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Child Care and Early Intervention

Volume 561: debated on Monday 22 April 2013

There is consensus across the House that early intervention is both effective and necessary, and the Government are determined to build on that, with the Early Intervention Foundation, formally launched on 15 April, playing an important role in gathering information about what works. We already know how powerful high-quality education and child care can be as an early intervention tool, which is why we are extending early learning for two-year-olds from low-income families.

In Education questions on 4 March, I asked the Secretary of State about the cut of 27%, or £6.8 million, to Sheffield’s early intervention grant, forcing the council to make deep cuts in early years provision. In his reply, he cited a grant of £25.2 million, describing it as an increase of 3.9%. I have since confirmed the position with council officers, who said that they could only—I quote—

“assume the Minister made an error on this. The £25.2 million refers to the current year. The figure of £6.8 million EIG reduction was the figure provided by DCLG. The cut in fact was £7.4 million when the Government confirmed the Council funding for 2013.”

Will the Secretary of State apologise and accept that he was in error and that my figures were right and, more importantly, apologise to the parents of Sheffield whose child care is being threatened?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Secretary of State is always delighted to speak to people and professionals in Sheffield to see how the early intervention grant, which is rising from £2.3 billion to £2.5 billion, can be best spent in the Sheffield area. I am sure that is a discussion he will be happy to have.

In Blackpool North and Cleveleys, we eagerly anticipate the new statutory duty that will see 15 hours of early learning made available to two-year-olds from low-income backgrounds. Can the Minister speculate on the impact that should have on achievement levels for primary pupils in areas such as Blackpool and Cleveleys, which are deprived seaside towns?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who highlights a key component of our early years intervention programme, which will see a rise from 20% to 40% in the number of two-year-olds from low-income families benefiting from the statutory duty. We anticipate that it will ensure that they get high quality care at a much younger age so that their future outcomes will be much more positive. That can only be a good thing for the people and children of Blackpool and across the country.

First we had the pile ’em high, teach ’em cheap approach to child care, increasing ratios for child minders. Today, the children’s Minister was reported talking about chaos in nurseries for two-year-olds. Meanwhile, in my constituency, parents wait two and a half years for a place for their baby. What are the Government doing to increase the supply of child care for working parents?

I think what the hon. Lady said towards the end of her question is exactly why we need to push hard to create a high-quality child care system that is both affordable and flexible. Less than a third of nurseries currently employ graduate teachers, yet the importance of qualified staff is clear; it has a direct link to the quality of child care and therefore outcomes for children. The hon. Lady should welcome the moves we are making to increase flexibility and improve quality and affordability, so that more parents can have better child care.

Will my hon. Friend look at the early intervention situation for looked-after children, in particular the 28-day deadline that is being piloted in north Yorkshire? Will he give the House an assurance that where there are special circumstances, the 28-day rule will not be applied?

I will happily look at the point my hon. Friend raises. As we have done with the new “Working Together” statutory guidance document, we want to make sure that all children, whether they are in need or whether they require protection, are given the earliest possible help, so that the problems in their lives do not fester longer than they need to, but I am happy to look at what she says.

I hope that Ministers, especially the Minister responsible for child care, will set an example of the behaviour they clearly want to see from the nation’s toddlers, and that they will sit silently and listen and then answer politely. Professor Cathy Nutbrown is the latest expert commissioned by the Government to slam the Minister for her plans to loosen adult to child ratios, saying that they will

“shake the foundations of quality provision for young children.”

I know that the child care Minister has a touch of the Iron Lady about her—she might take that as a compliment—but will she ever be for turning on that? Will she or the Government ever listen to the experts they have commissioned and the tens of thousands of professionals and parents who disagree with her?

What I do know is that my hon. Friend is used to a maelstrom of linguistic turbulence coming from the Opposition, but I doubt whether that will turn her from her strong and well-evidenced reform programme, which ensures that ratios, which are not mandatory but which are, along with staff salaries, the lowest in Europe, are going to work towards our having higher quality child care which is more flexible and which parents can afford. The hon. Lady should welcome that and I hope she will listen attentively when the Minister with responsibility for child care makes that case in the future.