[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 12th January 2021.

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Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 2:30 pm, 12th January 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on early years settings.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I would like to start by saying a huge thank you, if I may, to the early years leaders, the staff and the childminders up and down the country who have kept rising to all the challenges thrown at them during the pandemic over the last year, and kept putting the needs of our children first. They are often unsung heroes, putting their lives at risk many times to educate and care for our children, and I am delighted to be able to have this debate today to right the wrongs for those who have felt forgotten.

Far too often during the pandemic, the early years sector has felt like an afterthought, yet all the evidence shows that pre-school education is absolutely vital to a child achieving their potential. Going into school already months behind is too often a guide to underachievement later. Early years settings are essential and provide long-term benefits for the economy and society. They help to close the attainment gap between children from low-income families and their more advantaged peers, and remove barriers to employment, particularly for women, who are still disproportionately responsible for unpaid care. I hope that this debate will be an opportunity to correct the lack of support for early years settings throughout the pandemic, to look their representatives in the face, and to address and gain parity for early years with other education sectors.

Two local nursery headteachers got in touch with me this morning. I thank the Minister for meeting some of my local nursery headteachers during last year’s lockdown, because it is important to talk to headteachers. One of them said to me: “We are proud to be open, but we need support and clearly thought-out guidance focused on the early years. We are looking after their children, but who is looking after the staff?” Another said: “We really feel like a forgotten sector, and if primary schools in the UK and nurseries in Scotland are only open for key workers, why not nursery settings in England and Wales?”

Many questions are being asked today, and they are hoping for answers. I pay tribute to the Early Years Alliance, to the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, and the National Education Union for championing the sector. This is needed now, more than ever.

Early years leaders in my constituency have two major concerns that I will focus on today: safety and funding. First, there is a huge concern from early years staff about the safety of being open at the moment. Will the Government publish the evidence base for nurseries being open, and will they commit to reviewing the transmission rates regularly and revise this decision, if necessary?

Early years staff feel that they are putting their lives in danger by coming into school, and that they are putting their mental and physical health at risk. There is no social distancing in nurseries, and nor should there be. One local headteacher said to me: “I have been an early years professional for over 30 years, but today is the first time I go to work fearing for the safety of my staff, myself and that of my family.” Another constituent said to me: “I feel strongly that nurseries should only be providing childcare to children whose parents cannot work from home, or for key workers’ children and vulnerable children, for as long as schools stay closed.” That is a question being asked by parents and by staff across the country.

Last week, the Prime Minister conceded that, especially regarding the new variant of covid, schools are vectors for transmission. I have asked about early years settings in the briefings we have had with health experts and Ministers, and I understand that the data show that transmission rates reduce in line with age. However, with transmission rates so high at the moment—one in 20 people have covid in some parts of London—the transmission rates will still be high in nurseries.

Early years staff simply do not understand why it is so important that primary schools, right down to reception, have had to close because of community transmission, but not early years. The Secretary of State said in one briefing last week that nurseries open because they are businesses. Is that the real reason? We really need to know. Staff are worried and parents are confused, and this undermines public confidence in decisions and public health messaging. The Government need to provide answers.

That is safety, and now for finances: the UK’s childcare sector has been crushed financially by covid-19. There was already a £660 million shortfall in early years funding before the pandemic, and that has been worsened by the inadequate and patchy Government support throughout lockdown closures. The Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates that childcare settings received £4 in income for every £5 spent during the last lockdown. They are running at a significant loss. The financial issues faced by early years settings will result in closures, and they are a real risk to the diversity of early years settings, which we all value: parents value it, and children see the benefit of it across the country. Will that diversity still be there at the end of the pandemic?

Headteachers have said to me that this is currently about the survival of the fittest—those with the most accommodating landlord, those with councils paying the free entitlement funding, and any number of other factors—instead of survival based on the needs of and the best places for our children. The decision to allocate funding from this month onwards on the basis of current occupancy levels rather than pre-covid occupancy levels is incredibly misguided, and will spell financial ruin for thousands of nurseries. Costs such as rent, insurance and salaries are fixed for many nurseries, yet attendance is down because of illness, concerns about going in, being told to stay at home, lower enrolment for this year, and parents having reduced incomes themselves. The only financial support was the furlough payments received by many nurseries. I am sure that support will be lauded by the Minister later, but those furlough payments did not cover nurseries’ running costs, which stayed fixed.

I return to the issue of free entitlement funding from councils, which must be addressed. Councils receive the free entitlement funding from Government, but only some of them pass it on to the nurseries. Some do so on the basis of the number of children currently present. Schools, however, get funded on the basis not of the numbers present, but of the numbers enrolled at the school. That should be the same for nurseries. Many nurseries were not eligible for a small business grant, as most do not pay business rates. Maintained nurseries do pay business rates but were not allowed to apply for the business rates holiday. There were lots of anomalies in nursery funding, and there is still time to fix them.

Another nursery head pointed out to me this week that no financial support has been offered when settings have had to close for up to 10 days because of a positive test, and there was no financial support for cover staff. That is the one thing that could break them financially, as one teacher who contacted me pointed out. Maintained nurseries should be able to access the schools covid catch-up fund, but they are not able to do so, even though catch-up will be crucial to the life chances of those in early years. Will that be addressed? There are only 389 maintained nursery schools left in the UK, and only one in my constituency, Eastwood Day Nursery, which is outstanding and an essential part of local education provision.

Maintained nurseries were in major financial crisis before covid, and they now have increased costs for personal protective equipment and staffing, for which they have been unable to claim. They pay business rates, as I have said, but were not allowed to claim for the business rates holiday, and it has now emerged that they cannot claim from the covid catch-up fund. The headteacher at Eastwood Day Nursery said: “The quality of what we can offer in real jeopardy if our funding is reduced. We are fearful that the much-needed service we provide to the children of a very deprived community is at great risk if we do not have the secure funding to continue our work. Nurseries will simply not be able to continue at the current rates. Closures of early years settings across the country will deepen both financial and educational inequalities, while slowing the recovery from the pandemic.

I have several urgent questions for the Minister and would be grateful if she could answer them in her response. My first question is on safety: will the Department for Education publish the evidence base for the decision to keep nurseries open? Will that be reviewed regularly and will consideration be given to closing nurseries during this lockdown, for the safety of staff and to stop the spread of the virus in our community? Any closures must come with support for families, including a legal right to flexible furlough for childcare reasons, and not a cut in universal credit. Will the Government provide funding for PPE for early years settings? Will the Minister ensure that early years settings have priority for lateral flow testing, ideally delivered to the early years settings and then picked up, and that all early years staff and childminders are prioritised to receive the vaccine as soon as possible?

