Thursday 12 October 2017
[Philip Davies in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered unauthorised encampments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and to lead today’s debate following Monday’s well-attended debate in the main Chamber. I thank hon. Members for attending. I know that we are always balancing constituency pressures with the pressures of being in Westminster, so it is good to see colleagues from around the country, not just my own west midlands region, and from all sides of the House.
On Monday, we heard stories from across the House of how unauthorised encampments bring chaos to local communities and blight our green and open spaces. It is the impact on our communities that I will touch on, because that was the driver for my calling for the debate. However, on Monday we also touched on some other important Traveller issues relating to education, modern slavery and health inequalities. Those are equally important, and I think we all agreed that they must be considered as well. I also mention that the vast majority of Travellers live alongside our settled community in absolute harmony. I am talking about the minority: a small group who are making the lives of my local communities challenging.
I will focus on unauthorised encampments, how they affect local communities and blight our open spaces, how we can seek to prevent them and consider the process for evicting Travellers from these sites, and how we can come up with a new solution for what seems to be an ever-present situation. Before I begin in earnest, I thank the Minister for the contribution he made to Monday’s debate. I know that he, like many of us here, has first-hand experience of the issue, and I welcome his announcement of a call for evidence to address the way that this issue is dealt with. I assure him that, if appropriate, I will make a submission to his Department’s consultation, and will encourage my constituents to do so.
First, I will touch on some of the background to the problem in my own constituency of Aldridge-Brownhills, and one or two statistics. I think we like statistics in this place. There were 22,004 Traveller caravans in England in January 2017, of which 2,860, representing 13%, were parked on unauthorised encampments. That might not seem high to some, but, as many of us here know, the effect on a local community when a large encampment arrives can be massive. In my constituency it is not uncommon for these encampments to have more than 50 caravans plus vehicles.
Many of those vehicles are luxury caravans and vehicles, which my hard-working residents could only dream of affording. Up to 26 September this year, there were 68 unauthorised encampments in the borough of Walsall alone. The estimated cost associated with those set up on council land was about £200,000, and there are costs associated with encampments that arrive on private land and, sometimes, on housing association land as well. That money could and should be going back into our communities and into the services that we all value and want to see strengthened.
The problem is not a new one for the borough of Walsall, nor is it just a problem for my constituency within the Walsall borough; it also affects the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) and of the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). The issue has been ongoing for the last few summers, but this year things have come to a head. I believe that the local authorities try to act, but most of the time their actions are not quick enough to ensure that members of the settled community are not adversely affected. The Travelling community seem to understand the law and the hoops that the council must jump through before moving an encampment on, and each encampment seems to follow a similar pattern.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour on securing the debate. She rightly talks about the issues facing Walsall; I read about them regularly in the Express and Star, because those issues affect a number of constituencies, including mine. I recognise that local communities are really affected, particularly when we see the Travellers coming on to local parks.
I absolutely agree, which is why the focus of today is that impact on local communities, local residents, and sometimes local businesses. It is often local community groups that normally use green spaces on a Saturday morning.
I was talking about the process and pattern that often seems to occur. Before it is evicted by a court order, we see the encampment simply move to another site. The Travellers set up camp while the council works on the eviction process, and just before the council serves the necessary order, the encampment packs up and moves on—often down the road to another site in the same borough—only for the same process to repeat itself. That cat-and-mouse merry-go-round comes at great cost to the taxpayer. Enough is enough. It must be brought to an end. It is time to seek some solutions.
I apologise, Mr Davies, but I will need to leave the debate early; a school from my constituency is visiting. I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I am interested in what she says about this being a pattern that is repeated each year; I know that other colleagues will make the same point. Does she agree that it is helpful if local authorities actually undertake what they should, which is to secure a five-year supply of deliverable sites—and does she know whether her authority has done that?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution. I think transit sites and allocations are part of what is actually a much bigger issue. I will come on to some of those points later.
Mess is so often left at these sites. The state that some of the sites are left in following an eviction is quite simply a disgrace. There are masses of litter and household waste, while industrial waste is commonplace—be that bricks or leftovers from building work. I have seen huge piles of garden waste, which often appears to be from work carried out by members of these sites then brought back to the encampment and dumped.
I agree with my hon. Friend: this is about the impact on local communities when waste is left on a site. These are recreational spaces—in my case, on Park Road football field in Cheadle—and are left in a terrible state afterwards. There is also quite a substantial clean-up cost to the community, which leads to that feeling of real resentment against the unauthorised encampments and the Travellers.
My hon. Friend makes a helpful intervention. It is often the waste left behind that creates the tension within our communities. On one occasion, I was due to meet a constituent at a site in my constituency from where an encampment had recently been moved on, to see the state it had been left in. Shortly before I left my office, the constituent called and advised me to bring a pair of wellies. When I arrived at the site, I sadly realised why I needed them: because of the state the site was left in. It is not uncommon for human excrement to be left on those sites. For members of the council’s “Clean & Green” team to have to go and clean up these sites is really not fair, not acceptable and certainly not what the council tax payers of Walsall borough pay their council taxes for.
Recently, after Travellers moved on from an encampment at Aldridge airport, there were, in addition to the waste we have sadly come to expect, four empty boxes that had contained TVs and even a car. Sadly, that was again left for the council to clean up. Surely the cost burden of cleaning up that mess should not fall to my local residents. Some councils are now successfully prosecuting fly-tippers, so is it not time to start prosecuting and fining Travellers for the mess that they leave in their wake? As well as the costs that come with repairing the destruction of public land and the clean-up of waste, there are wider societal costs.
The hon. Lady mentioned Travellers on green sites, a cause of considerable distress to residents, but such groups quite often also set up on industrial estates. They disrupt the businesses and very often there is, coincidentally, a significant peak in crime, so those industrial estates get hit both ways.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is remiss of me to have concentrated on green and open spaces, when we have seen encampments on car parks as well, and at one of our local supermarkets. When I talk about the impact on local communities, I mean communities in a very broad sense.
There is much anecdotal evidence, as any of the constituents who have contacted me will attest, that with an unauthorised encampment comes a rise in antisocial behaviour and crime. Local pubs have had to close due to unruly behaviour. I have heard stories of local shopkeepers who have spent a weekend fending off fake notes, because even accepting one fake £50 note can wipe off a small shop’s profits for the day. Many residents have contacted me after their homes, cars and gardens have been vandalised and damaged.
On the August bank holiday weekend, one of my local football clubs, Walsall Wood, which is run by local community volunteers for children and young people in our community, fell victim to an illegal encampment. The 50 or so caravans arrived on Thursday evening. Local residents, staff and members of the club all contacted me. Understandably, they were concerned about the impact that it would have on the club, which had a series of games planned for that weekend. Due to a previously obtained injunction, the council was able to move that particular group on that Friday evening, but some games had already had to be cancelled that day. I think that some were cancelled on Saturday too, but most were able to go ahead. Unfortunately, however, the pattern continued, and that group of travellers simply moved down the road to Aldridge airport, where the height restriction barrier had been left open. They set up camp there over the bank holiday weekend.
I thank my hon. Friend for the measured tone that she has set for this debate. Does it surprise her that there are often examples of forced entry clearly having been used—for example, angle grinders on gates or huge boulders dragged to the side, sometimes in front of witnesses? Does she agree that the police need much greater powers to intervene and move people on where that is happening?
I will come on to some of the powers and the need to look at the legislation later in my speech, but I agree. We have often seen examples of locks being broken. That just heightens tensions within our communities because people say, “How can you make a site secure when a lock is broken or something is left open?”
The final example I want to touch on today—I am sure other Members will want to give their own—is of a convoy of caravans that arrived on the car park and surrounding areas of Aldridge community centre on 29 September. I am sorry, but the behaviour of the Travellers in this case was absolutely shocking. Members of the public who were using the community centre reported feeling intimidated. There was kicking at the doors of the community centre and someone had to stay there all weekend to provide security. Worst of all, human faeces were posted through the letterbox. What sort of behaviour is that? It is not acceptable, and yet that group was able to stay there until the morning. Understandably, we are left asking how that can be.
I turn now to how to deal with the issue. It was really interesting to hear from other Members on Monday, and we have heard some examples today as well about the issues that they face and possible solutions to these illegal encampments. There was talk of strengthening the law around sections 61, 62, 77 and 78 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. On Monday, there was much discussion of the Irish Government’s solution. Ireland has made deliberate acts of trespass a criminal offence and there has even been suggestion of a three-strike rule for the impounding of vehicles. Surely we should be looking to explore those things a little further.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. This was a significant problem in Ireland, but the Irish Government eventually legislated and Ireland now has a law that criminalises acts of deliberate trespass, which, as I understand it, has significantly deterred illegal incursions in Ireland. Does the hon. Lady not feel that there would be real advantages for us if we were to take advantage of Ireland’s experience and introduce a similar law here?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention; I know that he speaks from experience in his own constituency. We really need to look at this area of legislation. We need to look at the problems that we are facing in the communities and a little further up the line at some of the root causes. That is an excellent example and hopefully something that the Minister will take on board, as, to be fair, he did on Monday.
