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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:36 am on 19th February 2019.

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Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education) 10:36 am, 19th February 2019

I absolutely agree and I will probably pick up later on the idea that, despite the welcome alignment of men and women’s pension age, some women are coming to me and saying, “I can’t look after my daughter’s children, so she can’t go back to work, and I’m having to continue working.” Women Against State Pension Inequality has a case to make about the fact that the inability to find cost-effective childcare is impacting on their families.

We have heard some fantastic contributions. I value the work that Ben Bradley is doing with the Education Committee. Let me take a moment to thank him and his colleagues on that cross-party Committee for their report, “Tackling disadvantage in the early years”, which was published last week. I will flag up to the Minister, although I am sure that he will comment on it, the Committee’s observation that the Government’s own policy on 30 hours of funded childcare is

“entrenching inequality rather than closing the gap”,

and the Committee’s recommendation that the Government

“resurrect their review of children’s centres and…explore promoting family hubs as a wider model for provision of integrated services.”

The Committee’s work is absolutely invaluable in trying to close that disadvantage gap.

I welcome the contribution from Jim Shannon, including his personal stories about his workforce; his member of staff who sends speeches at 1 am deserves a medal. He, too, mentioned older women who are unable to look after their children’s children.

My hon. Friend Alex Cunningham celebrated childcare staff, and talked about nursing bursaries and nursing trainees. It is absolutely vital that we enable those people, who are going into incredibly stressful jobs—jobs that we absolutely need—to get the support they need to study, rather than their having to worry about getting a part-time job. My daughter is working in a bar at the moment and she is working alongside a nurse who working there to top up her salary, in order to work at night. That cannot be conducive for training, can it?

My hon. Friend Thangam Debbonaire was, as always, a fantastic champion for the single parent, for gender equality, and for childcare. Childcare for those who are training, volunteering or going to job interviews, and for entrepreneurs who are starting up, is absolutely vital. For example, 95% of businesses are run by women and were often started at their kitchen table. They need support, to help them to get their businesses up and running. There is also the magic of Sure Start—we have all said that, have we not?—with that confidentiality, and that opportunity to go in and get support.

My hon. Friend Chris Elmore, who is no longer in his place, made an intervention. It has been very interesting to hear what Wales and Scotland have on offer; I also welcomed the contribution by David Linden. The number of childminders is falling off a cliff and it is really important that we pull that back, and find really great strategic ways to support childminders, because they are the ones providing the wraparound care.

I thank everyone for their contributions today. It goes without saying that free or affordable childcare is fundamentally a good thing. It gives families autonomy over their own decisions; parents, especially mums, can go back to work and work the hours they wish to, within a timeframe that suits them. We know that so often the greatest barrier to accessing childcare is the cost, so we should always applaud efforts to bring the costs to parents down.

Free and high quality childcare has an incredibly positive impact on children. A child’s brain grows at an extraordinary rate in their first few years of life, and it is so important that children have access to stimulation and learning. Our collective aim should be that as many children as possible receive high quality early years education.

However, all is not well. The Government have introduced 30 hours of free childcare, a flagship policy in this area, but there are problems. The 30-hour policy excludes children whose parents are out of work. Those people’s children, many of whom would benefit the most from free childcare, are exactly the children who are being cruelly excluded from accessing it, through no fault of their own. I believe that is a fundamental flaw in the policy, and we may not understand the repercussions of that decision for a long time to come.

This term, more than 200,000 three and four-year-olds will receive that free childcare; that is 200,000 children who are entitled to double the support of their future classmates. They will arrive at school potentially having received hundreds more hours of learning than their more disadvantaged peers. We would not accept such exclusion in primary, secondary, or any other form of education, and I would like it to end for early years too.

Maintained nurseries are one part of the early years sector that does incredible work with children from disadvantaged areas. There has rightly been a huge amount of recent debate and discussion about those schools, because they are often the standard bearers for the sector. Wherever they are present, standards across the board are improved. I know the Minister realises how essential it is that those schools receive news about their funding as soon as possible. We have been told not to expect that news until the next financial review, but chatter suggests that an announcement could be made as soon as the spring statement. I do not expect the Minister to announce the funding today, but if he could shed some light on when the Department expects to make that announcement, I, Members, schools and concerned parents would be extremely grateful.

According to Members, charities, settings, think-tanks, Select Committees—just about anyone other than Ministers—the 30 hours policy needs more investment to work how we want it to. Local authorities are given an hourly rate that is set by central Government and passed on to providers for the hours that they look after eligible children. Regrettably, in too many circumstances the funding falls short of what is required to provide good quality childcare. Sector analysts Ceeda estimate that there is currently a £616.5 million shortfall in the private and voluntary early years sector. Providers are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are struggling and sometimes unable to make ends meet, so they pass on extra costs to parents in other ways.

Since the policy was introduced I have consistently warned of the havoc facing providers, but it has never felt as if those concerns have been taken seriously by the Department. The weight of evidence is becoming undeniable. The Early Years Alliance—formerly the Pre-school Learning Alliance—published a survey of more than 1,600 early years practitioners in September 2018, in which four in 10 childcare providers said there is a chance that they will have to close their setting in the next academic year due to the funding—or under-funding—of 30 hours’ free childcare. Eight in 10 providers said that there will be a somewhat or significantly negative impact on them if the funding rate stays the same next year. It has since been confirmed that only two councils will receive an increase in funding in April 2019. Thirteen will see a decrease, and the rest will have no change.

Will the Minister, when he responds to the debate, say whether any cross-Government discussions are taking place to increase funding for providers? What assessments are being carried out to ensure that parents are not paying for supposedly free hours of childcare through the back door? If those conversations are not happening, is he willing to facilitate a committee of providers—not just the big names, but childminders and small providers—to examine the day-to-day problems they face?

I am running out of time and I wish to give the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West an opportunity to respond to the debate. Briefly, however, let me mention a part of the sector that I am interested in—co-operatives. As Members will know, I sit as a Labour and Co-operative party MP. I have visited a number of co-operatives, and I am convinced we need to support them further. Co-ops allow time-rich but cash-poor families to contribute. They invite parents’ skills into the setting, and in return, parents get a say in how that setting is run. Those settings have huge potential, and in the spirit of co-operation I will conclude by saying that I will happily work with the Minister and his colleagues if he would like to explore ways of supporting co-ops.