Will serious consideration be given to prioritising education funding for early years settings? Issues that need to be addressed include their ability to claim for PPE expenditure and the covid catch-up fund, and the fact that they are penalised for pupils’ absence and do not receive free entitlement funding. Much more clarity of funding is needed, as different councils make different decisions—it is a postcode lottery. Will the Minister confirm whether nurseries will receive funding to cover support when teachers have to self-isolate, or will the whole nursery have to close? Will the business rates holiday be applied to maintained nursery schools? Will the Minister work with her colleagues in the Treasury to bring forward a new package of financial support for private and maintained early years settings, to look at provision across the country and make sure that the sector is secure enough to be able to build back?

I conclude with a quote from the headteacher of a nursery in my constituency in Putney: “But who are we, the forgotten educators who ensure that people can continue to work knowing their precious children will be cared for and educated safely? We are in trouble. We need your help. We have been given no support for PPE or to implement extra hygienic measures. Our staff are putting themselves at risk every day, and we do it willingly. We do it because we are early years professionals and we care. But please, we need help. If early years settings go bankrupt because of lack of Government support, who will look after our children—your children —in the future?”

My message to the Minister is simple: the early years sector desperately needs her help. I urge her to listen and to act.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester 2:41 pm, 12th January 2021

I congratulate Fleur Anderson on securing and introducing this debate. As chair of the all-party group on childcare and early education, I want to make a brief contribution. I hope the hon. Lady will join the group. We look forward to having her as speaker at our next meeting. She will be very welcome.

On occupancy and demand for places, demand is, on average, 21% lower than it was in 2019. The Government had been basing early entitlement funding on pre-covid attendance rates, but it was announced just before Christmas that this would stop in the spring term. New guidance has not yet been issued on whether councils should continue to fund places for children not currently attending. That said, I was pleased to learn that Hampshire, my own county, said last week that it will guarantee funding until half term—which is good but obviously very short-term—whether or not parents decide to keep their children at home due to the pandemic.

More generally, I want to place on record a survey carried out in November by the excellent Early Years Alliance, which found that 56% of providers said that basing fees on current occupancy would have a negative or very negative impact on them. Of those, 45% said they did not think they would be able to remain viable for more than six months as things stand. This means that the decision to remove this support could result in some big closures by late spring. It is that urgent, remembering, as we do, that early years settings are open and allowing parents to go to work.

Turning to testing and vaccinations, it is hugely welcome, as the hon. Lady said, that early years staff will be offered asymptomatic testing. When she closes the debate, will the Minister provide some detail on when and how that will be accessible, what support and training practitioners will be offered with administering the tests; and, of course, how associated costs will be covered?

Some practitioners have been offered vaccinations by their local hospital. Some, obviously, will come within the first four groups, but that is not the case for all. Early years practitioners are bravely continuing to come into work, despite the current prevalence of the virus in society. In my opinion, they, along with other educators and critical workers, should be offered the vaccine as a priority in phase 2 of the roll-out. I made that point in this very Chamber yesterday, so I will not labour it again.

Thirdly, on self-isolation and covid in early years settings, we know it is a constant juggle for settings to remain open due to the number of staff self-isolating. Nurseries have had to form closed bubbles of specific staff and children, meaning that if there is a positive test in one bubble, the other children need to isolate. That obviously has an impact on parents, particularly critical workers, so I would argue that offering routine testing for the early education sector and prioritising it for the vaccine roll-out is key.

Furthermore, having a lot of staff self-isolating and testing positive also means that practitioners are struggling to maintain the important staff ratios. I have heard many nursery owners say that they are not clear whether, if they had to close due to a lack of available staff, they would lose their entitlement funding. They will typically also lose parent fees in this situation, which means that paying staff and keeping up with other costs, such as rent and utilities, becomes a real challenge.

It is important to note that for childminders, who are so often overlooked in this whole early years debate—I declare my interest, because I am married to one—a positive test will almost always mean the temporary closure of the entire business, which will have an impact on all those who rely on that childminder.

It would remiss of me not to mention the pre-existing funding challenges, which have already been touched on. They never went away and were, of course, the subject of the debate I led in this place last month. The early education sector was, I continue to argue, experiencing market failure long before the pandemic. Funding levels have not covered the cost of provision for many years. Ceeda, an excellent independent research company, has shown that even if occupancy levels were exactly the same now as they were in spring 2019, some 77% of childcare providers would still be coping with a shortfall of £2 per hour for every funded two-year-old, and 90p per hour for every funded three and four-year-old. That drag becomes a problem, and it is now a real problem.

I thank the Minister for the 1.2% increase in funding rates due to come into effect in April. However, in practice and at best, it equates to just 6p or 8p an hour per child for childcare providers across England—at a time when we should remember that the national living wage is due to increase by 2.2.%.

In closing, I still believe we need to commission an independent, meaningful review of early years policy and funding, to ensure that the gap between the costs of delivering early education and the rate paid per hour per child to providers is closed and eventually eliminated. If we do not do that, we are going to lose a lot of provision, which would serve nobody and would be the opposite of levelling up.

Finally, I want to say how sad it is that sittings in Westminster Hall will not continue after today if the motion tonight goes ahead. As a former Minister who has spent many hours sitting in this Chamber and responding to debates, I believe that good scrutiny leads to good policy and good government, and without it, we are all worse off.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 2:47 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson on securing the debate and making an excellent opening speech. Although she has been here quite a short time, she is becoming an exceedingly accomplished parliamentarian.

“Underfunded for years, future funding cut, and now expected to work at a time where the new variant is more transmissible, when most others are instructed to stay home. The decisions this Government is making will be the nail in the coffin for many providers. There will be a shortage of childcare space when society returns to more normal times.” Those are not my words; they were sent to me by a manager of an early years setting in my constituency. They deserve better.

On Saturday, I sent out a short survey asking for childcare providers, staff and parents to respond in advance of this debate—although I did not know at that time that I would be chosen to speak, and certainly not quite so high up on the call list. Just before the start of this debate, we had 748 responses. I would be happy to pass them on to the Minister, because I can only use a small selection in the debate today.

It is not before time that we discuss early years settings in this place. Since the start of the pandemic, while the subject of schools has rightly been discussed and debated widely, early years settings have been largely ignored by the media and neglected by the Government. During the first lockdown, nurseries and providers wrote to me. They were anxious about the future, stuck with very little Government support and dependent on the continued support of parents. The Early Years Alliance warned in October that as many one in six settings could close as a direct result of the lack of support given during the crisis.

Nurseries in my city and across the country relied financially on parents continuing to pay their fees, often at significant cost, while their children remained at home.