In February this year, the West Midlands police and crime commissioner held a summit on unauthorised encampments in recognition of the fact that we have quite a challenging situation across the west midlands. There were several outcomes from that summit, two of which involved working with local MPs to change legislation—I am conscious that there are colleagues from across the west midlands here today—and specifically section 62 and the notion of better protecting private business. It was a little disappointing that I did not hear from the police and crime commissioner regarding those proposals until I spoke to his office last month to ask for those outcomes, but perhaps these debates and my phone call prompted some action. At least we have some proposals, ideas and suggestions; they have to be welcomed as ones that the Minister and his team could consider.
Currently, section 62 can be used to direct Travellers to leave an unauthorised encampment only if there is a suitable pitch for the caravan, or each of the caravans, on a relevant caravan site that is situated within a local authority’s area. Clearly, for an encampment of more than 50 caravans, that is quite a challenge even for the police to handle, so we need to find a better way of addressing that. One suggestion is to change the law to enable local authorities to work with neighbouring authorities or with a wider combined authority so that Travellers can be directed to sites across local area boundaries. I urge the Minister to consider that, particularly in the west midlands, because Aldridge-Brownhills is part of the Walsall borough, which is geographically quite compact. It is not a huge borough. We are, in turn, part of the West Midlands combined authority. Again, I urge the Minister to look at whether there is some scope to make change there. I am aware that Sandwell Council has recently opened a transit site and Birmingham City Council is preparing a site, so perhaps consideration could be given to those as well.
As a Member of Parliament representing part of Sandwell, I draw attention to the fact that the number of illegal encampments has about halved as a result of the new site. Equally significantly, those that are set up are moved on quickly by the police. Might it not be an idea simply to change the law to cover a police authority area? That would simplify this for the police and they could therefore direct the Travellers to an encampment within their police area.
That is another sensible solution, which I hope the Minister takes on board. I know that lots of other Members want to speak, so I will press on and take fewer interventions to make some progress.
The wording of section 61 makes it clear that a senior police officer can direct Travellers to leave land if they believe that two or more people are trespassing with the purpose of residing there for any period. Reasonable steps to ask them to leave must have been taken, and one of the following must apply: any of the persons present must have caused damage to the land or property on the land or used threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards the owner of the land or his family or agents, or those persons must have between them six or more vehicles on the land. That is another good example of where the police can and should be using the existing powers.
We have touched already on the Irish Government’s answer. Without going over everything again, I urge Ministers to look at that seriously. However, as I said on Monday, we need to find long-term solutions, but my constituents are also looking for short-term protections.
Many members of the travelling community clearly understand the law surrounding the eviction process. We have seen that all too often in Aldridge, particularly with regard to locks missing from gates and sites being left open. That prompts the question: does the council’s left hand know what its right hand is doing? Could local authorities work more closely with other authorities to tackle this problem? There are also questions about how to secure sites so that members of the public can use them for the reasons for which they were originally intended, while stopping Traveller encampments springing up on them. Aldridge airport is a very good example of that.
On some sites where injunctions have been obtained, some protections have been put in place, but a Walsall Council report from January 2016 showed that further plans to protect 14 sites across the borough would cost just over £68,000. The report concluded that there is currently no budget for implementing those measures, yet the council has had to spend more than double that figure so far this year in evicting Travellers from some of the sites that perhaps could have been protected under the measures. I do sometimes wonder about the logic.
On injunctions, I want to mention at this point some of the work that Walsall Council has done. It gained a borough-wide order, based on the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, against persons both named and unnamed. In addition, it managed to obtain an order restraining the named defendants and persons unknown from trespassing on 12 sites in the borough. I praise Walsall Council. It has taken some steps, and some of my local residents now have sites that are secure but that they can still access. Sometimes there are calls for a borough-wide injunction, but I am not necessarily convinced that that is the answer. It does not really solve the problem; it simply moves it to another borough. The costs and difficulty of obtaining such an injunction would be massive and, again, would fall to council tax payers. Also, I fear that sweeping powers such as that can easily be abused. Negotiated stopping is another often cited solution, but again that is not ideal, either in the short or the long term.
I will move on swiftly and draw my comments to a close, Mr Davies. I would like to say much more, and perhaps the Minister will let me have a meeting with him in the future, but for now I will conclude. Unauthorised encampments are the single biggest issue in my postbag and email inbox. The issue causes anger and frustration in my constituency and, clearly, across the country. I welcome the Minister’s commitment on Monday to a call for evidence, because it is not good enough for public bodies just to gold-plate human rights and equalities legislation. It is time for us all to come together and for the police and the council to work much more closely together, using the powers available to them, to prevent these encampments from appearing in the first place and to speed up the eviction process. It is for the Government to look, through consultation, at the effectiveness or otherwise of the existing laws. No single community should be above the law. We need to recognise that with rights must come responsibilities, and with responsibilities will come respect.
Order. May I take it that everybody who wants to speak is standing? Everybody who wants to speak should stand. Just to let you know, 10 minutes each for the Front Benchers is the rule in 90-minute debates. There look to be about 11 people seeking to catch my eye, so I shall have to impose a time limit of three minutes on speeches. Keeping to that will depend on very few or no interventions, so I ask people to be disciplined; otherwise, I will have to reduce the time for speeches further and I would rather not do so if I can get away with it. I apologise for imposing a three-minute time limit, but that is to try to accommodate everybody.
I thank the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for the tone of her contribution and particularly for starting by saying that we are talking about a very small minority of the Gypsy and Traveller population. I would probably disagree with the way she expressed the figure of 13%, because that relates to caravan dwellers and does not take account of the fact that three quarters of Gypsies and Travellers live in bricks-and-mortar dwellings. Also, I think that that figure includes encampments that are unauthorised in the sense of being on land that is owned by Gypsies and Travellers but without planning permission. As I said in the debate earlier this week, we are probably talking about no more than 1% of the Gypsy and Traveller population where there are conflicts in relation to stopping places and unauthorised encampments. For that reason, it is important to start with the statistics. It is important that people always address that matter, because it is easy to fall into error in talking about this issue as if it has something to do with a particular ethnic group rather than with a small minority of people who may be causing difficulties in local areas.
Just as the scale of the problem is often much smaller than indicated, so the scale of the solution is probably much smaller. A couple of years ago—I have no reason to think that the position has changed greatly—it was said that just 1 acre of land throughout England was needed to resolve the shortage of space; and once that is spread among local authority areas, it should not be beyond our wit to achieve. A combination of better and more permanent sites, transit sites, negotiated stopping and other things would become a virtuous circle: it would create more harmonious relations between the Gypsy and Traveller and settled communities, address the major inequalities that affect Gypsy and Traveller groups and save local authorities a great deal of money. We have heard about Leeds being able to save up to £250,000 a year by implementing such policies, through not having to go through enforcement action.
Of course, the history of Gypsies and Travellers and, indeed, their persecution, goes back to the 16th century, but the lesson of post-war history has been that where attempts are made—for example, through the Caravan Sites Act 1968 or through regional spatial strategies under the last Labour Government—to encourage local authorities, whether by placing a requirement on them or by providing funding for them, to provide sites, one gets better results than if, as occurred in 1994 under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act or, as is happening now by removing the requirement on local authorities under the Housing and Planning Act 2016, one creates a problem whereby local authorities drag their feet and do not step up to the plate. We all know that, so really we all know what the solution may be.
I am conscious of the fact—I am not conscious of how much time I have left—
You haven’t any time left!
I know that you will be absolutely judicious and fair in this debate, Mr Davies, but let me say just two things very quickly. First, between the two debates this week, we have had publication of the racial disparity audit and the indication in it that Gypsies and Travellers are some of the most discriminated against and deprived communities in the country; that is their status. Secondly, also between the two debates, I met a Jewish human rights organisation called René Cassin, which works closely with Gypsies and Travellers and settled communities to resolve disputes. I would finally say to hon. Members that, if they are having difficulties, they should go and meet the Gypsy and Traveller communities and engage people such as the Traveller Movement to intercede in those matters. These things are often soluble and often resolved.
Order. I gave the hon. Gentleman a bit of latitude, because the clock is not working properly. People should look at their start time, because it does say when they started speaking; people should keep an eye on the clock. I will be a bit harsher in future, but I had to give some latitude.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing this debate and introducing the subject in a very balanced manner.
