?

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

That is a deeply concerning statistic. I know the issue is close to my hon. Friend’s heart, and he is extremely passionate about having the case heard. On the other side of the coin, a lot of women who would like to work have fallen out of the workplace because child care costs are prohibitive. However, women have also suffered pregnancy discrimination, sex discrimination or maternity discrimination. One deeply concerning issue is the additional barriers the Government have put in the way of women who want to seek redress for such unfairness. I am surprised because members of the Government—particularly female ones—should be deeply concerned at additional barriers such as charges for going to a tribunal being put up for women seeking redress for such discrimination. I hope that the Government will listen and take that seriously, because it is nothing short of a scandal.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Opposition Whip (Commons)

Is my hon. Friend concerned, as I am, about the fact that many families, in addition to dealing with the cost of child care, are responsible for the care of older relatives? That affects women in particular. They must try to combine looking after elderly parents or other relatives, when there is pressure on social care, with trying to make ends meet for their children. That is a great pressure at the moment.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Women have suffered a triple whammy. Many have suffered unemployment because of public service cuts. They are also dealing with the reduction in the availability of child care, and increasing costs because of increased demand. As well as that, they are picking up the pieces where public services can no longer provide support and must step back because of reductions in funding. It is often women who step into the breach. They must juggle their ability to provide family support of both kinds. Many women do that willingly, happily and lovingly, but as a society we must question whether that is the future we want, or whether we are taking a step back on equality by pushing more and more women who want to stay in work and progress economically back home and into caring roles. Women are still not equal to men in economic terms.

The issue that I raised yesterday was not just the quality of child care, which has been touched on today, but its availability. There has been much debate about child care figures and availability, but the number of places has reduced in the past three years, which is a big concern. The Government are making various promises of things to come, but whether they will be able to deliver is deeply in doubt when we consider what is looming on the horizon. When we consider how children’s centres and Sure Start centres are at risk at the moment, the Government cannot bury their head in the sand much longer.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I apologise for not being here earlier: I had a Committee meeting and could not get here in time.

I understand that figures show that 5.8 million women are working mothers and that their average child care costs are 22% of their wages. Does the hon. Lady feel that it should be a priority for the Government to address the issue, to keep women in their job and enable others to obtain employment?

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman makes a passionate case and is right; it makes sense for equality, women and the individuals involved, but also for the economy. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Lucy Powell, is keen to stress the fact that the cost of child care is not a soft issue, but a key issue for the economy. It affects whether we get economic productivity or waste the resources of women who would choose to work, but are prevented from doing so or do not bring home enough money at the end of the month. I know many women working all the hours they can, whose earnings are taken up in child care costs to such an extent that they ask every week, or sometimes every day, “Is this actually worth it?” The cost of juggling caring responsibilities with work is a challenge in itself, even without the challenge of bringing home very little pay. Often there is a short-term crisis for a family for the sake of a long-term economic benefit for the individual, the family and the children. It is a key area and the Government should take it seriously.

I am concerned that many more Sure Start closures are looming than the 579 that have already happened. The Government dispute those figures, but their database of children’s centres shows that there are 3,053, while the official Department for Education figures in April 2010 showed that there were 3,632. Will the Minister clarify when she winds up—

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I have a series of questions, so perhaps the Minister can answer them all.

Where have the missing 579 centres gone? There is an obligation on local authorities to keep the figures updated. According to the Government’s figures, in black and white, those centres have gone, and the Government’s denial that they ever existed is causing confusion. What assessment has the Minister made of the anticipated number of closures over the next two years? In Oxfordshire, for example, 37 may be closed, and in my local authority area the closure of a large number is being considered and all 20 are under review. Presumably such things are happening elsewhere in the country, and I wonder whether the Government have a handle on it.

Photo of Pat McFadden Pat McFadden Labour, Wolverhampton South East

Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue is not just the total number of Sure Starts? It is what they are doing. Many have stayed open but have had to cut back what they offer. The argument about numbers is important, but it is not the whole story. The diminished offer from some Sure Starts that have managed to stay open is part of it.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Perhaps the Minister can respond not only to my questions but to the issue outlined by my right hon. Friend.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I shall make the point about numbers again in my closing remarks, as I intended, but I am puzzled by Opposition comments because currently Sure Start provides 1% of child care places and schools provide 30%. Why have the Opposition not talked about places for under-fives in schools but about Sure Start centres, which provide far fewer places? It is a strange way to approach a debate about child care.

Photo of Jimmy Hood Jimmy Hood Labour, Lanark and Hamilton East

Order. Before the hon. Lady responds, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that I shall call the Front-Benchers at 3.40 pm at the latest, to give them 10 minutes each. I have one speaker left on my list who may want some time.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Thank you for that clarification, Mr Hood, and for your management of the debate.