A little over a week ago, early years settings were again plunged into crisis. Having opened up all the schools on Monday, the Prime Minister then reversed that decision on television, closing all the schools from Tuesday morning. However, he asked all the early years settings to remain open. Early years staff in my constituency were and still are very concerned that their safety is deemed to be less important than that of their counterparts in primary and secondary schools.

Amanda, a staff member in an early years setting in my constituency, said:

“I don’t think this decision reflects how important early years staff are. We feel forgotten and very put upon. We feel unprotected. Does our health not matter? Social distancing in early years is impossible.”

Amy, a childminder in Leeds, said:

“We can’t wear PPE, we can’t socially distance and we are regularly coughed, sneezed and spat on as part of our job. I accept that puts me and my family at greater risk. However, there is no recognition of this from the Government. It feels as though early years staff are being thrown to the wolves for the sake of keeping parents working.”

Just hours after the Prime Minister’s announcement last week, early years settings in my constituency were in crisis. Staff were scared and did not feel safe, protected or valued by the Government. Some of those settings chose to close on Tuesday anyway, to assess the situation fully and to conduct a proper assessment of the risk that staff were being asked to take.

That risk is significant. Jill, an early years teacher in my constituency of Leeds North West, described the risk that she takes every day. She told me:

“I am 56, with a history of cancer and lung problems. My husband is 75, and I am my mum’s support. She is 85 and has not been vaccinated yet. I am very worried that contact with so many children who cannot socially distance puts myself and my family at risk.”

Lindsay, a childminder, said that she feels obliged to earn money and play her civic part. However, she is juggling the home schooling of four of her own children and had to tell them that they cannot visit their father, who is receiving palliative care, because of the children she is obliged to invite to their home for her work.

The Government say that there are good reasons for making an exception of early years settings. They point out that for children in that crucial age group no online substitute is available for nursery or pre-school education. That is true; there is no doubt that another lockdown would have significant detrimental effects on young children, who all depend on their routine and their social interactions. Also, early years settings provide a lifeline for children who have difficult or chaotic home lives, and are a key weapon in reducing educational inequality. And for parents, the reactive, unpredictable and knee-jerk decisions that have been taken have caused huge anxiety for them and their families. Many of them are worried about the effects of another closure; they are not only worried about their own working lives but about the psychological effect on their children.

However, these facts prompt important questions. Why is it that the Government recognised the value of early years education only after they asked staff to go on the frontline? Why has almost every other frontline worker been promised early vaccination except for these vital members of staff? Last week, I tabled a written question asking the Minister to prioritise early years staff in the vaccination effort. She wrote back, saying:

JCVI”— the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation

“advise that the first priorities for the covid-19 vaccination programme should be prevention of mortality and the maintenance of the health and social care systems. As the risks of mortality from covid-19 increase with age, prioritisation is primarily based on age. Regarding the next phase of vaccine roll-out, JCVI have asked that the Department of Health and Social Care consider occupational vaccination, in collaboration with other Government Departments. The Department for Education inputs into this cross-governmental exercise and I hope that educational staff, including those in early years settings, will be vaccinated as soon as possible.”

In short, there is no saying when, or if, these members of staff will receive the vaccine. It has been clearly stated by respondents to my survey that the urgent need for the vaccine for frontline early years staff is of paramount concern. Those members of staff need a firm commitment to and a timeline for vaccination. Asking them to wait for the outcome of a cross-governmental exercise is simply not good enough.

Yesterday, less than 24 hours ago, I stood here in Westminster Hall and spoke in a debate before Steve Brine, but I think that we were of one mind in advocating a 24-hour vaccination programme. I repeat this call now. There are very few early years staff who I have heard from—as I said, there have been 748 responses to my survey—who would not go for a vaccination out of hours to ensure that they were protected from the virus. If we cannot provide 24-hour vaccination, it would not be morally defensible to ask staff to go to work when they do not feel safe.

The second thing that early years staff and providers, as well as parents, need from the Government if early years settings are to remain open is clear guidelines, and measures to ensure that those guidelines are being met. The working environments on which people are reporting back to me are patchy. Many early years settings have ensured that they have small bubbles and good safety procedures, but I am also hearing worrying reports of bubbles of up to 40 children, and very little protection for staff. PPE must be made available for all staff in early years settings and mask-wearing must be a requirement for every parent or other visitor to such settings.

Thirdly, we need clarity about the risk. We need to understand the full science behind every Government decision, especially when asking people to work on the frontline. Many workers in childcare settings worry about the accuracy of information on early years contraction. After all, we know how difficult and unpleasant tests are to administer ourselves, let alone to a toddler with a temperature.

Finally and crucially, early years settings need a commitment on funding. In this year of all years, the funding of a setting should not depend on 2020 or 2021 attendance. Settings where parents have had to withdraw children to protect them and staff should not be punished or suffer financially. I want to underline the point made in a letter written by Leeds City Council to the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment. It calls for funding to be based on 2019 attendance, with a view to a sustainable, long-term funding model for the sector.

As Helen, a provider in my constituency, warns, many early years settings are already on a very tight budget and cannot afford to open with reduced numbers and income. There is a real possibility that many groups will be forced to close permanently. This is a question of value. We know how crucial early years settings are. We know how crucial the staff are. We cannot ask them to work in an environment where they simply do not feel safe. There does not have to be a binary choice between protecting staff on one hand and ensuring provision on the other.

If this crisis has taught us anything, it is that we cannot afford to undervalue our key workers and key institutions. We cannot wait until we are back in this place after another crisis. We must ensure the financial future for our early years settings and improve outcomes for staff, families and, most crucially, children.

I want to end with a quote from Nikki, a childcare provider in Leeds. She believes that, once it is safe to do so, we must all visit settings in our communities. She said:

“MPs need to listen to staff and owners when we say we need help, to listen to the voice of children and see first hand how hard staff work, with no regard for themselves, to ensure that children in our care are cared for, loved and reassured.”

Photo of Christian Wakeford Christian Wakeford Conservative, Bury South 2:56 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I thank my colleague from the Education Committee, Fleur Anderson, for bringing forward this important and timely debate.

I, too, declare an interest: I am the father of a toddler in an early years setting. Like many parents, in the first lockdown I truly came to understand the difficulty of home-based learning and working at home. I was simultaneously trying to sit on Select Committees and take part in debates with a two-year-old wanting to climb into my lap and wave at everyone. Granted, when that happened in a meeting with No. 10, it was very pleasing to see the Prime Minister wave back. However, it causes difficulties. When the router is unplugged in the middle of a Select Committee and we have no idea what is happening, by the time we dial back in the meeting is already over.