We would all agree that the vast majority of Gypsies and Travellers are law-abiding. It is not them whom we are discussing with this issue, but the minority who spoil it for the majority. That is important to put on record, because too often these debates are labelled as complaining about the majority of Travellers. In Essex, we have had a very proud tradition of welcoming Gypsies and Travellers over hundreds of years, and that is why we have so many sites in our county. The minority spoil it for the majority, particularly given that the view among that minority seems to be that there is one law for them and another for everybody else. That does not make for good community relations. We have to address this minority persistently and consistently flouting the rules and laws, because it creates tensions among communities. All we ask is that the law be applied equitably and fairly for all. If it cannot be, there is a problem that needs to be addressed. That is what the Minister needs to look at.
This debate is specifically about unauthorised encampments. Most people know that Dale Farm lies within my constituency. While I shall spare Members the full history, there was a long and expensive process even to get to where we are now, which at times sorely tested both my and my-law abiding constituents’ patience.
Given the shortage of time, may I raise a couple of issues with the Minister? I did send my address to him a little in advance. If he cannot answer it now, I would certainly appreciate a written response, but I look forward to his response at the end of the debate if he can. I want to thank my constituents for having written to me about this. I also thank Chief Inspector Sam Smith at Essex police and local councillors for the information they recently provided to me in anticipation of this afternoon’s session. They raised some important issues and, if I may, I will briefly touch on a few of them for the Minister.
There was general agreement that the current provision to close such encampments and compel people to move on is not working well. In particular, there is some concern that police guidelines, as regards the use of section 61 powers, are overly narrow. Unless other factors such as crime, general and antisocial behaviour or criminal damage are present, the police find it difficult to move people on. The legal process through the courts can be slow, cumbersome—it can take as long as a fortnight just to obtain a hearing date—and expensive. May I also raise the issue of sites? The police would make the point that transit sites are needed for short-term stays.
Order. The timer is now working so the leeway has gone, I am afraid. I call Richard Burden.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), a west midlands colleague, on securing this debate. May I preface my remarks by noting that what I am about to say should in no way be taken as a generalised comment on Gypsy, Roma or Traveller communities in this country, most of whom either camp legally or, indeed, are settled. They face very widespread discrimination and must have their needs catered for.
The context of today’s debate is unauthorised encampments. The picture painted by the hon. Lady is familiar to me. My constituency, in particular the Kings Norton area, has been badly affected. The cycle of caravans pitching up, being given notice to quit, leaving a trail of environmental degradation and sometimes public health hazards in their wake, only to turn up five minutes down the road with the cycle starting again is an all-too familiar picture to me, and my constituents suffer badly from it.
I welcome the Minister’s commitment on Monday to consult on existing powers. I hope that he will not feel constrained to say that all he will look at is existing powers. I hope that if cases are made for changes to those powers, that is not off the agenda. In the short time I have, I will ask him a few things. First, on timescales, roughly how long will the consultation take and when does he hope recommendations will come out of it? That is so we can all be satisfied that this is not an exercise of kicking the matter into the long grass. Secondly, in relation to the west midlands, the police and crime commissioner has done a great deal of work on this issue and has been working closely with MPs. Would either the Minister or one of his hon. Friends meet a delegation from the west midlands to go through our ideas in more detail?
Could the Minister say something today, first, on powers to prevent unauthorised encampments from returning to a wider area? We know that there has been some imaginative use of injunctions, but all too often those procedures are far too cumbersome and the powers are patchy. Can they be reviewed urgently? Secondly, can we ensure that the police and local authorities have the resources they need to ensure that the polluter pays? Those who create the mess should be held accountable for doing so. Thirdly, regarding working across local authorities, the hon. Lady has already said that there is a strange situation whereby section 62 powers can only be used within the confines of one local authority. That makes little sense and does not promote the kind of joint working across authorities that is needed. Will he look at our recommendation for either basing those powers on the combined authority area or some other joint arrangement between local authorities or police authority areas to achieve that? Lastly, in relation to transit sites—
Order. I call Douglas Ross.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) for securing this debate.
During my maiden speech in the main Chamber, I gave Members a tour around my constituency, and sadly I could give a similar tour around Moray in this debate, because all parts of Moray have been affected by illegal, unauthorised Gypsy Traveller encampments. In Forres, the first site when travelling in from the west is an unauthorised Traveller site at the Bervie Chipper. There are more on the way to Elgin. Across the coast, they take up land that is part of the Speyside Way, and the public are therefore unable to walk across that area.
It is unfortunate that time after time—in my time as a councillor, a Member of the Scottish Parliament and now as a Member of Parliament—constituents have had to complain to their local representatives about not only the formation of these sites, but the way they are left after the Travellers move on. Members have mentioned human waste being left. I have also seen examples of illegal drug use and of needles being left behind, which not only have to be cleared up by council officials at a cost, but are sometimes found by members of the public—we can only imagine the problems if that was a young child—before being reported.
We mentioned in the debate on Monday the cost to local authorities, but there is also a cost to individuals, land owners and public bodies. I cited the example of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, which has had a lot of problems with illegal sites just outside Forres, and paid £10,000 for a clean-up. It found not only the mess that we discussed earlier, but aggregate taken to that site by Gypsy Travellers doing work and then dumping it there, rather than paying to get rid of it, as other businesses would have to do.
In my final minute, I want to speak about unfairness, and this genuine perception that there is one rule for the travelling community and another for the settled community. Like all Members, I accept that the minority are giving the majority a bad name, but I had a constituent who was refused planning permission for two chalets on a piece of land. The planning application was refused, because it went against four local plan policies and four structure plan policies. Years later, Gypsy Travellers bought that land cheaply to feed their horses and it is now the site of a Gypsy Traveller encampment. It is galling for individuals who feel that they cannot get their site developed because of genuine planning objections that they are eventually ignored because an ethnic minority, the Gypsy Travellers, can make an application that is granted.
I am grateful for this debate, which allows all Members to express their concerns about this very serious issue, and I look forward to further discussions.
This conversation will undoubtedly be difficult, because it is about a clash of cultural norms: those of settled communities and their culture to aspire to live in one permanent place, and those of nomadic peoples. I want to challenge some of the things set out by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton). Regarding the conversation about antisocial behaviour increasing when unauthorised encampments are in town, I would like to know whether there is statistical, rather than anecdotal, evidence to substantiate that claim.
I point out to the hon. Lady that the simplest way is to come and talk to some of the constituents in my community who have actually been affected. They will give her plenty of evidence and stories of their own experience of antisocial behaviour.
I also represent an area in which the highest ethnic minority is Gypsy and Traveller people, in County Durham. I asked for statistical evidence to substantiate that claim, rather than anecdotal. There is antisocial behaviour in my constituency from non-travelling communities. Time and time again in debates such as this, complex social issues are racialised. [Interruption.] I was about to say, before the objections, that I have heard many people say that this issue is about a minority. I want to talk about the presumption, which I have heard in this debate, that it is about our communities versus the Gypsy and Traveller communities. They are one and the same thing. If Travellers or Gypsies are in our constituencies, they are our constituents at that point.
The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) said that many look on trailers and envy how luxurious they are. Those are people’s homes. The average cost of a trailer is well below the average cost of a house. I thought that that was a particularly spurious point.
What do Members mean when they talk about dealing with the problem or the situation? Where do they suggest nomadic people go? I know that it is difficult and causes tension in communities, and that it is frustrating when a nice piece of land next to someone’s home or an unused piece of land is taken up by many trailers. That is difficult for communities, because they have expectations about what they live next to, but no critical analysis has been done of the structural reasons why Gypsy and Traveller people might end up on that disused bit of land. What structural Government policies have resulted in that situation?
I also challenge the presumption about gold-plating human rights. The report from the Traveller Movement, which is absolutely fantastic, sets out in clear language how persecuted such communities have been for centuries. On a number of social indicators—all, I would argue—the outcomes for Gypsy and Traveller communities, as well as Roma communities, which are not the subject of this debate, are worse than for others. It is difficult to hear people conflate antisocial behaviour, waste on sites and all the associated problems with a cultural identity. The idea that Gypsy and Traveller people should be mentioned at all is difficult. As I said before, antisocial behaviour in my community is often not due to Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. Of course, not all Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people will be angels, but let us not use cultural identity as a point in the argument.
There are solutions. Helen Jones of Leeds GATE argued—I think this was brushed aside—in favour of negotiated stopping, which rests on mutual negotiated agreement and a short-term social contract issued by local authorities. Unauthorised encampment is often the result of insufficient provision of permanent pitches, which then overflow on to transient sites, which essentially become permanent sites when they should be transient. Negotiated stopping would offer short-termism, with many conditions by which Gypsy and Traveller people would have to abide. Yvonne MacNamara, CEO of the Traveller Movement, agrees that negotiated stopping is a solution. The solutions are staring us in the face. Let us not allow the demonisation of these communities to stand in the way of those solutions. Let us work towards peaceful solutions for nomadic people, as well as for the settled people in our constituencies.
