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”.
“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.