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Child Care

Volume 476: debated on Monday 2 June 2008

Annual expenditure on child care under the child care element of tax credits was just under £1.2 billion in 2006-07. Jobcentre Plus is actively involved in improving the take-up of formal child care by its customers, and Jobcentre Plus advisers routinely discuss formal child care with all parents.

Good quality child care is not only enriching for children, but essential for parents who want to combine parenting with work. The Government have had real success in recent years through investing in child care, particularly for three and four-year-olds, as has been evident in my constituency and across the country. Does my hon. Friend accept that there are problems in the system of paying for child care, particularly when it comes to older children? That was borne out in the recent study by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Is it time that the DCSF, the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions got together to work on a new package to replace the child care tax credit for older children and their families, so that holiday schemes and out-of-school provision can be—

My hon. Friend must be congratulated on constantly raising child care issues and on advising the Government as to how to improve uptake. She has alerted us to some issues, as have other organisations, in particular the higher level of up-front costs, which can act as a real barrier to some parents. She will know that from April 2008, we have been examining, in London, how we can pay those up-front costs. Of course, we want to examine every avenue to improve the system and to ensure that parents who want to move into work can get the wrap-around child care that they need. Our Department will work closely with the other Departments she mentioned to ensure that that happens.

Is the Minister disappointed that the figures show that take-up has gone down dramatically and that the much vaunted free nursery place system has done nothing except shroud nursery schools in red tape and additional bureaucracy? More people seeking such child care use family members such as grandparents.

I am astonished that the hon. Lady uses the words “shrouded in red tape”. I would have thought that she would welcome the fact that we have set safety standards and that we ensure that young children put into the care of nurseries and pre-school groups are properly cared for. It would embarrass me to have to defend the record that her Government left us in 1997, as we now have 10 times more child care places than we had then. That is a record that the hon. Lady should be ashamed of.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the disproportionate costs of child care for disabled children. In the Treasury review of child care tax credit, will she, as Minister for disabled people, make representations on that important issue?

My hon. Friend knows that Aiming High for Disabled Children has included an additional resource of £35 million up to 2011 to improve access to child care. We also have the new supporting access to child care project. In many local authorities, disabled children are supported successfully in mainstream child care, and I am sure that my hon. Friend, as Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee, has seen many examples of that. We need to break down the barriers that parents with disabled children face in accessing good quality child care.

What encouragement is given, and financial incentives offered, to parents who wish to stay at home to bring up their pre-school children?

We have expanded maternity leave and introduced paternity leave. We are looking at ways in which we can support parents through access to child care, with—currently—12 and a half hours free child care a week, which will increase to 15 hours. The hon. Gentleman has to realise that we can support parents in a mixture of ways, whether they choose to go out to work or to stay at home. The record of this Government stands up to scrutiny, especially compared with the record of the Administration whom he supported.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the form of support that single parents most appreciate is provided not by her Department but by extended schools? Such support reduces single parents’ anxiety because it means that they can go to work and earn money while their children are at school, and need not depend on public support.

My hon. Friend is right. It is often the periods before and after school that are crucial to giving parents the confidence that their children are being looked after, and that is why extended school programmes, with wrap-around care from 8 am to 6 pm—which will be rolled out across England and Wales over the next couple of years—are crucial.