Since Monday’s debate, we have had the shocking revelation of the race disparity audit figures. The absence rate for white British pupils is 4.6% and for Chinese pupils 2.4%, yet for Irish Traveller children, it is 18%. Some 97% of Chinese and Indian children stay on in education after age 16; 91% of mixed white and black Caribbean children do; yet 58% of Irish Traveller children do. This House and this Government face a big issue. Do we prioritise the cultural practice of being able to travel—in itself, there is nothing wrong with that—over children’s right to an education?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the number of children from that community in school, but it is not necessarily travelling children who are absent; it may be children who are settled but who find the school environment unfavourable and unwelcoming.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Of course there are children in settled communities who do not stay on, but she will understand that a large preponderance of Traveller children are regularly on the road. It is difficult for them to be in school regularly, and the quality of home education, if it exists at all—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not take any more interventions, because other people want to speak.
As someone who believes passionately that every single community, including the Gypsy and Traveller communities, should have the life chances available to all children in this country, I think that we need to do better than that. The race disparity audit is a wake-up call. Many aspects of our planning and education system do not work for Traveller children, and we need to take that seriously.
I believe in the melting pot view of society. I believe that if we all live alongside each other, by and large, we can get along well together and have good community cohesion. A small story: two gentlemen came to see me at my surgery a couple of weeks ago about some local authority repairs that had not been done. I dealt with the gentleman who had a case, and took it up with the local authority. It turned out that he was a Traveller, in his 60s, who was unable to read or write, and his neighbour, who was not a Traveller but a member of the settled community, had come along to help him.
Is that not a lovely story? That is the sort of Britain that we want: people from different communities coming together to help each other. If that gentleman had lived on one of the private sites in my constituency, sadly, it is unlikely that he would have had a friend in the settled community who could have come along to assist him with his case. There are serious questions about the separation of Travellers, and I would like the Government to reveal more about the race disparity audit, and how the majority of Travellers who live among the settled community compare with those who live on separate Traveller sites. That would help the issue.
Sadly, many privately owned Traveller sites in my constituency are ungoverned space. The local authority cannot gain access without a warrant at times, and vulnerable tenants sub-letting caravans send me hair-raising stories, even today, about being intimidated in the middle of the night and so on. That is not good enough. There have been instances of modern slavery. I worry about those vulnerable people sub-letting on traveller sites. Modern slavery is occurring, and the police and the council cannot get to them to protect them properly in the way that all of us would like them to be.
There are still six Members seeking to catch my eye, which will take us over the time allocated for Back Benchers. If everyone wants three minutes, I am happy to accommodate that, but I ask everyone not to take further interventions, to protect the time. At the same time, I ask the Front-Bench speakers to prepare to have just eight minutes instead of 10, so all the Back Benchers can speak as well.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I echo many of the points raised by colleagues and recognise many of their experiences. We must remember that we are discussing unauthorised and illegal encampments.
Since being elected in 2015, I have witnessed illegal encampments on public land, land belonging to local schools, clubs and sports clubs and private land, forcing closures and causing damage and significant waste issues. The problem across Warwickshire as a whole is becoming more frequent. In 2013, there were 92 unauthorised encampments with 507 caravans, but by 2016, there were 139 with 890 caravans. The indications are that those figures will rise again in 2017, because there are already 121 sites with 1,099 caravans.
We must remember that for every illegal incursion, there is an associated cost affecting the local authority, the landowner or the taxpayer.
In three months during the summer of 2016, Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council spent a significant amount—just over £22,000—on bailiff fees, officers’ time, court costs, legal action and cleaning up. Residents feel that that money could have been better spent elsewhere in the local economy or on other public services. Therein lies the frustration of my constituents and others. A challenge that needs to be addressed is the perceived imbalance in rights, particularly with respect to clean-up costs, that favours people on illegal encampments. If a member of the local settled community caused similar mess or damage, they would rightly be prosecuted or fined, but the same does not seem to happen on illegal encampments—the cost is met by the local people.
I had hoped to go into more detail on a number of other matters, but I will raise them with the Minister after the debate. We need to look at strengthening powers to protect private businesses and landowners, including schools, sports clubs, farms and businesses, which can be put under real financial strain. We need to look at reducing the time that eviction notices take and possibly at shifting the burden of proof away from the landowner. We need to look at prevention measures, because it is one thing to move people on, but as soon as an incursion happens, costs begin to mount. Finally, we need to look at protecting against people returning to land—particularly private land, but public land too.
I am sure that my constituents will welcome the Government’s intention to review the law. I hope that the Government will go further and take the opportunity to assess new measures that could be implemented to give clarity to the relevant agencies.
Since I became an MP in June, two issues above all others have occupied my mailbag: potholes and unauthorised encampments. Between February and August, our area had about one unauthorised encampment every 11 days. I second the excellent comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) in the debate on Monday.
I am concerned that law-abiding citizens in my community feel that the law is not on their side. That is a dangerous place for society to be in. They have seen their local tax money spent on some substantial and effective defences against illegal encampment, but that £150,000 could have been spent on other issues. They have seen the effects of criminal damage, and some have suffered the costs of cleaning it up. In a number of communities, such as Willingale—a lovely village in the north of my constituency—people have illegally occupied and built on green-belt land, and the Planning Inspectorate has then awarded retrospective planning permission. Those communities feel that the situation is entirely out of their control.
Clearly, we need to do a lot to address the situation so that law-abiding residents are protected. I draw attention to the good work of our police and crime commissioner, Roger Hirst, who has created a Gypsy and Traveller liaison group with a single protocol that has reduced the average time for illegal encampments to be moved on from 10 days to two days. There is some good learning from the west midlands that we should combine with that.
I second the remarks about the Irish legislation on illegal trespass. I have also heard from members of my local police force that they have found closure orders, as defined in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, very effective for closing down crack houses, because the orders can go through the courts quickly. They wonder whether a similar process could be applied to help them take even faster action against illegal encampments. I look forward to taking part in the review that the Minister launched this week, and I wish it well.
I represent a constituency that has welcomed Gypsies and Travellers for hundreds of years. Between 800 and 900 of my constituents are Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. I have always considered them my constituents, just as my predecessor and—I suspect—his predecessors did. I have held surgeries in the main areas of Newark, including Tolney Lane, where Gypsies and Travellers live in permanent and transient residences. I have tried my best to get to know them. They are good people, and I want this debate to send the message that our motivation—certainly mine—is not to diminish or disrespect them, but to ensure good community relations.
There have not always been good relations between Newark’s Gypsy and Traveller communities and its wider community. In the ’80s and ’90s there was occasional violence, a great deal of disrespect and some prejudice. We now have much better relations, which I hope to see continue. The purpose of the review and of the work being done by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) and others is not only to protect our other constituents from criminal damage, disturbance and so on, but to build a united and cohesive community in which everybody feels that the law applies equally. That should be our guiding principle, but it has not always been followed in my community.
A very small minority—in many cases they are not from Newark, or even from the United Kingdom; sometimes they come from other parts of Europe—have caused a real flare-up, particularly this summer. Villages have been despoiled, gravestones have been destroyed, businesses have been invaded and the Newark Showground has been broken into, causing real damage to its reputation. Something really must be done to protect these communities and businesses and to achieve what I see as one of the most important parts of my role as a Member of Parliament: building a cohesive and united community.
In the short time remaining, I will leave the Minister with a couple of considerations that I would like to see included in the review. One of the concerns about the five-year pitch supply is that a place that has an established Gypsy and Traveller community, as Newark does, is expected to have more than the average number of pitches. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) made the good point that if pitches were spread equally across the United Kingdom, there might be only an acre in every constituency, but they are not spread equally. Newark and Sherwood District Council, for example, has more Gypsy and Traveller pitches today than all the other districts in Nottinghamshire. Addressing that alone would make a good deal of difference to my community.
I am disappointed that the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) dismisses the issue as a clash of cultural norms. That does a great disservice to the Gypsy and Traveller community. I do not believe that incidents of criminal damage, environmental degradation, intimidation, fly-tipping and, in some cases, violence are cultural norms for that community; we are talking about a very tiny minority. As we have heard repeatedly in the debate, this is about ensuring the same rights, responsibilities and respect for everybody.
In the short time available, I will not repeat the many points that have been made, but propose to the Minister a solution-focused approach. We need much greater clarity about the police’s powers to deal with witnessed criminal damage, because they are sometimes unsure of their own powers when criminal damage is reported or even when it happens in their presence.
So much revolves around dialogue. As has been said, meeting people and talking to them is important, but it can sometimes be difficult to know who to liaise with. During the consultation, will the Minister consider introducing a responsibility for someone to be appointed to speak for groups of Travellers and to liaise with them directly? That would allow us not only to advance the dialogue more constructively, but to hold somebody genuinely accountable.