There are difficulties, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for every parent who went through them last year. It was a difficult time but we got through it. Now we have different difficulties. We are highlighting the difficulties of a sector of the education system that has got forgotten, but it has taken this pandemic to truly see the importance of early years. We need to do that now, because the teachers and childminders, our maintained nurseries, our private settings, do a job that many people do not understand, cannot comprehend and cannot do themselves, no matter how much they wish to. Despite all my love for trying, play-based learning does not come easily to me, although I must admit that I am quite enjoying reading “The Runaway Pea” and “Superworm” almost nightly.

One positive of the pandemic is that it has re-highlighted the importance of the early years sector, and we cannot let that be forgotten. Unfortunately, far too many negatives have come out of this pandemic. To echo the hon. Member for Putney, early years intervention, which we have discussed many times in the Select Committee, really needs to come to the fore. We rightly have great intensive intervention for key stage 4 and GCSEs, but if we brought that intervention forward into primary, and ideally into early years, it would not need to be as intensive.

We have already discussed safety, and I echo the calls for the scientific guidance from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies to be brought forward to all Members of the House. Certainly, when the chief medical officer and the scientific adviser for the Department are before the Education Committee in a couple of weeks’ time, we will be calling for that so that, as an absolute minimum, we can pass on that guidance to our key workers so that they know they are safe, or are aware of the mitigating factors that they need in order to become safe.

I echo the call for key workers to be prioritised for vaccination. They are working throughout this pandemic, even against the background of the great concerns over the new variant. But for what? If we are not taking them seriously, what message do we give them? That they are important but not important enough to vaccinate? That is not a message I feel comfortable giving.

The greatest concern, however, is that of funding. While I acknowledge the per hour rate increase, it is not nearly enough. Private providers are hit with the double whammy of financial pressures and decreased income due to children not coming in because their parents are furloughed and not working, have been made redundant or are isolating. They also face a fourfold increase in both cleaning and PPE costs. If they were a school setting they would receive assistance with those costs. However, because they are private providers, they receive no help. But there are solutions. If we look to extend the VAT holiday on PPE to private providers in nursery settings, that would go some way towards easing this financial pressure. Extending financial assistance and cleaning costs would give closer parity with other education settings.

I have heard stories of several owners of private nurseries who themselves have to do the cleaning, so they are still in the nursery at 8 o’clock at night, cleaning, to make sure that is safe for the morning, when they go back in at 8 o’clock to do a further clean to make sure it is truly safe for the children. There are so few examples of where PPE can really be worn in a nursery setting. That inevitably comes at feeding time or changing time, but these are children who learn through play-based learning. They learn through touch, hugging and kissing. It is very warming to my heart when I pick my daughter up on a Thursday if I am lucky, but if the first thing she does is pull my face mask down to give me a kiss and then pull it back up—granted, usually to cover my eyes—the sentiment that I feel is not one that a child can understand. We need to be doing everything we can to ensure that those workers are safe.

Without that help, the long-term and short-term viability of private providers comes into question. As the hon. Member for Putney has said, if these private providers do go under and fail, who is there to pick up the slack? The state and the public sector are not in a position to do so. There is not the capacity in maintained nurseries to pick up anywhere near the slack that would be needed.

We have touched on the vaccine and testing. Both need greater prevalence in our nurseries and for child- minders.

One of the biggest concerns is the findings in the letter from the Competition and Markets Authority, which has basically said that if early years settings are not providing facilities for the children, they cannot charge. It is one thing being forced to close, but when children cannot come in because they are isolating or because their parents cannot afford it, there is no recompense for those providers, who are really, really suffering. Many nurseries are worrying about making it through the month, let alone to half term.

While we sing the importance of early years, we cannot allow it to remain the forgotten education sector. We have seen an increase to primary and secondary per pupil funding, and I welcome that. We have seen an increase in funding for further education and vocational education, and I welcome that too. But for far too long we have missed out on a meaningful increase for the per hour rate for early years. It is about time that we do assess that.

As my hon. Friend Steve Brine has said, it is time for a meaningful funding review. We have kicked the can down the road for far too many years, avoiding the difficult questions as to what is needed for a truly world-class early years setting. Unfortunately, we have now run out of road and we need to make that decision now. If I could pass one plea to the Minister, it would be this: bring forward that review, start it while we are in the pandemic, so we can look at really levelling up and building an early years setting that is truly world-class, so that our children can make the most out of the opportunities they will have in a post-pandemic world. Please bring forward that review, make it meaningful and give our children the best opportunity we can.

Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow 3:04 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Robertson. I thank my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson for securing today’s important debate.

The strong messages that have been given under lockdown, telling everyone to stay at home and to keep school-aged children at home where possible, are in contrast with the messages that the early years sector should remain open, and have caused confusion and concern. Families and early years workers deserve to know the scientific basis for the decision to keep nurseries open when primary schools are moving to remote learning, and they need a clear, evidence-based explanation of why this is. Early years practitioners urgently need to be reassured that their safety is being prioritised, by making regular mass testing available to them, and by Ministers’ making the case to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that early years practitioners should be prioritised for vaccination.

This policy, like many of the policies thought up throughout this pandemic, has not considered the practicalities on the ground. For example, in my constituency of Jarrow, parents are now taking their primary school-aged children when collecting their children from nursery. That makes social distancing difficult, as it naturally leads to problems with children mixing in car parks and playgrounds outside. On the flipside of that, one mother in my constituency was so confused by the messaging from the Government around home schooling that she left a young child in front of an online lesson while she picked up her other child from the nursery school; although I cannot support that decision, of course, I understand her reasons and the difficulties that she faced.

Then, of course, there are general practicalities for early years workers in their day-to-day roles. By its very nature, early years education involves much more close contact than other kinds of education, as other hon. Members have said. Nappy changing, helping to take coats on and off, and mealtimes are all examples of where close contact is unavoidable.

The “protect early years” campaign, run by the three largest industry bodies, has called on the Government to provide scientific evidence for the decision to keep early years settings open. They have also called for early years staff to be prioritised for vaccinations. Trade unions such as Unison and GMB have further called for the closure of early years settings to all but key workers and vulnerable children during the current lockdown. I personally support those calls, and I hope the Minister will acknowledge these concerns and take them on board.

At the same time, like other hon. Members, I am concerned about the long-term impact of the pandemic on the already fragmented, privatised and underfunded landscape of early years education and care. The sector needs targeted financial support for nurseries, childminders and other early years providers, which have been hit badly by a decade of underfunding and now face substantially reduced income and higher costs during the covid-19 crisis, with months of uncertainty ahead. Early years providers were struggling before the crisis, with thousands closing every year, but this crisis poses a further threat to those that have managed to survive. A loss of parents’ fees during lockdown and continuing low demand for childcare due to covid-19 have left half of providers fearing closure before the summer.

