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Volume 597: debated on Monday 15 June 2015

We have many plans to support hard-working families with the cost of childcare. In addition to the 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds which we are introducing in this Parliament, we have legislated for free childcare to give parents 20% off the cost of their childcare up to £10,000, and the childcare element of universal credit will be going up from 70% to 85%.

Quality is vital in early-years education. Will my hon. Friend set out the steps being taken to ensure that childcare provision in my constituency is of the highest possible quality?

That is an excellent question, because the debate often focuses on affordability and availability of childcare, but obviously quality is vitally important, too. We are focusing on quality by ensuring that we raise the status of the early-years workforce. That is why we are raising the standards of literacy and numeracy of the level 3 people entering the profession, and we are also raising the early-years bar through the Ofsted accountability framework so that nurseries have to perform that bit better.

There was widespread welcome among High Peak residents for the 30 hours of free childcare pledge at the general election. However, I will be meeting a group of providers in the constituency on Friday who are concerned that there may not be enough funds to cover their costs. Can the Minister provide me with some reassurance which I can pass on to them that there will be enough money to meet their costs?

In the last Parliament we increased the amount of money going into free entitlement by 50%, from £2 billion to £3 billion. There are issues around how the money actually gets to providers, and some local authorities top-slice the funding. Also, different local authorities have different policies in terms of whether they support maintained providers versus private and voluntary providers. I would ask my hon. Friend to encourage his providers to engage with the call for evidence I launched earlier today and to let us know exactly what problems they are experiencing.

Does the Minister regret the closure of 700 children’s centres when they could have helped fulfil the Government’s 30-hour pledge?

As I said in answer to a previous question, 142 children’s centres have closed, not 700, but the most important thing is the number of families being reached, and record numbers of families are accessing children’s centres up and down the country.

Notwithstanding what the Minister has just said, details of the Childcare Bill, which receives its Second Reading in the other place tomorrow, remain extremely thin on the ground and we still have little or no clarification of things such as funding or eligibility. Therefore, to help parents gain more clarity, will the Minister confirm that there are no provisions in the Bill to allow parents to spread the overall amount of free hours they receive over the full year, or perhaps even over 48 weeks, rather than just the 38 weeks as at present?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her post. I think she is the third shadow childcare Minister I have faced in the nine months that I have been in post. She asked how the number of hours would be spread over the year. I would advise her not to pre-empt the consultation that we will carry out with parents and providers to find the most flexible way of implementing the scheme so that it works for them.