That is about holding people to account, just as we would expect members of the local community to be held to account vigorously for intimidation of, or disrespect towards, the Traveller community. We still expect someone to be responsible for a group of people involved in the kinds of incidents that we have heard about today, such as fly-tipping. At the moment, nobody can be held to account for such incidents, yet the local community has to pick up the bill. That is where we are heading: a vicious cycle of communities being so resentful about these encampments.
We are asking for the same laws to apply to everyone and to see something coming out of this consultation that results in genuine action to ensure that people are held to account, in the same way that I would expect all my other constituents to be held to account for the kinds of incidents that we have heard about today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I will bring a slightly different dimension to this debate. I have friends among the Traveller community, and perhaps they can be called “settled Travellers,” because some of them are very successful business people and so on. They live in my community and they are my constituents.
I was a councillor for 10 years in south Ayrshire, which is in the south-west of Scotland. Annually, we have Irish Travellers—they are primarily Irish, but not exclusively—and they have brought some difficulties and challenges to settled communities. The council has a Traveller liaison officer who assists Travellers, for example with education and cleansing, and we also assist them through the local NHS, but they still bring difficulties to our communities.
These people can be very aggressive sales people when somebody wants their gutters cleaned, or they can put pressure on people to have roof repairs, UPVC cladding replacement or tree pruning, for example. There is evidence to suggest that their prices can be quite high and the quality of work can be poor. Also, the people who are generally targeted are mature people living on their own, or elderly couples who worry about certain things. Another consequence of the transient movement of these people is that they take work away from genuine, bona fide, self-employed people. They conduct that work and put little or nothing back into the community. That is slightly off the subject of the debate, but it is all part of the package.
I have great friends who are settled Travellers. I think even Billy Butlin was a travelling person, and he ran a successful business across the United Kingdom—he had a Butlin’s camp at Ayr. So these people bring wealth and quality to the communities, but there are groups of Irish Travellers—they are in the minority, as has often been said—that bring challenges to the settled community.
There is a real perception that there are rules for some people but not for others. When they pitch up at a pay-and-display car park, they neither pay nor display, and they can sit there for four or five days. Sadly, they bring grief with them. I wish we could find a way to bring the Travelling community, who I have a great deal of respect for, and the settled community together.
Our local authority looked at 111 possible sites over a 10-year period, with assistance from the Scottish Government, who recognised the problem and offered funds to support us, but it is not easy to find a site that suits the Traveller community, who may wish to go to certain places. We also have a transient camp, but even if it has vacancies we cannot force them to go there; if they do not want to go, they will not.
I wish the participants in the debate well and I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) well in taking this matter forward. There has to be a solution to suit both parties.
In my constituency we have both private and local authority-owned Traveller sites, but those are not the subject of this debate; this debate is about the kind of unauthorised encampments that many of us will have had a series of, summer after summer. In my constituency many of these encampments cause significant disruption, misery and loss of amenity for local residents. The people in the encampments do not just leave behind rubbish; day after day, local residents have to put up with people defecating and urinating on playing fields and play areas, which is completely unacceptable.
As has rightly been said, part of the solution to dealing with unauthorised encampments must be ensuring that there is authorised provision for Travellers. Since switching to Conservative leadership earlier this year, Dudley Council has identified a number of transit sites, the first of which should be available by next summer. However, as has also been said, we need a more flexible approach to the way provision is both assessed and made available. It is therefore right, particularly in areas covered by combined authorities, such as the west midlands, that those local authorities within the combined authority should be able to come together and have the assessed five-year supply of available sites at that combined authority level. Section 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 must then be adapted so that the police can deal with unauthorised encampments appropriately and move people to one of the authorised sites within the combined authority area, or preferably even within a reasonable distance nearby.
Of course, alongside the carrot there needs to be the stick, for the unreasonable and unacceptable encampments. There still seems to be a lot of confusion about the conditions in which section 61 powers can be used. Many police forces do not believe that it is appropriate or even legal to use powers that the statute seems to provide. We need more clarity on that and more agreement. If the Government can contribute to that process with new protocols that will not only make existing powers clearer, but ensure that any new powers that are added do not suffer the same risk of being completely ineffective because of the kinds of concerns I have mentioned, that would be a huge help.
As the hon. Member for North West Durham (Laura Pidcock) noted, the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) spoke of “gold-plating” human rights and equalities legislation. I took the time to read the article written by the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills on the subject of this debate, and I have to say to her that one’s ethnicity, social group or how one identifies oneself does not make one a better person. Human rights are not held because someone lives in a house; they are held because someone is a human being. And someone’s human rights are not lessened because their lifestyle is different to those of other people.
The hon. Member’s article argues that
“the pendulum has swung too far away from local residents who have faced these repeated traveller incursions”
“Residents are tired of the anti-social behaviour, noise, rubbish and mess—which can be household, domestic and even human—that so often accompanies these incursions. The Council is left to clear up the mess—and the taxpayer to pick up the bill. Enough is enough.”
Those passages in the article on her website advertising this debate represent the kind of prejudice and intolerance that strain—[Interruption.] No, I am going to continue. They strain relationships between people. Coming from a parliamentarian, they represent the kind of rhetoric that, in my experience, has left small children at risk of violence. I spoke with a Traveller mother recently who told me that her children have grown up thinking that stones and bottles being thrown at their caravan windows by members of the settled community—the community that has so often been referred to today—is normal. That is unacceptable.
I understand that—
On a point of order, Mr Davies.
I hope that it is a point of order.
I just wish to make it very clear that in all the things that I have said about this subject in debates I am representing my community and my constituents, and on no account do I ever use the word “ethnicity.”
Order. As the hon. Lady knows, that is not a point of order, but what she has said is on the record, and what the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith says must be heard.
I understand that some public open spaces in the hon. Member’s constituency are used by Travellers. I even read a story in the Express & Star, her local newspaper, about locals being unable to fly their toy planes on an aerodrome that closed in 1956—a deprivation that must really grind them down. As others have said in this debate, if there were more places to camp—official sites with decent facilities—perhaps the planes could fly again.
The attitudes in this place and in local authorities across the UK would have to change to accommodate that, but there is a model already in Scotland—I will speak about it later—that could easily be copied. This issue is about reducing discrimination and promoting equality.
It is said repeatedly that no community should be above the law. The proper riposte to that is that no community should be below the law, either. The enforcers of the law should treat all people equally, but that is not happening. We should ensure that all people who live in our communities have equal access to all the facilities and services that are available. As the hon. Member for North West Durham said, it is not true that Travellers exhibit more antisocial behaviour than other parts of society, or that there are more criminals among that community. Some will complain that the procedure for removing Travellers from where they are living is a laborious and cumbersome business, but so it should be, just as it should be for removing someone else from their home.
I am disappointed that so few Conservative Members talked about speaking to representatives of those communities—[Interruption.] I said very few Members—too few. They frequently referred to the Irish answer—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Lady must be heard.
Members frequently referred to the Irish answer, but may I commend the Scottish Government’s answer, which is to work with the communities to develop an overarching strategy to reduce discrimination against Travellers, improve their quality of life and outcomes, increase understanding through a national action plan, and work towards an increase in mutual understanding and respect in the settled community?
The hon. Lady will be aware that that document was introduced in 2004, updated in 2014 and again reviewed in April 2017, but we still have problems in Scotland with unauthorised, illegal encampments in the communities we have talked about today. That document is not working for local communities.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, but the Scottish Government are clearly willing to work with those communities, and that approach will bear fruit.
On the question of dialogue with the communities, I urge the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills to join the all-party parliamentary group for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, which I sit on, so that she can learn about travelling people’s culture, history and way of life. Alternatively, she could do the cultural competency training on the Friends, Families and Travellers website—I recommend that all Members in this debate do so—and perhaps learn to be part of the solution. We must ensure equality, end discrimination and give Travellers access to education, training and employment, health and social care services—they do not have that at the moment—and enough proper sites to camp on. Members of Parliament have a duty to seek to understand all of the people who live in the UK, and that duty is seldom observed. Perhaps it is time that it was.
The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) spoke of appointing representatives of the travelling communities to create opportunities for dialogue. In Monday’s debate, groups such as the Traveller Law Reform Project, the Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers, and London Gypsies and Travellers were mentioned. Extend the hand of friendship and those groups will jump at the opportunity for dialogue.
I am sad to see such a high turnout for a debate that, in my view, calls for the persecution and punishment of a minority group, whereas for debate after debate on subjects such as the Government’s shameful treatment of the disadvantaged and disabled, the Conservative Benches are largely empty.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) on securing this debate. Like hon. Members and colleagues from across the House, let me state that the people we are discussing are part of our communities; they are not separate. They are constituents and fellow citizens, and, like other sections of the communities we represent, they are not homogeneous. About half of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community live in permanent housing. Other members of the community live on authorised caravan sites or private camp sites with permission for long-term stay. As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) reminded the House, many members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community have made a big contribution.