I appreciate the Minister’s point, but the Government promise a roll-out of additional places for two-year-olds and I know for a fact that many schools do not have the capacity to provide pre-schooling places for three-year-olds at the moment, let alone for the two-year-olds to whom the Government aspire to give places. It would therefore seem logical for Sure Start to be among the places where child care places are provided. That is why I question the Government not only about the broader picture for Sure Start—including its important early intervention work and the fact that it is available and accessible for new mums and communities—but about the loss of child care places when Sure Start centres go.

Can the Minister also clarify the guidance on the provision of children’s centres published in April? It states that children’s centres and their services should be

“within reasonable reach of all families with young children”.

However, there seems to be no clarity on what “reasonable reach” means. What journey by public transport might be deemed reasonable? What are the reasonable changes a family would be expected to make? If they were travelling with a pram or buggy, which presumably they would be, given that young children are involved, is that reasonable? How frequent must a bus service be to be deemed reasonable? How much should it cost a young family to travel by public transport to a children’s centre? I would be grateful if the Minister provided some clarity on those issues, which would help to inform the debate around not only child care but Sure Start more widely.

Photo of Nicholas Dakin Nicholas Dakin Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:30 pm, 20th November 2013

May I apologise, Mr Hood, for not being here at the beginning of the debate as I was in a delegated legislation Committee? I am sure, however, that my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson gave an excellent speech and I congratulate her on securing the debate. Such debates are little like buses: we do not have a debate on child care and then two come along at once. The quality of debate both yesterday and today reflects the quality of debate in the country. The issue is important and central to families up and down the land, both in the constituencies represented in the debates and in those not represented.

I want to begin with a statistic to which my right hon. Friend Mr McFadden has already alluded. It is the thing that has affected me the most over the past month. Ofsted has stated that five-year-olds from the least affluent backgrounds are 19 months behind five-year-olds from the most affluent backgrounds in development terms. That is a shocking statistic, and it alone should be a call to arms for all of us to roll up our sleeves and to put child care centre stage. The costs of child care should not be a barrier to addressing that inequality.

If I had a penny for every time I have heard Members of Parliament on both sides of the House refer to the need to close the inequality gap, I would be a very rich person. There is a theoretical commitment to doing something, but we need to turn that belief in principle into a belief in practice. Only through practical effects can we change the situation for those five-year-olds who become tomorrow’s adults and leaders. Chloe Smith, for whom I have a lot of respect, appeared to say that we perhaps cannot afford to do the right thing, but the Ofsted statistic tells us that we cannot afford not to do the right thing. We need to find the finance, whatever the situation, to address the issue. It is absolutely crucial.

I have visited many nursery settings in my Scunthorpe constituency over the past month, and I was struck by the vast variety and diversity of those settings. As the Minister mentioned, many of them are nurseries attached to schools, which provide a very important part of that landscape. I visited Messingham farm nursery, which is a new business in my constituency that meets the needs of a particular community and does a fantastic job. As the name suggests, it is about not only child care, but also using animal care to provide a particular experience for young people. I also visited the Ark family centre, which is run in partnership with the Baptist Church and delivers very good nursery care. Finally, last week, I took advantage of what was laughingly called a “mini-recess” to go to the Ashby Sure Start children’s centre, which is a fantastic facility that was created as a result of the previous Government’s Sure Start initiative. It is transforming the lives of the children in an area of my constituency where such a service is most needed.

I am always impressed by the quality, professionalism and commitment of the people working with children in such settings and by the way in which they divide up their time based on specific skill sets to address the needs of children at different stages of development. At the Ashby children’s centre last week, I was shown the files in which each child’s progress is carefully measured. Interestingly, I was told that schools are now more interested in receiving that information and building on it. The transition to the next stage of education should therefore be more secure, which was perhaps not the case a few years ago. We can see how the investment in nursery education is making a real difference.

I want to refer to the recent concerns of the Children’s Society about tax-free child care replacing the employer-supported child care vouchers. The Minister will hopefully take this opportunity to address the society’s concerns, because it is clearly focused on children’s well-being. Parents on universal credit will not be eligible to receive tax-free child care. Instead, they will receive a component of universal credit up to 85% of child care costs. Working parents on the lowest incomes will receive help with up to 70% of costs. It seems odd to me and to the Children’s Society that working parents on the lowest incomes will get the lowest level of support. If its concern is accurate, I hope the Minister will address that point.

