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Nursery Services

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 15 March 2007

1. What representations he has received on provision of nursery services free at the point of delivery. (127470)

My colleagues and I have regular meetings with and correspondence from representatives of all sectors, as well as early years providers, including those providing the entitlement to 12.5 hours early education or care for three and four-year-old children for 36 weeks of the year. It is this Government who introduced the entitlement and guaranteed that it is and will remain completely free to all parents who wish to take it up.

Does the Minister share my concern that at a time when we read that one of the leading chains of nurseries is planning to close down 10 of its 13 facilities, this will be repeated across the country? I have had reports of that happening in my constituency, Ilford, North.

If that were the case, yes, I would be concerned. I am aware that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who speaks from the Front Bench, have stated that that chain has closed. From our information, I understand that that is not accurate. The chain has changed hands, as such businesses do, but we cannot find any reports of intentions to reduce places. That rumour and a number of other comments from Opposition Members are untrue. In fact, there has been increasing stability in the market over recent years, particularly for private providers. That reflects both the investment that we are making and our commitment to maintaining a diverse sector.

As always, there are two sides to the argument. What representations has my right hon. Friend received from parents about their entitlement to free care? Sometimes parents are asked to top up what should be a free entitlement, and they are unaware of their right to an excellent scheme for helping them and their children.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s contribution. It is in parents’ interests that we ensure that providers and local authorities understand that this is a free entitlement. That is the point of it. We do not want to discriminate between parents who could afford to pay top-up fees and those who could not. From my discussions with local authorities and the broad swathe of providers, I am convinced that the £3 billion a year that the Government are committing to this free offer is sufficient. Provided that it is administered properly by local authorities—we are looking at that—there is no reason at all for any provider to ask for a top-up fee, and we will certainly not allow them to do so.

I am delighted to see the Minister back in her place. We are all agreed that we want to see more child care, rather than less, but the Minister must accept that the free entitlement is not free, that in large measure the local authorities are not passing all the costs on to providers, and that the providers are using the extra half-hour over and above the statutory entitlement to subsidise the cost. To a large extent, the Government have had this child care cheap. Does the right hon. Lady accept that there is a mixed economy in respect of provision? Will she come clean and say what will happen when the code of practice applies to the pilot areas, and clear up any confusion? There is great uncertainty on the part of providers about what will happen from 1 April.

I know that the hon. Lady is keen to develop a campaign on the issue, but the points that she makes here and elsewhere are simply not true. They are causing needless concern for parents. The experience over the vast swathe of the country is that the money going through local authorities is sufficient. In some instances the way in which it is being allocated by local authorities should be examined. I am sure she is aware that that is why on 7 March we launched a consultation document on schools, early years and 14-to-16 funding, including specific proposals which, if they are supported, will ensure better alignment in allocation across the sectors in local authorities where that might not be the case. I am convinced that the £3 billion is sufficient and that the provision must remain, as it is at present, free to parents at the point of access. We will not have the kind of two-tier system that the hon. Lady wants. We do not want vouchers and we will not allow discrimination—