However, as with other sections of society—as the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) said—an unrepresentative minority is responsible for the issues we are discussing, and that cannot be tolerated. That is not discrimination. As an eminent judge said, everybody has the right to behave within the law. As with any section of society that acts outside the law, we have to act against those whose behaviour is unacceptable, but we need to get the balance right.
It is important to stress that we are discussing unauthorised encampments, with which there are a number of problems. They can lead to a deterioration in the relationship between those on authorised sites and local communities, who often do not differentiate between authorised and unauthorised sites. I have had positive experiences with authorised sites in two neighbouring authorities, where the settled community and the Gypsy and Traveller community came together to discuss the issues, and saw themselves as a part of a wider local community. The citizens advice bureau that I manage went in to provide advice services in that community.
However, it has not been as positive with unauthorised encampments. In one case in my constituency, the land is owned by the Travellers, but they are flouting the planning laws, despite there being vacancies on a designated transit site in the borough. Although planning permission has been refused, the site has been occupied, and an appeal is pending. The case has been with the Planning Inspectorate since last December, and an officer has not been assigned because it is “not a priority”. Well, it is a priority.
During that time, the relationship with the local community has completely broken down. Roads have been illegally coned off for pony and trap races, and innumerable horses have been left in public areas and near children’s play areas—on one occasion, one was tethered to a roundabout. Loose horses have been roaming across the streets, and one was recently killed by a lorry. Equine bailiffs have been brought in from another authority, fencing has been improved and the police have been involved—all at cost to local residents through their council tax. The length of time that appeals take is unacceptable. Will the Minister consider speeding up the appeals process and giving more resources to the inspectorate, so that these issues can be dealt with on a sustainable and long-term basis, which may lead to a reduction in the tensions?
There are processes for removal in other cases, but they are not always effective. In another case near my constituency, the caravan was moved 100 yards down the road into another field—again, despite there being vacancies on a transit site. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), I am pleased that the Minister has committed to consulting on the effectiveness of current laws and planning regulations, but I urge him to produce the report urgently, and to ensure that the process is speedy and less costly to hard-pressed local councils.
We also need to discuss the disparity between private and public land. The powers should be aligned. The additional requirements placed on local authorities that wish to remove encampments lead to lengthy delays and extra expense. If we align the powers, action could be taken on incursions in play areas, schools, hospitals—indeed, any green area that is in the public realm and should be for the benefit of all. However, if there is to be swift action, there must be a duty on local authorities to look at the transient sites; otherwise, people will simply move from one illegal encampment to another, because there is nowhere else to go.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield, and others who said that local authorities could pool their sites and make them available to travelling communities across borough boundaries, and perhaps even outside police areas. My constituency borders Merseyside and west Lancashire, and it may be that one of those areas can better provide for the Travellers’ needs. That would certainly help to make sections 61 and 62 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 more effective. Under those sections, the police are able to clear unauthorised sites only if there is a suitable authorised site to move the Travellers to. If there is not one, the police’s hands are effectively tied.
We need to ensure that police forces have the power they need to act on behalf of the whole community, but the recent cuts to police funding have not helped the situation. The police can prioritise actions only on the principles of threat, risk and harm, and unauthorised encampments do not have a high priority under those criteria. We need to increase police budgets and powers in tandem.
I am not suggesting that Travellers be deliberately moved away from their communities. It is vital that the moves be made sensitively, and that the Travellers’ views be taken into account. It is also important that we incorporate such groups into the wider community—community relations are not helped by maintaining unauthorised sites—but that will, of course, require expenditure: money that hard-pressed councils do not have. If the Minister is serious about tackling the issue, the Government must invest in new sites alongside local councils. The Government may only need to provide a loan, because a council might be able to recoup the money.
Supporting cultures and traditions is important, but that can be undermined if communities become polarised and unable to work together with mutual respect. Provision of adequate sites, coupled with swift action on criminal behaviour by the very small minority, can only enhance and not detract from good community relations.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) and all other right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. On Monday the subject was wider, but today’s debate has been as passionate, if not more at times, than the one in the main Chamber. As I said on Monday, when people talk about illegal encampments, that is not lost on me at all. My constituents, too, have suffered significantly from illegal encampments over many years, but I will not dwell on that because my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Craig Tracey), which includes Bedworth, made pertinent points that reflect the challenges in my area.
As hon. Members have stated on a number of occasions today, the Minister for Housing and Planning has signalled our intent to seek an evidence review of the way that existing powers are enforced to understand what more can be done; I hope that reassures the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) about the challenges. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) mentioned the race disparity audit, and we should look at this debate in the context of that ongoing work. This debate is of great value to both those pieces of work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills explained in great detail the negative impact that unauthorised encampments have had on her constituency. Other Members have explained that as well. It is absolutely right and proper for them to speak out on behalf of their residents, the people whom they are elected to this place to represent.
The Government are clear—this is categorical—that the law must apply to everyone, and the police must address illegal incidents and give victims support. Local communities deserve to feel safe in their neighbourhoods, and tackling criminal activities, illegal encampments, menacing behaviour and other actions that threaten our society and way of life must be the core business for the police and local agencies.
Will the Minister give way?
I will make some progress before giving way, if my hon. Friend does not mind.
The Government want to see those agencies working together to ensure that illegal incursions are dealt with properly, but we cannot sit here and say that the House can be complacent. That is why we will hold the review, which we look forward to progressing as quickly as possible, as I hope Members appreciate. Although the Government are carrying out a review of evidence, that is not an excuse for a local authority, police force or any other agency to sit by and not use the existing law to its full extent. It is important not only to deal with matters within the law, but for those matters to be dealt with so as to uphold and enforce the law.
My hon. Friends the Members for Aldridge-Brownhills and for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) discussed displacement and the cat-and-mouse game of people going from one area to another. I, too, do not think that we can continue to allow that to happen. The West Midlands police and crime commissioner was mentioned today and in the previous debate. Recently he produced a briefing paper, which west midlands MPs have received, outlining proposals to deal with unauthorised encampments. Suggestions include transit sites, helping to unlock police powers and considering the availability of sites across a combined authority area, rather than in an individual district area. We can certainly agree with some of the suggestions and innovations, but we need to ensure that they are proportionate, and balanced against the needs and rights of the settled and the nomadic communities.
As I have said a number of times—I make no excuse for doing so—we must also consider how enforcement can be improved. My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) talked extensively about enforcement and his concern about how any new powers would be enforced, which is a critical point.
Members who spoke in this debate and the earlier one gave lots of examples of the law being broken, and of the perception that the police were unable to prosecute. In any community, there are times when lawbreakers evade the law, but we cannot accept that as the de facto state of play. Authorities such as councils, the police and local Gypsy and Traveller organisations should work together so that wrongdoing is dealt with effectively and punished, and does not tarnish a whole community through the actions of a small minority.
Members have mentioned antisocial behaviour. We should do whatever we can to deal with it and to address illegal behaviours, but we should also bear in mind that the actions of the few should not reflect on a whole community. We must consider that point very carefully when we look at what we do and may do in the future.
Today and on Monday it was suggested that trespass be made a criminal offence. Hon. Members have made strong arguments in favour of that. We have considered it in the past, but at the time it was thought that that would reduce police discretion, while local costs would still be incurred by the police and the criminal justice system. That said, there is no doubt that we will receive a multitude of views and suggestions, including on new models and ways to deal with some of the challenges, and we are open to listening to some of those suggestions.
I will take a quick intervention from my hon. Friend, and will then, I hope, sum up the contributions of the remaining Members.
Briefly, may I urge the Government, as part of the review, to look at those cat-and-mouse games that are played by a minority, who might move no more than 50 or 100 yards, and then the whole legal process has to start again? That is one of the core problems of the police and the local authorities.
I understand that matter.
I have to give my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills her right to reply in the debate, but I will first make a special mention of the speeches by my hon. Friends the Members for Moray (Douglas Ross) and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant). These matters are devolved, and my hon. Friends have raised clear issues. They have been listened to by the Scottish National party Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), although from what was said I am not sure that their concerns are being heard. My hon. Friends will be able to see what happens with the review in England and take it back north of the border.
It has been a pleasure to respond to the debate, although I would have liked to make many more points and mention many more colleagues. The Department is more than willing to receive information and to store it. I look forward to taking the review forward.
Time is short. I thank you, Mr Davies, for chairing the debate. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members from across the country who have contributed to this important debate. I am very encouraged by the response of the Minister. I welcome his review, and I am sure that I speak on behalf of so many of us when I welcome the chance to work with him to address this sensitive and challenging issue faced in so many of our constituencies.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered unauthorised encampments.
[Andrew Rosindell in the Chair]
Is Ruth George present to move the motion? [Interruption.] I remind hon. Members that they should be here on time so that debates can begin in a timely fashion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the effects of 30 hours free childcare.