The Children’s Society is also concerned that the complexity of having two systems of child care support for working parents and issues around the threshold may cause the same sort of difficulties that many of us experienced in relation to the Child Support Agency. If the Government provide help with only 70% of child care costs to those on the lowest incomes, can they still guarantee that every hour of work will pay for those on universal credit if there is an increase in the tax threshold? There may be an unforeseen consequence that we would all want to avoid. Children’s charities, including the Children’s Society, have asked for 85% support for those on universal credit, and I hope that the Government will examine that and ensure that that is the case for all parents on universal credit.

I will end with some points of concern. The cost of nursery places has risen by 30% since the last general election, which is five times faster than pay. At the same time, the same families are seeing their budgets squeezed by the rise in energy prices and transport costs and by general inflation. The average bill for a part-time nursery place of 25 hours a week has gone up to £107, and parents working part-time on average wages would have to work from Monday to Thursday before they paid off their weekly child care costs.

There are 576 fewer Sure Start centres, with three being lost on average every week. The Minister and I might disagree about the numbers, but I think we agree that Sure Start centres have been closed and have had their functions changed, which is clearly evidenced by what people across the country tell us. There are 35,000 fewer child care places than at the time of the last election.

The Government’s initiative of offering places to disadvantaged two-year-olds is positive. It did have teething problems when it was initially rolled out due to a qualification around Ofsted reports, which are often five or six years old. Fortunately, in my area that problem has been overcome. However, I am sure the shadow Minister and the Minister will wish to address those issues of practicality to ensure that together we take the opportunity to do something about the 19-month difference, before it is too late.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Education) 3:40 pm, 20th November 2013

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr Hood. I had hoped for my first outing as a Front-Bench spokesperson to be in this Chamber, but we had a similar debate in the main Chamber yesterday. I am hoping that today will be slightly less boisterous than some of our exchanges then.

I thank my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson for securing this extremely important debate. I declare, as she did, an interest—in fact, our children play together at the same nursery, here in the House of Commons. Many Members present share such an interest, in that our children are in child care. Over the past few days, we have seen how important the issue is for many of our constituents, as a debate is now raging throughout the country.

For the record, the Labour party is proud of what we achieved on early years during our time in office, but there was still much to do when we left government. There is no silver bullet or panacea to resolve such difficult and complex issues. The point, however, is the direction of travel, which under the Labour Government was positive and in the right direction, but under this Government has turned back. Ensuring that we have good, affordable and flexible child care is not only critical to families and to closing some of those inequality gaps, but to the economy as a whole, as we have heard from Members today. That is why we need to do more about it.

Instead of repeating the arguments that we had yesterday, I want to take the opportunity to discuss further some of the issues that have been mentioned. We heard from my hon. Friend a cogent argument about the triple whammy facing families: rising costs, falling places and cuts to support.

Since 2010, the number of child care places has fallen by more than 35,000. As the Minister agreed yesterday, we now have 2,423 fewer childminders than in 2009, so places are going down under this Government. We had some debate about Labour’s record on childminders, but I want to put on the record at least once a quote from the chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, when she gave evidence to the Children and Families Bill Committee:

“The statistic…often…quoted…is not one we recognise in terms of the scale of downsizing of registered childminders in the period that the Minister talks about”— when Labour was in government.

“Pre-Ofsted registration, childminders were managed by local authorities and registered locally”,

and,

“when Ofsted took over that registration, there was a clearout of a lot of data on individuals who were not practising childminders.”––[Official Report, Children and Families Public Bill Committee, 7 March 2013; c. 99, Q208.]

The Minister also asked why we were not discussing school nursery provision, but we are very much doing so. First, Labour policy is to extend nursery provision to three and four-year-olds for 15 hours a week, which is leading to school nurseries being able to offer that to parents. Members present today, such as my right hon. Friend Mr McFadden, mentioned the provision of offers for three and four-year-olds in school nurseries. Our policy pledge is about extending that offer further still.

The figures that we were talking about are for childminders and child care places, but if the Minister wishes to take some credit for Labour’s policy for three and four-year-olds, I am happy for her to do so.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My specific point was that the 35,000 figure cited by the hon. Lady is only that from the Ofsted early years register; there are also nursery places on the schools register for Ofsted, which have not been counted in her numbers. The claim was that there are 1.3 million child care places, but there are actually 2 million, because the two registers were not added together by the Opposition; Labour used only one of the registers in its analysis, so its numbers are wrong.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Education)

I do not want to get into a stats war with the Minister, but the point is that families up and down this country know that it is getting harder and harder to find childminders and quality early-years provision. As the Minister knows, there is also massively increased demand: the birth rate has been rising by more than 125,000 year on year while the Government have been in office. The sector is therefore facing significantly increased demand as well.

