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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:27 am on 19th February 2019.

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Photo of David Linden David Linden SNP Whip 10:27 am, 19th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Mr Davies, and I thank you for your forbearance, as I did not intend to sum up the debate, hence I am sat next to Jim Shannon in our usual season ticket seats. I extend my sincere congratulations to Darren Jones on securing the debate and, on behalf of my party, I wish him all the best for the impending arrival of his next child.

It has been an excellent debate. The hon. Gentleman gave a thorough speech and spoke about some of the economic arguments—that more people in work means more people paying tax and increased productivity. I certainly agree. He also challenged some of the gender inequality, which I thought was a powerful point. Ben Bradley has a strong track record of speaking in debates on family issues. He spoke powerfully about early intervention, which I definitely agree with. He also spoke about the need to pay nursery staff better and about some of the impacts of current pay rates, such as the high level of staff turnover. I shall come on to my experience of that.

The hon. Member for Strangford spoke about his experience of employing six staff, five of whom are women, and the need for employers to be flexible. He has obviously grasped that as an employer. We, as Members, are all employers, and we know that it is better for staff productivity if we can be flexible. He also spoke about the mysterious Strangford speechwriter, who I think will be the only person furious that this week’s recess was cancelled because it means their having to write more speeches for the hon. Gentleman as he continues with his impressive speaking record.

Alex Cunningham spoke powerfully about his experience, particularly in the Bill Committee. He gave a fair critique of the Government’s policy and particularly the link to the gig economy—an additional dimension to the debate that I do not think anyone else raised. He, too, hammered home the need to pay nursery staff better; I want to come to that later. He also spoke powerfully about something that I see in my own case load—the need to support in particular parents of disabled children. I would like to hear the Minister refer to that point when he winds up the debate.

Lastly, Thangam Debbonaire spoke about childcare for people attending job interviews and some of the social costs associated with childcare. She also spoke about her experience of seeing how things in the Netherlands work, particularly the equality between men and women. That is another issue that I want to come to. Finally, she spoke about some of the challenges experienced by lone parents.

At the outset of my remarks, I should probably, like the hon. Member for Bristol North West, declare a personal interest, in that I am already a beneficiary of free childcare for my son, Isaac, who since August last year has been part of Glasgow City Council’s expansion of nursery provision.

I want to break my remarks into three sections. First, I want to give the context of what we are doing in Scotland to try to revolutionise childcare. We have heard from Northern Ireland, Wales and England, so to complete the set, I will speak about Scotland. Secondly, I want to talk about some of the data picked up by CHANGE—Childcare and Nurture Glasgow East—which is a lottery-funded project in my constituency. Finally, I want to touch on one or two of the key challenges in this policy area.

The hon. Member for Bristol North West very eloquently set out the situation in the context of England, so I thought that it might be helpful if I set the scene in Scotland. The Scottish Government are pressing on with the implementation of their commitment to double the entitlement to funded early education and childcare for eligible two-year-olds and for all three and four-year-olds, taking that up to 1,140 hours by August 2020.

My own son, who attends a Scottish Gaelic-medium nursery, is already at nursery from 8 am to 1 pm five days a week, and my wife and I have greatly valued the flexibility that the current system allows us. As parents, we were able to decide whether we wanted him to attend for five half-days or whether it might be better to block-book two and a half days a week. In the end, because of my role as an MP and hers as a teacher, we decided that it would be best to spread the care over five days, but it was good to have that choice, which meant that we could tailor the care to our needs as a family. It is estimated that, in essence, the current investment in early learning and childcare is saving each family approximately £4,500 per child each year. That is certainly good news for families in my constituency of Glasgow East.

Having set the scene, I want to turn to some work that has been undertaken by an organisation doing work in my constituency and funded by the Big Lottery Fund. In a debate such as this, it is important that we look at the challenges, as well as the opportunities, that the provision-of-childcare policy will provoke. Although we have the ambitions that have been stated, there are also challenges, as I think we would all accept.

First, I know from my own constituency casework and the data collected by CHANGE that there are still challenges with nursery provision for children aged from zero to two. Fundamentally, fewer places are available and waiting lists are much more common. In the Parkhead area of my constituency, there are some outstanding nurseries, but there are serious supply and demand issues, on which I am currently lobbying Glasgow City Council; I hope that we might see action before long. When I met Anthony O’Malley from CHANGE, I was concerned to learn about the limited availability of childminders in my constituency, and it is now down to single figures. Certainly when I was a child growing up in the east end of Glasgow in the 1990s—I feel a bit strange talking about growing up when it was not that long ago—childminding was much more prevalent. We ought to be asking ourselves why the provision of that hugely beneficial service has declined in such a short time.

Secondly, childcare providers and families told the project that there is a need for more out-of-school care places in the area, especially in and around Parkhead. Perhaps an unintended consequence of the offer of extended nursery provision, coupled with the very well deserved increase in pay for child development officers in Scotland, is the concern that after or out-of-school care services may see an exodus of staff who see working in the nursery sector as a bit more attractive.

That brings me rather nicely to the final point that I wanted to touch on during the debate. It concerns general workforce and recruitment challenges for the expansion of early years provision. As a result of the ambitious plans to increase the offer of free childcare, we clearly need to recruit more child development officers.

Four or five months after I was elected, I attended a Scottish Government event at Tower View nursery in the Craigend area of my constituency. The event was a media launch of the campaign to recruit up to 11,000 additional staff to meet increased early years provision. One thing that struck me that day as I was going round carving pumpkins and meeting all the lovely children was the fact that we are still not getting it right in terms of seeing more men working in the sector; we perhaps need to do a little more to attract men to work in the nursery sector. Clearly, the debate around early years provision has moved more towards nurture, but I am not sure we are getting the balance right. I make that point as an observation and ask the people reflecting on these proceedings to consider that, because in Scotland only about 4% of the workforce in early years daycare provision is male. As we look to inspire children, we should look at role models, and perhaps we are not getting it right when 96% of the workforce is female.

I will finish where I started by talking about my own son’s experience. I want to say a massive thank you to all of the staff at his nursery who go the extra mile every single day and have a massive and hugely positive impact in shaping our little boy and how he perceives the world. We would all agree that that is a noble and rewarding profession, and I hope that many more people consider it as a career in the future.