Free Childcare: Costs and Benefits — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:07 am on 19th February 2019.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North 10:07 am, 19th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Davies.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Darren Jones on an excellent speech. It is a shame that he was not around a few years ago, because he could have been on the Bill Committee that considered the Childcare Act 2016. He would have been a tremendous asset at that time.

Although I would prefer to see a Labour Government delivering big on childcare, I, for one, recognise how the last Tory Government built on the legacy of the Blair-Brown Government—they most certainly did. I know that they like to pinch our policies, but I am always happy when they pinch the right ones.

I am saddened, however, that despite the Government’s policy of expanding childcare, which was progressive and actually made some progress, we are in danger of failing to land the kind of childcare provision that we want, because the implementation has fallen short. It has fallen short because the Government failed to engage properly with the sector originally. They failed to recognise the challenge they were facing in building capacity; they failed to understand the need to develop a sector that would be even more professionally led; and, despite the very welcome cash that came with the policy, they failed to recognise the need for professional staff to be paid a decent wage for looking after all our children.

I am a dad and a grandad, and my sons and grandson are the most precious of precious people to me; I am sure that there is not an MP here in Westminster Hall, or across the Estate, who does not think of their family in that way. Yet as a nation, we seem content to leave those most precious young members of our families to be looked after by people who are often on the minimum wage and discontented with their working lives. Ben Bradley referred to that issue in some detail, and I am sure that he agrees that we need much more action on it.

After all, childcare staff are some of the most loving and dedicated people that we have in our country. They do the job because it is their vocation. They do it despite a system that does not appreciate them for not just looking after our children, but keeping them safe. Should we really devalue them so much?

We know why we believe in childcare. It allows parents, especially mothers, to go back to work, which is important not just so that they can earn, but because it gives them the fulfilment of a challenging daily routine beyond childcare—believe you me, I know that that too can be challenging—the fulfilment of earning their own living and supporting their family, or perhaps the fulfilment of doing work that they feel passionate about.

We must ensure that parents have a choice, which the 15 or 30-hour offer provides, but we need to make sure that it is easily accessible and well resourced, and that we create happy spaces for children that result in happy parents who are content to leave them there. If the free childcare that we all like to boast of is not resourced properly, parents end up subsidising it through expensive contributions to meals and the provision of nappies and materials—even wet wipes.

Not everyone is covered, of course, and childcare can be expensive for those who are not. Some rely on family, but not everybody has family members who they can rely on or expect to take up childcare responsibilities. It is also important to recognise the specific needs of adoptive parents. If we are serious about encouraging people to foster and adopt, we must ensure that the law and regulations are favourable and provide them with an environment that supports them and enables them to do their jobs as well.

When I served on the Childcare Bill Committee—I lament the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West was not there—one area we looked at was the costs associated with the provision for disabled children. Parents of disabled children need an extra level of support. Often, going back to work is not an option for them, but they are in desperate need of respite care. From talking to my own local authority, Stockton-on-Tees, I know how difficult it can be to provide adequate respite services to all the families who need it. Last week, the Government passed yet more cuts to authorities, particularly across the north, which does not help to deliver on that agenda.

As other hon. Members have said, in the mainstream, we have a system of childcare vouchers and tax-free childcare. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West that the new tax-free childcare system is less favourable than the voucher system we are moving away from. In a previous debate on childcare, I reminded hon. Members of what the Prime Minster said on the steps of Downing Street after she entered office:

“We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”

Perhaps the Minister can share with us how the Government are actually helping poorer families who are in desperate need of childcare but do not currently qualify for the scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West referred to the Treasury Committee’s report on childcare, which found several gaps in the Government’s childcare schemes, including that one.

Access to childcare support while training is a real issue. Mothers who opt to do a nursing degree are particularly badly hit, especially with the advent of universal credit. There are women in my constituency who struggle to qualify for universal credit because, despite the fact that they work—and I believe they do work—on the wards during training, they do not accrue sufficient working hours, which has a direct knock-on effect on their entitlement to childcare. They are left to survive on child benefit and a student loan that they will have to pay back one day. We all know about the loss of the bursary scheme.

Parents aged 20 who wish to take on training can seek support only if they are on a further education course and are facing financial hardship. Childcare costs are a barrier to the participation of parents, especially young parents, in courses. Those costs actively prevent them from taking on the training that could advance their careers and give them more money to support their families.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West also mentioned the gig economy. Zero-hours contracts are notoriously inflexible, no matter how much people try to portray them as the opposite. Shifts are offered at the last minute, so staff who can drop everything to come into work at the drop of a hat are prioritised. Workers are also told at the last minute that they are not needed, so they lose out on a day’s expected pay.

There is a real risk of a parent needing last-minute childcare to be able to pick up a shift, but that flexibility does not exist in the system. Parents have to pay for childcare, but they frequently get to work and find that they are not needed, so they are shelling out money that they do not have. Not every worker knows their shift pattern two weeks or a month in advance—a bit like MPs, perhaps. Sometimes, workers are lucky to know 48 hours in advance. I am repeating myself, but we need childcare provision that matches the economy people work in.

During the Bill Committee a few years ago, Pat Glass, the then MP for North West Durham, and I challenged the then Minister time and again on building capacity, on the need for a professional-led service, on engaging with the sector and on so many other things. I know that it was not the Minister before us today, but the former Minister gave reassurances that have proved to be no more than fantasy. We were told that the market would sort it out, that there were people keen to enter the market—many did—that there were sufficient people coming through to staff the system, and that all would be well.

Sadly, that has not really happened. We have seen nurseries close, and we still see demands from parents for more and more support. We have a long way to go to ensure that we have that professional-led service. I would never do down our nurseries, which do tremendous work, but professionals should be leading that service. We need that provision to help people on the bottom rung of society who cannot get a job because they cannot get the training they need, since they do not qualify for the comprehensive childcare they need.

It is time to look again. We have a vast wealth of talent sitting dormant at home, often on social security, because our system does not recognise their need the way it should. We should concentrate resources on those people—starting with childcare, to allow them to get on with work. I also say to the Minister: please look again at the provision for people with disabled children, which remains totally inadequate. We really need action in that area.