Any Government change to providers’ funding from this month would push 20,000 providers to the brink of collapse. The Government’s decision to fund all local authority nurseries based on their one-day snapshot January 2021 census for the spring term means that early years providers with children who are off for covid-related reasons cannot access that funding. Even if all children on roll were fully funded, in most cases that would reflect a fall compared with those providers’ usual numbers, as many eligible January starters’ parents will have held back on taking up a place. That is putting pressure on already overstretched budgets.

Without urgent confirmation that there will be full funding of early-entitlement places, early years providers will not be able to remain open for all children. Just this morning, I heard from the headteacher of Boldon Nursery School in my constituency that it is set to lose £24,000 through the funding formula. There are four nurseries in my constituency, all outstanding: one of them, Boldon nursery, has not only provided an emergency childcare service during this pandemic, but has acted as an emergency service delivering food parcels to families in need, as well as its general role of acting as an extended family in many cases. I pay tribute to that nursery and all nurseries and childcare providers. Now they face being punished by potentially losing their jobs at the end of it.

Despite the crucial role the sector plays in caring for children outside of school hours, it has been completely neglected by the Government. The Government must urgently rethink the funding charges that will force many nurseries to close their doors, and give the sector the support it deserves.

I hope that the Minister will acknowledge how this unfairness is causing a huge amount of stress for early years leaders and workers. It is time that the Government recognised the importance of childcare and early years education for our economic recovery, and brought forward a review to ensure the safety of the workers and prevent the sector from financial collapse.

Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 3:11 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again today, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson on securing this timely and important debate. I also concur with Steve Brine on the stopping of Westminster Hall debates. That is a huge concern; I do hope we are allowed to scrutinise the Government, especially during the pandemic.

On 4 January, the Government finally announced a national lockdown and asked secondary and primary schools to remain closed, while simultaneously asking early years setting to open. The new variant of covid-19 has been estimated to be up to 70% more transmissible than the previously circulating form of covid-19, and it is spreading far more quickly.

We know, and the science tells us, that children can spread the virus to their parents, families and communities. We also know that it is almost impossible to socially distance when working with young children in early years settings. To quote the science: Anthony Costello, SAGE member, Professor of International Child Health, director of the UCL Institute for Global Health, and a former WHO director, said in The Mirror on 9 January:

“We are in a national crisis with a pandemic out of control. We should have no nurseries open.”

Chris Whitty on Radio 4 on 11 January encouraged parents not to send their children to nursery if they do not need to.

The Government have left early years settings to conduct their own risk assessments, without providing them with the safety blanket of regular testing. The Government failed to prioritise regular and mass testing for staff and practitioners in early years settings and, even today, they still remain open without that support. Further to that, the early years sector has had to face the challenges arising from covid-19 and the associated costs with no increase in funding. I have been contacted by many early years settings in Bradford West, including the Midland Road nursery and Lilycroft nursery school, who are facing immense financial pressure and need the Government to act now.

In 2020, maintained nursery schools, along with the rest of the early years sector, were noticeably excluded from the Government’s £1 billion catch-up funding, despite the fact that early intervention is widely accepted as one of the most effective strategies to address gaps in learning. Last year, maintained nursery schools were also barred from applying to the coronavirus fund, which was intended to assist with extra costs incurred by schools during covid-19. I was informed by an early years practitioner in my constituency that the school she represents had already spent £20,000 from very tight budgets to cover the unplanned costs in staffing and resources directly resulting from the pandemic.

The current lockdown is likely to change the number of children attending early years settings, with a number of parents making the tough decision to keep children at home. That is likely to spell ruin for the sector, as the Government have decided to change the funding entitlement on current occupancy of early years settings rather than pre-covid occupancy levels. The early years sector should not be worrying about extra costs arising from covid-19 and a funding model that is not fit for purpose, given the risks to the safety of staff and overstretched budgets. The Government must urgently review funding for early years as a priority and provide additional funding to the sector.

It appears that the current restrictions and the changing nature of the virus mean that additional funding and a review of the current funding model for the early years sector is urgently needed. Indeed, statistics from the DFE show that the percentage of maintained nursery schools in deficit increased from 3.5% in 2009-10 to 17.7% in 2018-19. The time for the Government to act is now. Will the Minister commit to rethinking the funding model for the early years sector? Will she commit to providing additional funding to cover the cost of covid-19? Finally, will the Government prioritise testing for staff and practitioners to ensure that working environments are safe and that children and families are protected? It is not good enough that early years settings have been asked to remain open and survive without a lifeline.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:16 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to follow Naz Shah. This is the second time today we have been in a debate: we were here at half-past 9 this morning, and we are back again for a different subject. I thank Fleur Anderson for raising this essential issue. Obviously, I am from Northern Ireland, where this is a devolved matter, so the Minister will not have to respond to any of my points as it is not her responsibility, but I want to give a perspective from Northern Ireland perhaps to replicate what is happening here on the mainland. Although this is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, the problems that arise in Northern Ireland are probably relevant from the point of view of what we have faced.

I am sure I am not the only one to have been contacted by various charities about the difficulties they have faced and will face in the near future. Action for Children made a presentation to the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee for Education with information that can be replicated in every region of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I was asked to highlight that:

“Of particular importance…during the first lockdown, new referrals to the services often did not connect in easily with online offerings, and many staff felt that there will be many vulnerable children and families that will have missed…vital information and support around the critical 1,001 days in early development, breastfeeding and parental and infant mental health.”

They may have missed out all of that.

Initially, many services struggled to cope during lockdown. It was described to me that there was an “element of chaos”—it probably was not anybody’s fault; it was just the way it all happened. We were all unable to know how to reply or respond. The Departments were responding on their feet, and things kept changing. That was also part of the problem with the system, because whenever it kept changing, parents were asking, “What’s going to happen next?” The confidence in what is happening at a ministerial level needs to be addressed.

When a move towards virtual service delivery was initiated in March and April last year, most services did not have any records of email accounts for family contacts, and many did not have the technological equipment to cope with the sudden transition, which was strange and new not just to Government Departments but to all the parents, families and staff. Staff and families struggled with a lack of familiarity with the online platforms that facilitated their virtual services. There remains the issue that some families simply cannot be reached via that medium, and I believe that that marginalised those families, who faced a greater disadvantage.