On Sure Start, my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell rightly asked the Minister about the figures. The Department for Education’s own press release from June 2010 stated that there were 3,621 Sure Start centres; recently, the Directgov website showed that there were only 3,053. That is where our figures come from—they are the Minister’s own figures. The point being made today, however, is that the issue is not only about the numbers, but about the services being offered, because many Sure Start centres are being downgraded.

I do not want to confuse matters, because there are two separate issues: Sure Start centres and their provision for early-years intervention work; and Sure Start and child care provision. The Policy Exchange paper showed that, in the poorest areas, child care provision is of the poorest quality—that is why the Sure Start provision of child care is of particular importance. It has focused on some of the most deprived areas, where child care quality is at its worst. That is where it is most needed. We still need Sure Start centres that are able to provide child care.

On the model more broadly, the early intervention grant, which provides the funding for children centres, will be halved between 2010 and 2015, going from £3 billion a year to £1.5 billion a year. That is what is having such an impact on the services that Sure Start centres are able to provide to new mums. Those centres play a critical role.

I asked a further question about the Sure Start model yesterday, which I hope the Minister can answer today. It was about another critical component of delivering that essential support for new mums—the role of health visitors. The Prime Minister said before the election that we would have 4,200 new health visitors by 2015. Will the Minister update us today on what progress has been made?

I will skip past some of my other points, but I will repeat the request for an answer to the questions asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) about universal credit and its impact on whether the lowest-income families can meet child care costs. Will the Minister also answer those questions?

The Government response seems to have been to do little in their time in office—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but the Minister’s own flagship policy on child care ratios has now been resoundingly dumped by her colleague; we welcome the extension of the free offer to two-year-olds, but delivery problems remain; and childminder agencies are an unknown quantity and an experiment. We will see how they pan out.

The Government’s main flagship policy now seems to be the tax-free child care policy, but that is too little, too late. The scheme is not coming in until the autumn of 2015, and the people who will benefit most from it will be the highest paid—the more people spend on child care and the more they earn, the more they will benefit. It will do absolutely nothing about cost. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the scheme—putting so much into the system on the demand side, rather than on the supply side—will lead to costs going up further still. I hope for reassurance from the Minister on that today.

Labour has new policies to extend the three and four-year-old offer from 15 to 25 hours a week and around guaranteeing wrap-around care—welcome policies that are a step in the right direction and will help families to meet the child care crunch that they face. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East so eloquently put it, such policies are only steps in the right direction—as a country, we face a big challenge, and we will need bigger and bolder policies to address it. Under this Government, we are going in the wrong direction.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:49 pm, 20th November 2013

I congratulate Bridget Phillipson on securing today’s debate. I associate myself very much with the comments made by all parents here today; I am the proud mother of two daughters. We need more parents representing people in the House. I am a great supporter of the changes that we have made to parliamentary hours, but we could do more to make the House of Commons a parent-friendly place. It is important to have representatives who are also mothers or fathers.

I am afraid that I cannot agree, however, with the hon. Lady’s analysis of the Government’s policies or indeed of the previous Government’s record. As my hon. Friend Chloe Smith pointed out, that Government left the biggest budget deficit of any major economy, and as a result we were borrowing £1 for every £4 that we spent. In those circumstances, the support that the Government have given to parents and families is excellent. We have increased total spending on child care and early-years education: it was almost £5 billion but will be over £6 billion. We have increased the number of hours of free early-years education for three and four-year-olds from 12.5 hours to 15 hours a week, which is worth £400 per child for parents. We have extended support to two-year-olds, and tax-free child care, available from 2015, will be worth up to £1,200 per child. That provision is flexible between the ages of nought and five so parents can spend the allowance in the way that they see fit. We are providing support to families in tough times.

I want to comment briefly on the claims made about child care places. There is a genuine issue here, and we need to be clear about the figures. There are two different registers upon which child care places are based under

Ofsted. The most accurate figures can be found in the Department for Education early-years providers survey from 2011—that is the most recent of those surveys, which are biennial. I am concerned that the Opposition’s figures do not include the 800,000 places in school nurseries. In places such as London, about 50% of all places are based in schools. As Baroness Morgan, an Opposition peer, has pointed out, school provision gives a strong basis for future progression and avoids some of the issues with transition that Opposition Members have raised. I would like to point out that our survey shows that over 200,000 places are available across the country. It is wrong to say that there is a shortage of places. Of course, I agree that we need to do more work on supply and quality.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I am sorry, but I will not be able to take interventions at the moment because I want to try to answer all the many questions hon. Members have raised.

