[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:32 pm on 12th January 2021.

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

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.