I am here now, Mr Rosindell—thank you.
We are all here because we want all our children to get the best possible start in life and to be as ready for school as they can be, and because we want working parents to know that they can rely on high-quality childcare in a fun, friendly and caring setting that is nearby. Those factors are important to ensure not just that our children are school-ready, but that they are happy and relaxed and make friends.
I have four children, aged between eight and 25. As a mum who has worked all my adult life, I can vouch for how important it is for a child to be happy with their nursery or childminder. There is nothing worse than having to leave a child when they are crying or unhappy. That happens with almost all young children in the first few days, but they soon settle down, trust the staff, make friends and have a great time. The only thing worse than leaving a crying child is getting back at the end of the day and finding that they have been unhappy all day.
I have been lucky in the rural area where I live to have had excellent and friendly childcare nearby for all my children. We all welcome the consistent work to drive up standards in early years, so that 95% of providers are now judged by Ofsted to be good or outstanding. We all want good-quality, affordable and sufficient childcare. Although the policy of 30 hours of funded care for three and four-year-olds aims to increase the affordability of care, the lack of Government funding has raised doubts across the country about affordability, quality and sufficiency.
Why has that policy been so underfunded? At the Conservative party’s childcare campaign day on Monday 15 April 2015, in the run-up to the general election, David Cameron said that he would create an extra 600,000 free childcare places if he was returned to power. That was certainly a popular policy. The weekend before that announcement, the Conservatives had been behind Labour in every poll, but the day after the announcement—16 April—they were ahead in every poll, except one that was tied. At the time, the BBC reported that Labour described the policy as “another unfunded announcement”. BBC political correspondent Carole Walker said that Mr Cameron was “likely to face questions” about how the Conservatives would ensure that sufficient childcare places were available. She was right about the questions, but not about the person who would be questioned.
The Conservatives said that the 30-hour offer would result in more than 600,000 extra 15-hour childcare places every year from 2017, and that it would be funded by reducing tax relief on pension contributions. However, when those changes to tax relief were announced in the 2015 summer Budget, we were told that they would fund Conservative cuts to inheritance tax, not childcare, so the extra 15 hours of supposedly free childcare for 600,000 children were left without any specific funding. It is no wonder that the number of places has reduced to a third of what was promised in 2015 and that providers have been left wondering where all the money has gone.
Concerns were raised as soon as the projected funding levels were announced. Some 62% of all early years providers surveyed by the Pre-school Learning Alliance in March 2017 said that the funding they will receive in 2017-18 is less than the hourly rate they charge parents and less than the hourly cost of delivering a funded place. It is not surprising that more than half—58%—expected that the 30-hour offer would have a negative impact on their businesses, and just 17% predicted a positive impact.
My hon. Friend mentioned the Pre-school Learning Alliance. Some Government Members say that they have had enough of experts, but does she agree that they should listen more to groups on the ground, such as my constituent Jane Reddish and her group What About The Children? Its excellent report on the 30-hours policy raises many of the same concerns as my hon. Friend, specifically pertaining to the special developmental needs of nought to 36 month-olds. The Minister would be well advised to meet that group, as the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), soon will.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
A survey of local authorities by the Family and Childcare Trust in February 2017 found that only a third thought that there would be enough childcare for three and four-year-olds using the 30-hour offer, while a third did not know whether there would be a reduction in care quality as a result of the offer’s roll-out. Some 44% of those local authorities said that the 30-hour offer would reduce the financial sustainability of some settings, so some childcare providers would go out of business. The survey found that the extension of free hours could compromise things that parents thought were priorities for high-quality childcare. That is important, because only high-quality childcare helps to boost children’s attainment and close the gap between disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers.
It was good that the Government introduced pilot schemes in September 2016 to see what would happen. The Minister has claimed that those pilot schemes were a great success. In response to the urgent question on 6 September from my hon. Friend the shadow Minister, when we were finally given some figures on the number of children registered for places, the Minister said:
“If we look at the pilot areas that have been delivering for a year now…we can see that 100% of their providers are delivering and 100% of the parents who wanted a place found one, despite some reservations being put on the record…at the very beginning. The pilots have demonstrated that we can deliver and we are delivering.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 163.]
However, some nurseries that were involved in the pilot tell a very different tale. The owner of Polly Anna’s Nursery in York, the only area on the lowest level of local authority funding—£4.30 an hour, of which £4 went to providers—said that he wrote to the Minister to say that although he was in favour of any Government measure to reduce the cost to families of their child’s early education and care and of any improvement to quality and staff qualifications, £4 an hour would represent an increase of only 2% a year in the 10 years from 2010, at a time when costs will have increased disproportionately.
Does the hon. Lady recognise that an independent study put the cost of providing childcare for three and four-year-olds at about £3.72 per hour, whereas the average amount that goes to a council is £4.94—significantly more?
I accept that a study was done in 2015. That was before we knew the outcome of business rate increases and before we had seen the impact on the sector of the national living wage policy and of auto-enrolment. All those things significantly increased the cost of nursery provision and were not known at the time the study was done, so it is erroneous to use those figures for funding projections up to 2020.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. The review of childcare costs was described as “thorough and wide-ranging” by the National Audit Office, so we believe we can base our costings on those figures. Does she disagree with the National Audit Office’s judgment?
In 2015, when those figures were done, they may well have been up to standard, but they do not represent the increase in costs that nurseries have seen in the past two years and certainly will see even more with the increase in auto-enrolment costs and the increase in the national living wage that will be ongoing up until 2020. They figures are utterly at odds with all the evidence that comes from local authorities and from the childcare provision sector, who have given ample evidence about their costs and the amount that they have to pay for the provision. In fact, a provider from the Minister’s own constituency wrote to tell him:
“I ask myself do I really want to continue working as a childcare provider when my wage will now match that of a supermarket worker without the responsibilities of a childcare provider, the paper work, Ofsted and book work. I am sad it had come to this.”
The fact that the Minister claimed he had not heard a peep from providers about their problems, either in the pilot areas, or with the full roll-out, has annoyed many of them. Hundreds of providers have peeped to the “Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding” Facebook group to say that they certainly have peeped.
May I suggest the hon. Lady looks at the record of what I actually said? I was listing the pilot areas and referring to Members of Parliament in the House and the fact they had not raised those issues with me during the period of the trial.
I am afraid I have copies of the emails from the providers in York and Scarborough that were sent during the pilot. They wrote to the Minister about their concerns to do with the pilot that they were participating in, so there seems to be a discrepancy there.
In spite of numerous concerns being raised from the pilot areas, national organisations, local authorities and the sector itself, the Government have pressed ahead with the roll-out. My parliamentary questions in July asking for figures on the number of parents registered and on those who had successfully obtained a place went unanswered. Local authorities were forbidden to give the figures for their own areas, even in response to freedom of information requests, so we had a total lack of information on what was happening up until September, except for reports from parents that they were struggling to register on the website. We heard from nurseries that they were unable to provide the 30 hours and from parents that they therefore could not find places.
In September, in response to an urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), we were told that 152,000 parents had secured a place, 71% of those who had registered. In spite of the contrast with the 600,000 places that were promised originally by David Cameron when this vote-winning policy was announced, we were told that this was a great success. But that great success story still involved nearly a third of parents who had registered not having secured a place at the start of term in September. Some 64,000 children missed out on the important start of term activities where children learn to settle into their nursery or childcare place. When they start late, they always feel as if they are catching up, as routines are already established and friendships made. I hope the Minister will now update us on how many of those 64,000 children have now secured their place, albeit late.
Nurseries are struggling. They have seen huge increases in costs in recent years, as I mentioned earlier. Until June I was on the board of a non-profit-making childcare provider, so I have seen the costs for myself. I set up the pension scheme that sees employers making contributions for their full-time staff. Those contributions are just 1% at the moment, but they will increase to 2% and then 3%, on top of wages. As a trade unionist, I also advised on a wages policy to properly reward all the staff and give incentives for attaining extra qualifications as well as making sure we always paid at least the national living wage.
Paying better wages is an excellent policy, but it needs to be funded, and the funding calculations simply do not take into account the fundamental cost and the increases for every childcare provider. That goes alongside the business rates, where most nurseries have seen a huge hike. It is no wonder the National Day Nurseries Association, from its survey in September, said that the 30-hours policy was in chaos. It said more than half of nurseries had had serious worries about having to increase fees for paid-for hours to unacceptable levels, and even about staying in business at all.
Nearly 300 nursery managers and owners completed the survey, which found that four fifths of those offering 30 hours were having to make additional charges for food and special sessions such as language or sports classes, or trips out. More than half of the respondents said parents understood additional services and were happy to pay, but a quarter said they were finding parents did not want to pay.