Labour claims that costs have risen by 30% since the Government took office. The study that was mentioned also suggested that costs had risen by 50% under the previous Labour Government. Child care costs have been rising year on year, but other recent studies suggest that those costs are now stabilising and have been flat in real terms for the past two years. Across the political spectrum, we need to analyse why we put the same amount of money into our child care system as countries such as France and Germany but parents in those countries pay a lot less—they pay about half the costs that parents here pay. It is not just about the money that the Government are putting in; it is about the efficiency of provision, competition in the child care market and how that market works. I have spent a lot of time thinking about that as a Minister, and some of my plans are aimed at addressing those specific issues.

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I will briefly, but I want to try to answer all the questions raised.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Minister (Education)

I appreciate that the Minister is being generous in giving way. On the basis of the analysis that she has just given, how does she think that giving a tax-free child care offer will address the costs?

Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

That offer will help parents to pay towards the costs of child care. Our reforms to encourage more childminders, more school-based care and more private and voluntary nurseries are aimed at expanding supply. Those two policies go hand in hand.

The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South is not right in her analysis that after-school clubs have declined. In fact, our most recent study shows that they have increased by 5%. One of the issues with the extended schools policy that Labour had before the election was that schools could simply put a link to a child care provider on their website, or something like that, and that would count as providing an extended school place; the school had ticked the box, but there was not really any all-day provision. We are working on aligning requirements during the school day and afterwards, as well as making it easier for schools to collaborate with outside providers, so that they can provide real care on the school site.

It is important that schools are encouraged to use their assets better. It helps children to learn more and supports working parents. We are working hard to encourage more schools to do that. I am pleased to say that, for example, the Harris academy chain has agreed that all its new primary schools will have a school day of 8 am to 6 pm. We need to make provision in a sustainable way that enables schools to mix and match with their school day, so that children have extra learning and extra opportunities for creativity, sports and after-school activities. We are keen to encourage that approach.

A lot of claims have been made about children’s centres. As I said in the debate in the House yesterday, the figures on the Department for Education website are about the management structures of children’s centres. There have been only 45 outright closures. A lot of management structures have been merged but with the centres remaining open. In fact, a record number of parents are using children’s centres—over 1 million this year. That shows the success of those centres.

I wanted to respond briefly to the excellent comments that Mr McFadden, the hon. Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and my hon. Friend Dr Coffey all made about the importance of quality in early-years provision. I could not agree more. We need more highly qualified people in that area. That is why we have developed the early-years educator qualification and are offering bursaries this year for early-years educators—that is, young people with good qualifications who wish to enter the professions of child care and early-years education. We have also matched the entry requirements for early-years teachers to those for teachers. This year we have seen an increase of 25% in registrations on our early-years teacher course because of the higher profile that it has had. That will encourage more good people into early-years education.

This year, we have also started Teach First for early-years provision. For the first time, we have high-quality graduates going into the Teach First programme and working with three and four-year-olds. Some will be working with two-year-olds as well, as those places are rolled out in schools. For example, starting in January, the Oasis academy in Hadley is offering 40 places for two-year-olds with a Teach First early-years teacher. Exciting things are happening in schools to get highly qualified people working with our youngest children. Of course, that is being done in an age-appropriate way; when I visited the class of two-year-olds based there already, they were having their feet painted then running around, and doing other things like that. It is certainly not about two-year-olds studying trigonometry. Some of Baroness Morgan’s comments on the matter have been misinterpreted: the aim is to develop early language skills.

The Opposition have proposals on child care places for three and four-year-olds. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North covered those proposals well when she said that the Opposition have already spent the bank levy 11 times. There is no magic money tree for policies such as that one. We have to make sure that we use our existing assets better. We are using schools better and giving new planning freedoms, so that shops and offices can be converted into new nurseries.

We also particularly want to see a revival in the number of childminders. I agree with Lucy Powell that we need more high-quality childminders. One issue is that new people have not been joining the childminding profession and the average age within it is gradually rising. We need good ways to attract new people into childminding. Childminding agencies are one of the ways in which we will be able to do that. The hon. Lady will be interested to hear that we are working on involving children’s centres in our attempts to increase childminder numbers, because we think those centres can help to provide a network and training for childminders. We must also make sure that we use nursery facilities and school nursery facilities better.

The hon. Member for Scunthorpe asked a lot of questions about universal credit. I will reply in writing to him, as I do not think I will be able to answer them in the 15 seconds I have left to speak. But there is a lot of common ground in this debate, and I am happy to share more of the figures and details on this matter with the Opposition to make sure that we are debating on the same terms.