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Child Care

Volume 497: debated on Monday 12 October 2009

1. What recent assessment he has made of the sustainability of provision in the child care sector; and if he will make a statement. (292191)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall answer question 1 with question 5.

We monitor the child care market, including the sustainability of provision, on an ongoing basis through regular surveys, and feedback from local authorities, Government offices and partner organisations. Local authorities have substantial Government revenue and capital funding to help to ensure that providers in their areas remain sustainable while continuing to give children the best start in life and provide invaluable support to their parents.

I apologise: I did not hear the Minister say that question 1 was grouped, but if he did I am very grateful to him.

My constituents, like those of others, benefit from a mixed market in child care provision, which includes state, private, voluntary and independent providers. Will the Minister therefore not show some shame for the way his and the Government’s policies have plunged a third of providers into the red and left parents, other providers and the sector as a whole in a great state of uncertainty?

It is lovely to see the hon. Gentleman back from the break as well. In 1997, something like £1 billion a year was provided for child care; now the figure is £4 billion; and 470,000 families now get direct child care support through the tax credits system, at an average of about £68 a week. The long-term viability of nurseries and child care provision has been enhanced as a result of legislative strengthening by this Government, as well as increased and unprecedented resources. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents would thank the Government for that.

Child minders provide invaluable child care for many parents. Notwithstanding what the Minister has said, 40,000 people have left the profession since 1997. What are the Government going to do to ensure that more parents can avail themselves of such provision, particularly because they prefer and rely on it?

People will leave the market and the sector for various reasons, whether personal or otherwise. That is just common sense. However, in respect of free provision for three and four-year-olds and the additional roll-out that we want in order to ensure free provision for two-year-olds, let me say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I respect a great deal, that there is now more opportunity than ever for parents, families and carers to have appropriate, high-quality child care provision. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support that, as opposed to sniping at what is a good and enviable record.

My hon. Friend will know that this Government have an amazing record on child care provision, but there is now a worry: at the same time as we applaud reaching down to two-year-olds, how do we guarantee quality under the new arrangements?

My hon. Friend, who is obviously very knowledgeable about the issue through his chairmanship of the Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families, makes an important point. The inspection and regulatory regime that we have put in place with Ofsted will ensure that we can enhance quality and, at the same time, sustain funding and investment or increase them wherever possible. For example, local authorities have more than £1 billion at their disposal in capital and revenue funding to ensure the sustainability of the child care provision available in their areas.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many of my constituents access child care through the Government’s excellent Sure Start children’s centres, and will he confirm the Government’s commitment to those centres, which provide not only high-quality child care but the necessary support to parents?

Like Blackpool, Hartlepool has benefited enormously from Sure Starts—indeed, I think that every single constituency in the country has. The Government remain committed to ensuring that more than 3,000 Sure Starts and children’s centres are provided in this country. The scheme has provided for a revolution in child care provision, allowing the earliest and best possible start for our children, which will put them on a road of improvement and attainment throughout their lives. I would have hoped that the whole House supported such an important measure, but it is fair to say that the Opposition support the abolition of Sure Start and will not commit to funding for it.

At last year’s Labour conference, the Prime Minister tried to grab the headlines by announcing the extension of the early years free entitlement to all two-year-olds. This year’s conference revealed that the Government will pay for that policy by scrapping the help with child care costs that is given to thousands of hard-working parents, most of whom are basic-rate taxpayers. Are the Government not trying to create an illusion of progress when they are in fact axing one child care policy to pay for another? What further cuts is the Minister planning to make to fund the rest of the Prime Minister’s announcement?

I completely disagree with what the hon. Lady said. The expansion of free places for two-year-olds is fully funded through savings by, as she says, phasing out tax relief on child care vouchers. That is at no extra cost to the taxpayer. I have to say, however, that the savings to the taxpayer are disproportionately given to the more well-off families—the figure is in the region of 6 per cent. We will continue to make sure that we invest in high-quality child care for low and middle-income families because all the evidence shows that that is vital for improving outcomes. If the hon. Lady wants to continue to narrow her focus on the highest earners, that is up to her, but the Government are on the side of low and middle-income Britain.