In general, comments about communication from Health and Social Care and the Department of Education were positive. It was noted that there was greater regional communication and collaboration on practice and policies during the pandemic. However, many service providers also noted serious fatigue in relation to online offerings and the fundamental value of face-to-face contact when working with early years and families. It is much better to do things face to face, though it is not always practical, so sometimes we have to do it a different way. Experiences were also very different for families with whom there was already an established relationship versus new referrals, who often did not connect easily with the online offerings. Many staff were perplexed and still feel that many vulnerable children and families will have missed vital information and support around the critical 1,001 days in early development, breastfeeding and parental and infant mental health.

Privately run programmes for baby groups, breastfeeding and sensory play, and antenatal programmes, are currently running during this second lockdown, but not with the regularity that they should. Publicly funded groups, however, are not able to continue similar support services at present. Many providers are seriously concerned that that is another way in which social inequalities are widening, and warn that those inequalities are hard to rectify through remedial policies in the long-term. There are also concerns that minimal adaptations have been made to targets and monitoring processes for early years services, despite major adaptations to the way in which their offerings are delivered. The level of online engagement, for example, may not be reflected within the current target frameworks.

I am quite sure that those problems in Northern Ireland are also happening on the mainland. Action for Children has also reported that the situation has the potential to load extra stress on already highly stretched staff members who are coping with the changes by burdening them with unrealistic expectations to deliver “as things were”, as well as create content and opportunities for things “as they are”. Numerous issues have been highlighted at Stormont and are on the record there. I seek to highlight them in this place as well, to give the debate a measure of information and experience from Northern Ireland.

There is a great need for a strategy to help build those programmes to meet needs. Although we all hope that we are coming to the end of the pandemic—my goodness, I hope and pray that we are—children have lost out on a year’s support, and that cannot be glossed over. It is imperative that we determine how we can ensure that each child has a foundation without cracks, or it is inevitable that they will fall through those cracks. I know that the Minister does not want that to happen. I look to the Minister and the shadow Minister to understand our strategy in moving forward with early years development without leaving children and their mummies behind. I add my support to the calls to give consideration to the extension of maternity leave, enabling mothers who have thus far been robbed of support to have a chance of accessing support and help in the formative years.

I have always wanted to say this in Westminster Hall, and I will make it my last comment: the Minister is very fortunate—she knows it, I know it—to come from Omagh. I was born in Omagh, long before she was born—maybe not long before, but a wee bit before, anyway—and I am so pleased to see a Northern Ireland export in her position.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education 3:22 pm, 12th January 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. This important debate has been characterised by a high degree of cross-party consensus and interest across the nations of the UK. I congratulate my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson on introducing the debate so eloquently, and I thank all colleagues who have contributed and emphasised the crucial importance of the early years and the people who work in the sector.

This is a worrying time for families and early years staff, as well as a perilous moment for the whole of the childcare sector. Colleagues’ efforts to raise the concerns of the sector will not have gone unnoticed. Many more colleagues would have liked to have participated today, including the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq, but they are not able to attend Parliament in person. As we have heard, a motion to halt Westminster Hall debates for the time being is before the House, but I very much hope that alternative arrangements will be put in place swiftly, so that all hon. Members can take part in all future debates.

When the Prime Minister told us last week that early years settings in England would remain open to all children in lockdown, he was essentially asking nursery workers, childminders and others to provide a fourth emergency service: an emergency childcare service for working parents—particularly key workers—and vital early years education for their children. However, although those early years practitioners deserve our greatest respect, they feel that their concerns have been disregarded. Ministers have failed to publish the scientific evidence for keeping early years settings fully open when primary schools are moving to online learning for most children.

Labour believes passionately in the importance of early years, but, as my hon. Friend Alex Sobel and others have said, staff are anxious about their safety and the risk that they will transmit infection to their families. Someone who works in a pre-school in Leeds—my hon. Friend will be interested—accurately summed up the situation in an email to the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, last week. That person wrote:

“there were lots of assurances in the press that early years settings ‘are safe’
but no actual data or studies, so we are expected to trust ministers. This a few days after we are…told primary schools are safe and then the next day a national lockdown is called because primary schools are vectors of transmission…Frankly I don’t trust ministers telling me my workplace is safe with no actual data to back that up.”

May I repeat the request of my hon. Friends the Members for Putney, for Leeds North West and for Jarrow (Kate Osborne), as well as Christian Wakeford? Will the Minister commit to publishing today the evidence underlying the decision to keep early years settings open?

Anyone who has had a young child or worked with young children knows that enforcing social distancing among them is impossible. We heard that graphically, for example, from my hon. Friend Naz Shah. As the same pre-school worker in Leeds put it,

“two-year olds do NOT sneeze into the crook of their elbow no matter how many times you might remind them. They wipe their nose on us!”

The Government do not recommend face coverings in early years settings and say that PPE is rarely needed, but we can see why the workforce is worried. Can the Minister explain why regular mass testing has not been rolled out in all early years settings yet? When will it be? Is the Minister considering changes to the early years guidance and allowing providers to claim additional support for safety, testing and staffing? What is the Government’s plan for vaccination of early years and all education staff?

Despite safety being everyone’s primary concern right now, as we have heard, the early years sector is also operating under implicit threat to its funding—“Stay open for as many children as possible in lockdown or lose cash.” My hon. Friends the Members for Putney and for Bradford West outlined some of the funding pressures that settings are facing, including pressure in covering staff absence, additional covid costs for which schools were funded but early years settings were not, the lack of access to business grants and business rates relief, and the lack of catch-up funding, which was given to schools and colleges.

As we heard from colleagues around the House, in the first lockdown, providers were funded at pre-covid levels, but from this month they will receive funding only for children who attend. Steve Brine pointed out that we are still waiting for new guidance in this respect. With everyone now advised to stay at home where possible, demand for childcare is set to plummet further than its already low levels. Evidence suggests that many parents are keeping their nursery-age children at home.

Highlighting the dilemma that providers face, one provider asked:

“Should I be encouraging those parents to bring their child to us so we get the funding to help us survive?”

As we heard, there are places that cannot stay open because too many staff are ill, self-isolating, shielding or caring for their own children. One setting manager told the National Day Nursery Association that

“60% of my workforce is unable to come to work because they must remain at home to look after their own children who are not attending school”.

They added:

“if I reduce the number of children allowed to attend according to staff availability, then I will be unable to claim funding for the children I cannot accommodate.”

As we have heard, surveys, including one by the Early Years Alliance, found that 25% of early years providers may close within six months, due to this month’s changes, which link funding to occupancy. Nearly 20,000 providers could be lost before the summer as a direct result of this policy. That survey was done before the lockdown, which will drive down occupancy further. The situation is, as we have heard, affecting providers up and down the country. Providers in my constituency have raised their concerns about the risk of closures and the impact on children—especially the most disadvantaged children. I am sure that that will be the same for all colleagues. I know that that is exactly not what the Minister wants to happen, so I urge her and her Treasury colleagues to rethink the misguided funding changes and give the early years sector the targeted support that it so badly needs to survive.

