Skip to main content

Free Childcare

Volume 607: debated on Monday 7 March 2016

2. What progress the Government have made on implementing provision of 30 hours of free childcare for working parents. (903896)

4. What progress the Government have made on implementing provision of 30 hours of free childcare for working parents. (903898)

16. What progress the Government have made on implementing provision of 30 hours of free childcare for working parents. (903911)

We are delivering on our commitment to provide working parents of three and four-year-olds with 30 hours of free childcare. To ensure providers can deliver high quality childcare, we will increase funding for childcare by more than £1 billion by 2019. The Childcare Bill has cleared its parliamentary stages. Twenty five local authorities will be piloting the programme in the summer, ahead of full delivery in the summer of 2017.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating St George’s in Redditch for the fantastic work it already does? Does he agree that the 30 hours of free nursery education will make such a difference to one of the most deprived parts of my town?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Families in deprived parts of Redditch will see £5,000 a year as a result of the 30 hours of free childcare. If they need further support, they can get it through the child tax credit system. The 30 hours of free childcare will help families with the cost of living, enable them to work more hours and give children the best start in life.

I very much welcome the fact that one of the pilot schemes is in York. I congratulate the Minister on all his work on that. As the Minister knows, there is some concern among nursery providers over the future funding levels, driven by the disparity between the amount local authorities pay. Will the Minister consider future ring-fencing to avoid top-slicing by local authorities? Will he also consider visiting nurseries in my constituency to see how the pilot is working?

I should like to reassure my hon. Friend that later this year we will be consulting on an early years national funding formula. As part of that, we will set a firm expectation on local authority top-slicing to ensure that the record investment being made in childcare is allocated fairly and reaches providers on the frontline. I am particularly impressed by the innovation in childcare brought about by the local authority in York, which is why we chose it as one of our early implementers. I would be delighted to visit again.

Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of the number of nursery places in Plymouth, and of whether there is enough provision and capacity?

My hon. Friend asks a very important question. The key point is that doubling the entitlement of free childcare is not the same as doubling the demand for childcare. Many parents already buy more than 15 hours and there is spare capacity in the system. The £6 billion funding going into childcare each year should incentivise more providers to enter the market. Where there are specific local difficulties, £50 million has been made available through the spending review to tackle capacity constraints.

I have heard nothing today to assure me that when parents seek the 30 hours free childcare they will be able to find them. I do not know if the Minister is aware that in Enfield since 2010 482 early-years childcare places have been lost and 114 providers have disappeared. When parents are looking for those places, I would be very surprised if they are there on the ground. What will the Minister do to ensure that he can meet the promises his Government have made?

I am afraid I have to disagree with the right hon. Lady. In the previous Parliament, the childcare sector created 230,000 new places. I am confident that with record investment the sector will rise to the challenge of delivering the 30 hours. It is about time that we stopped talking down the childcare sector and recognise the continued growth of the industry.

At recent constituency surgeries, I have had representations from both private providers and state maintained nurseries telling me that the funding simply will not be there. It is no good blaming the sector or blaming local authorities for the fact that the Government have a model that is half-baked, underfunded and running behind time. What is the Minister going to do to make sure that the pledge the Conservatives made to parents at the general election is made real through the availability of places and, crucially, the funding to go with it?

Let me puncture the hon. Gentleman’s question with a dose of reality. The Government are investing more in childcare than any previous Government. At a time when other Departments are facing financial constraint, the Government have made childcare a strategic priority. That is why we undertook the first ever cost of childcare review to ensure that funding is fair to providers and sustainable for the taxpayer.

The National Audit Office report published last week raised concerns about how the 30 hours of childcare for some three and four-year-olds could impact on current provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds. What steps will be taken to ensure that increased provision for one group will not impact on the good work being done with disadvantaged two-year-olds?

The hon. Lady asks a good question, and the answer is that there will be no adverse impact on the offer for two-year-olds. We were the first Government to introduce 15 hours of free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds, and that will carry on. We have increased the hourly rate for the funding for two-year-olds and ensured that the early-years pupil premium continues, so that two, three and four-year-olds who are particularly disadvantaged do not fall even further behind.

The Minister is right to talk about incentivising providers to come forward, and this is a big opportunity, but may I urge him to take into account the needs of different types of provider—childminders, as well as nurseries and all the other types of setting—all of which should be able to take part in this larger and exciting opportunity?

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. One of the great things about the UK childcare market is the diversity of provision—childminders, nurseries, school nurseries—available to parents, as it means we can meet all parents’ needs, especially when it comes to work. We will make sure that flexibility for parents is at the heart of how the 30 hours is delivered.

It really is all about delivery. The Minister talks about meeting all parents’ needs, but already 59 local authorities say they do not have the places to meet current obligations to three-year-olds, never mind the additional hours. What is he going to do?

Once again, I shall give a dose of reality: 99% of four-year-olds and 96% of three-year-olds are accessing the existing 15 hours of childcare. I am happy to compare our record with that of the previous Labour Government. After 13 years in office, it had provided 12.5 hours of free childcare. In half that time, the Conservative party has provided 30 hours of free childcare. Labour never offered anything for disadvantaged two-year-olds; we have a programme for disadvantaged two-year-olds. We are investing more than any previous Government. It might not like it, but it must accept it: the Conservatives are the party of childcare.

My party introduced Sure Start. There was no Sure Start and there were no children’s centres—no universal offer for any kind of childcare—prior to the Labour Government in 1997. The test of this will be how many families actually use the additional hours and who those families are. How has the Minister managed to concoct a system where a household with an income of £200,000 a year benefits from the additional hours, whereas 20,000 single parents on the minimum wage will not be eligible? How has he managed to come up with something so deeply unfair?

Let me explain the policy to the hon. Lady. She should be familiar with it by now. Our eligibility criteria make absolute sense. To get 30 hours of free childcare, someone needs to be in work and earning more than £107 a week and not more than £100,000 a year—it does not matter if they are a lone parent. That means that if anybody in the family earns more than £100,000 a year, they will not be eligible. I know that Labour Members do not want to hear it, but Labour’s childcare voucher scheme meant that parents earning more than £1 million could get childcare subsidies but the self-employed could not. We are not allowing that to happen in our childcare scheme.