The covid-19 outbreak has been devastating for an early years sector that already faced a £600 million-plus funding gap. Coronavirus has shone a light on the fragility of the sector and pushed tens of thousands of struggling nurseries, pre-schools and childminders to the brink of collapse. Throughout the pandemic, early years providers have been asked to take on the responsibilities of schools and the liabilities of businesses, with none of the additional support that they need with safety, testing and staffing. Now, the 300,000 brilliant, dedicated people who work in the sector, the vast majority of whom are women on pitifully low wages, are once again being asked to provide an emergency service at an extremely scary time without any scientific evidence or even a plan for their safety, and are being faced with the prospect of losing their job at the end of it. It really is not right to treat an entire workforce in that way—especially in a sector as important as early years. It is a sector on which the economy and the life chances of the next generation rely.

My challenge to the Minister is this: do the right thing. Keep early years workers safe, rethink financial support for providers, and do everything possible to ensure that a vital sector does not become one more casualty of coronavirus.

Photo of Laurence Robertson Laurence Robertson Conservative, Tewkesbury

We have quite a bit of time, but I need to leave a couple of minutes at the end for Ms Anderson to respond.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 3:32 pm, 12th January 2021

It is of course a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Fleur Anderson on securing the debate. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss this important topic, and for the contributions of all Members who have taken part—but particularly to Jim Shannon, for mentioning the Northern Ireland situation. I enjoyed my childhood in Northern Ireland so much that I think I did P1 twice. He will get that.

As the hon. Member for Putney said, early years staff are, too often, unsung heroes. I should like to begin by offering my sincere and heartfelt thanks to the early years sector, which has been doing an outstanding job of supporting our youngest children throughout the covid-19 pandemic, in what I know are difficult circumstances. I spoke to people at the maintained nursery school in my constituency this morning. Our frontline early years staff are phenomenal, and they love and care for our children so much.

The early years experience is a vital part of a child’s education. It is when children develop the communication skills that set them up for life. Those skills cannot be taught online. Early years provision also, as we know, gives parents the ability to balance work and family life. The Government invest heavily to ensure that children can get access to that high-quality early education, which includes a universal 15 hours of childcare for three and four-year-olds, the additional 15 hours for three and four-year-olds with working parents introduced under the Conservative Government in 2017, and, of course, the 15 hours for disadvantaged two-year-olds.

The Prime Minister made the announcement last Monday, on 4 January, that early years would remain open for children during the national lockdown in England. That includes nurseries, childminders and maintained nursery schools, as well as nursery classes in schools and other pre-reception provision on school sites. It was with great reluctance that we restricted attendance at early years settings before the national lockdown in March. As I have said, early education enables very young children to develop the core building blocks of communication and social skills. They are the building blocks of life. We know that if a child’s vocabulary is underdeveloped by the time they start school, they are more at risk of falling behind and being unemployed in later life. They cannot catch up those years. It is hard to imagine how to teach those communication and development skills remotely in anything like the way that is possible for older children.

We also know much more about coronavirus and our understanding of the new variant is developing. Since the beginning of the pandemic, evidence has emerged that shows the very low risk of children becoming unwell from covid, even those with existing health conditions. There is no evidence that the new variant of coronavirus disproportionately affects children. Indeed, under-fives continue to have the lowest rates of confirmed coronavirus cases of all age groups. They are less susceptible. Evidence also suggests that pre-school children aged nought to five are not playing a significant role in driving transmission. That is partly because our youngest children tend to have the lowest levels of contact with others outside their household.

We took the difficult decision to restrict attendance in schools to all except vulnerable children and the children of key workers because additional measures were needed to contain the spread of the virus in the community. Doing that has enabled us to keep pre-reception provision open to all to support parents and to deliver that crucial care and education for our youngest children. We are planning to keep early years settings open unless the scientific or public health advice changes. We continue to monitor that very closely.

I know that there is a lot of worry about safety, so I want to be as clear as I can about the safety of early years settings for children and staff. Early years settings have been open to all children since 1 June. There is no evidence that the sector has contributed to a significant rise in cases in the community. The advice of Public Health England remains that the risk of transmission of infection is low, provided that early years settings follow the endorsed systems of control that have been in use throughout the pandemic. Those measures create an inherently safer environment for children, young people and staff where the risk of transmission of infection is substantially reduced.

I met representatives of the early years sector last Tuesday morning immediately after the Prime Minister’s announcement and again last Thursday. One of the things they asked for was better covid testing for EY staff. The Department worked closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure rapid asymptomatic testing for all early years staff. The national roll-out of rapid testing, which was announced on Sunday, will support the Prime Minister’s announcement for early years settings to remain open.

Local authorities will be encouraged to target testing at people who are unable to work from home during the lockdown. On Thursday, I met the Association of Directors of Children’s Services to reinforce the importance of early years staff in the asymptomatic testing programme. An expansion of testing will help to identify more positive cases of covid and ensure that those affected can isolate to protect those who cannot work from home in our vital services.

My hon. Friend Steve Brine mentioned childminders. He is no longer in his place, but I wish his wife well. She does an important job. We are working with local authorities to put in place an appropriate route for childminders so that they can also access the asymptomatic tests.

Hon. Members have mentioned the vaccine. Those who are most vulnerable to the virus have to be prioritised for the vaccine. People working in early years who are over 50 or who are over 16 and in a higher-risk group will be eligible for the vaccine in the first phase of the programme. That includes all those over 50 or vulnerable and it will also include the early years staff who fall into those categories.

Alex Sobel is right to have written to me. I have to resay what I said just a couple of days ago in answer to his question. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which makes the recommendations for who should get the vaccine and in what order, has asked the Department of Health and Social Care to consider occupational vaccination in the next phase of the vaccine roll-out. That will be a cross-Government piece of work; that Department will need to collaborate with other Departments. The Department for Education will have input into it and we will urge the need to prioritise our absolutely frontline staff.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

I thank the Minister for her assurances. She gave a little more information just now than she did in her written answer, but there is no timescale or timeline for this. Does she have any more information about when it might happen?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been very clear about the timeline that he has set for getting the first phase of the vaccines rolled out, and he went through the priority groups at the stage when he announced them—was it just before the 4 January start date? We have had the mid-February date from the Prime Minister to get through the first phase. Then we will move into the second phase and, as I said, we have been asked to look at occupational roles in relation to the vaccine. That will be in the second phase of the roll-out; that is my understanding.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I am grateful to the Minister. I wonder whether she could clarify this. Is she saying that the consideration of occupational roles will come after the first four categories or the first nine categories that have been laid out by the Government?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I understand that they come in the second phase; that is what we have been asked to look at in the second phase.

Photo of Kate Green Kate Green Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Forgive me: I do not really understand what that means. Is it after the over-60s, or is it after we have dropped all the way down to the ninth category?

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I have been told that there will be consideration of occupational vaccination in the next phase of the vaccine roll-out. I am sorry that I cannot give the hon. Member more clarity than that, except to say that I very much understand that, for some workers with children—including in early years and including many of those who work in special schools and some who may be working in children’s homes—it is challenging to maintain social distancing in those roles and there is a need for close contact. Those are the cases that we will be making, and I am very happy to follow up with the hon. Member and give her more detail on the second phase.

Given the goal of keeping early years settings open to as many children as possible, we also want to provide financial security to nurseries and childminders who are open for the children who need them, and many Members have mentioned that today. We have provided unprecedented support to the early years sector throughout the covid-19 pandemic and, as I have said many times, we continue to plan to spend £3.6 billion on Government entitlements this year.

In addition to Government entitlements funding, early years settings have access to a range of business support packages, including the coronavirus job retention scheme. We have updated the guidance so that providers that have seen a fall in their overall income can furlough staff who were on the payroll on or before 30 October and who are not required for delivering the Government’s funding entitlements. The Government have made temporary changes to the 30 hours’ free childcare and tax-free childcare entitlements during the pandemic so that eligible parents, including key workers, are not disadvantaged if their income temporarily falls below the minimum threshold and they are receiving support from a Government coronavirus support scheme, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme.

We are providing further investment next year. At the spending review, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced an extra £44 million for 2021-22 for local authorities to increase the hourly rates paid to childcare providers for the Government’s childcare entitlement offers. That increase will be more than enough to meet the rise in the minimum wage. We are also increasing the funding floor so that no council can receive less than £4.44 per hour for three and four-year-olds.

In line with the spring funding announcement, we also updated the CJRS guidance so that providers who have seen a further drop in their overall income are able to furlough more staff if they are not required for the funding entitlements. Thanks to the support provided by the Government and the hard work of settings since June, I am pleased to report that last year we did not see a significant number of parents unable to access the childcare they needed.

We are staying in regular contact with the early years sector, including on the subject of funding, and will be closely monitoring both the parental take-up of places and the capacity and responses of providers, while keeping under constant review whether further support or action is needed. Local authorities have been urged to alert us to any sufficiency issues as quickly as possible.

We saw attendance rise over the autumn term, with 792,000 children attending on 10 December, up from 482,000 on 10 September. The latest attendance data from last week shows that there were fewer children in early years settings during the first week of this term compared with the end of last term. We expected attendance levels to be slightly lower last week, as we saw at the beginning of the autumn term last September, and we often see a staggered start date back after Christmas, but we are monitoring it very closely.

We currently intend to go ahead with this year’s census next week. However, I recognise the particular challenge that the sector faces in recording an accurate picture of expected uptake because of the impact of covid on attendance and the operation of settings. To support local authorities, we will very shortly be issuing questions and answers to help them to interpret existing published census guidance, so that census data reflects expected attendance and excludes what is considered to be a temporary absence or closure. That ensures that children at open providers are counted when they are temporarily not in attendance, which will be important for the providers. The Q&A will explain that in more detail.

To wrap up, I thank the hon. Member for Putney for scheduling the debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss this important issue. I hope she is reassured that the Government have the interests of children at the heart of our decision making. We are supporting our incredibly hard-working early years sector, monitoring closely the impact on attendance and whether further action is needed and getting them the asymptomatic testing within days of their request on Tuesday, and we will make the case for them to have the occupational vaccine as soon as possible.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office) 3:48 pm, 12th January 2021

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to this important debate, and all those other hon. Members who I know would have liked to take part but were not able to, as well as the many people across the country who have written in to their MPs to raise the concerns of early years settings.

This debate has gone a huge way towards addressing and raising the voices from the frontline, which is what needed to happen. There are many areas of cross-party agreement here, as the shadow Minister has said, and I recognise the steps that the Minister has already taken to address some of the concerns we have raised. However, there are a couple of areas of unfinished business that I would like to raise.

I thank Steve Brine, who is not in his place now, for raising the independent meaningful review. That would answer many of the questions that we have raised about not only short-term but long-term funding for the early years sector, which has been rocked by the covid pandemic and will need extensive changes to ensure that it is resilient and strong for the future.

I thank all hon. Members who have spoken in the debate about their experiences or those of their own nurseries and headteachers, and about the concerns that are being felt. We share some things. We share the understanding of, support for and knowledge of the importance of early years education. We share a feeling of huge respect for early years staff, who are doing an outstanding job. We share a feeling that early years settings have been ignored too often, and that must be changed.

We have heard from the frontline that staff are scared, concerned and confused. I welcome what the Minister has said about monitoring the safety of early years and a commitment to reviewing that. Potentially, that means a commitment to closing down if the early years settings are not safe. I would like to go further and ask for that evidence to be published. That would go a long way towards helping to assuage a lot of the concerns.

I welcome the commitment to the expansion of testing and delivery, which was raised with me most often by my local headteachers and early years practitioners, and to include childminders further down the line. All those staff will need that assurance and knowledge about testing, especially because there is so much asymptomatic coronavirus in the community.

I also welcome the commitment to rolling out the vaccine—definitely to some in the first phase and potentially to some in the second phase—and to having a little more clarity on that. What that means and when it will happen was unclear to us, and will definitely be unclear to others. We would like some early indication of, at least, when the decisions will be made and how, so that people can plan and have some confidence.

I welcome the additional investment in early years next year, but I do not think the Minister will be surprised to hear that I think that might be too late for some. Additional investment, really understanding the census that she mentioned and the funding going to councils for the free entitlement need to be addressed right now. It is not enough to save the sector next year, because of the backward steps in its finances. Early years settings have gone to the extent of their reserves, and then some, in coping with this year and will need more funding next year. Further clarity on the use of the census date is needed. Going back to pre-covid levels is the fairest way to do this, because they all have pre-covid costs and they need pre-covid levels of funding. We need to look again at that date, perhaps when the census has been held and the results have come back, to see whether that is enough funding for nurseries—that would be very welcome.

I thank the Minister for her response and all Members for taking part today. As we all have, I thank again all early years staff, practitioners and childminders across the country for the work that they do day in and day out for our children.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on early years settings.

Sitting suspended.