My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), the shadow Minister with responsibility for early years, has just chaired a panel with childcare providers and I have taken down some of the quotes from that meeting: “The system is complex, long-winded and many parents give up”; “It’s not free, so let’s stop calling it free”; “We are making a £5,000 loss every month”; and “This year I have lost 25% of my intake.” Does my hon. Friend agree that such quotes mean that the system is not currently fit for purpose?
Absolutely. I am sorry to have to agree with my hon. Friend.
When almost 80% of nurseries have spent time helping families to apply for the 30 hours, and with 14% saying this had taken more than five hours of staff time per week during the summer, it is no wonder that nurseries are struggling. The policy has had a huge impact in my constituency of High Peak. We have seen three nurseries close their doors over the summer as they simply could not make the finances work. Others have lost out significantly, even when taking on additional children from nurseries that have been lost.
A nursery in Buxton reports that it has lost £19,000 through charging for the meals it used to provide over the lunch period and charging for the additional hours that parents took on top of the 15 hours. Deborah from the Serpentine Nursery says,
“Having run my Early Years provision successfully for 35 years we have taken every change ‘on the chin’, risen to the challenge and carried on without any significant recognition except our Ofsted Outstanding. What other businesses are treated in such a shabby way!”
Flagg Nursery School, a very small village nursery just over my border, in a maintained setting, anticipates it will lose £20,000 a year owing to the lunchtime charges it cannot now make and the payment for the additional hours. The headteacher, Sarah, told me,
“Personally I think it is a great idea to offer 30 hours of childcare for working parents. We have always had children who have attended for the full week but in the past there was a charge. I just don’t feel that the hourly rate is sufficient and is not sustainable in the long term.”
In Furness Vale and New Mills, First Steps Nursery, where my daughter did some work experience, is now losing £10.50 per day per child. It says that if a child takes 30 hours a week, it loses £45 a week for each child. No wonder nurseries are worried about the quality of their provision. First Steps says:
“If we are to continue providing quality for children the rate given for funding needs to increase immensely. We offer our children Forest School and swimming lessons but in order to do this safely we have to have a high staff ratio. The amount we are given does NOT cover this and we are subsidising this so that the children can have the best.”
Flagg’s headteacher spoke of the quality of staff they could employ. She says that staff costs are the most important of all their costs:
“I feel that we ought to have experienced, highly qualified staff working in this sector as these are our most vulnerable children. Experience needs to be paid for though and underfunding could lead to children not being adequately cared for.”
Among my local maintained nurseries there was also concern that the extra 15 hours meant they could not offer places to children who qualified for only 15 hours. The head at New Mills nursery said that the initiative significantly reduces the ability to address the needs of the most disadvantaged children, and was a huge missed opportunity; the assumption is that that was overlooked, and that the initiative was driven by the childcare and working families agenda, not by the impact of quality education on the youngest, and some of the most vulnerable, members of society.
The children with the most need, such as the socially disadvantaged, are not eligible for the additional 15 hours of funding. Being good at closing the gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers is the very thing for which nursery schools have historically been recognised. Social mobility is an important issue that is not addressed by the 30 hours—something that in many ways contributes to increasing the gap between the poorest and better-off families. There are not enough places for all the children with 30 hours as well as those who qualify for just 15.
The headteacher at Hadfield Nursery School in the north end of my constituency says that the Government have underestimated the number of eligible parents and there are not the places to meet the demand. She is trying to signpost parents to other local providers, because her nursery cannot offer the full number of 30-hour places so they are trying to share them with other providers—15 hours each. It is a worry that as those nurseries have in effect to offer full-time places now, the impact has, again, been to reduce the offer of 15 hours. Those anecdotes from my constituency are backed up by the Sutton Trust, which says that the scheme was not adequately resourced, and the new funding formula will divert resources away from state nurseries disproportionately attended by disadvantaged children. Kitty Stewart, associate professor of social policy at the London School of Economics, said:
“To make up some of the funding gap, a new funding formula reallocates resources away from state nurseries disproportionately attended by disadvantaged children, and they may in the future struggle to afford a qualified teacher. To remove this advantage must be expected to have negative effects on social mobility.”
It is not only nurseries, but childminders, who are affected. They are already struggling. There are now 24% fewer childminders than in 2012—a drop of more than 10,000. Childminders often provide vital home-based care for younger children, or children who would struggle in a nursery setting. One of the childminders in my constituency commented:
“I personally feel that as a nation it is presumed that once a parent returns to work they send their children straight to nursery, when there are alternatives that can provide a more nurturing environment for babies and young children; and this needs to be emphasised—it’s not all about nurseries.”
However, such childminders cannot afford to run the 30-hour scheme, and so they lose out with respect to children coming to them.
What about the impact on parents? If they qualify and they can find a place, parents of three and four-year-olds will have a drop in their nursery fees, even if they have to pay some charges; but parents who qualify only for the 15 free hours, and parents of the most disadvantaged children, struggle to find even those free hours. That will be of huge detriment to their children’s life chances individually, and to social mobility as a whole. Parents with younger children will pick up the bill as charges for younger children have had to increase to make up the shortfall with respect to three and four-year-olds. A mum in my constituency, Emma from Buxton, says that her charges have increased by £230 a month for her one and two-year-old children, and she feels it is not worth her going to work any more. That will have an impact on the most disadvantaged children. Having two parents’ incomes, or having a single parent in work, is an important factor in improving children’s life chances. Emma is worried that the nursery will not even be able to stay open until the oldest child is three, because they are struggling so much to get by. She says:
“So in conclusion we are not much better off in the long run because of how the hours are being offered, and right now we are being crippled by the hike in price. Nurseries have to change their pricing policies in order to survive”,
but they cannot do that in the face of the funding situation.
I am particularly concerned about the impact on the quality of employment in early years, as I have mentioned. My daughter has just completed an early years degree, so I know how much goes into that qualification. She has gone on to do a teaching certificate, so I do not feel that I need to declare an interest, but at many of the nurseries where I have had meetings—particularly among the outstanding-rated ones—there is concern that they will not be able to afford to take on the skilled staff they need to maintain their good ratings. A third of the staff considered by the Sutton Trust, working in group-based childcare, lack English and/or maths at GCSE. Those staff are, unfortunately, the only ones that settings struggling with costs and underfunding will be able to afford. The trust’s chair, Sir Peter Lampl, said:
“Good quality early years provision is vital to narrow the gaps that leave too many youngsters behind by the time they start school. But it’s unlikely that the government’s policy to provide 30 hours…will provide this.”
It is a far cry from the high-quality childcare and fully qualified staff envisaged just a couple of years ago by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, when she was Under-Secretary of State for Education. There seems to be no emphasis at all in the Government’s policies on quality of provision or of staffing, and that must be worrying with respect to children, progress with social mobility, and our future.
Underfunding of a policy that may have been begun with good intentions—although it may have been more about votes than quality childcare—is undermining what is needed throughout the country. I urge the Minister to look again, especially at the projected figures for the next financial year, now that the additional costs of business rates and of the living wage are clear. I want to thank all those who have consistently been raising the issue of the problems with funding, and especially those who set up and contribute to the “Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding” Facebook group. They have been tireless champions of the best of champagne nursery provision, and excellent analysts of the impact of the funding levels.
I also thank the nursery owners and providers in my constituency—a rural area on which the policy has had a great impact. In small rural towns and villages, childcare—and the knowledge that children can go to nursery in their community and make friends in their area, without having to travel long distances—is particularly important. I particularly thank Kate Sebire, the owner of the outstanding-rated Sunshine Nursery School in my home town of Whaley Bridge, who has been bending my ear about the issue for many months. I hope that the Minister will meet childcare providers, listen to their concerns, and take heed of them when he visits the Chancellor for his pre-Budget discussions.
I advise Members that there is now a four-minute limit on speeches, until the Front-Bench speeches begin.
I will definitely take only four minutes, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on obtaining what is a key debate. I do not doubt that she has had feedback; I have had similar feedback in South Suffolk, where we have excellent provision. It is difficult for me to avoid receiving representations, particularly from Yorley Barn, a beautifully located nursery in my constituency, in a village called Little Cornard. The proprietor, Donna Row, recently came up and made representations while I was dropping my three-year-old twins off at the nursery. She made the key point that she feels funding is going down while, as has been said, core costs are rising.
I want briefly to focus on Suffolk, because while I accept that many broader political and national arguments are made, there is a national funding formula by which our county seems to have been particularly disadvantaged. The sense of unfairness in Suffolk is compounded by what has happened with the schools formula over the years.
I want to quote from a couple of my providers. A particular issue in Suffolk has been the drive for graduates in early years. This is from Springfields pre-school. Amy Jacobs emailed me to say:
“All research has pointed towards the positive outcome for children who attend an early years setting that is led by an early years graduate. Suffolk…were therefore extremely proactive in encouraging settings to employ graduates to run their settings. This was supported in the early years funding and we were paid £4.24 per child per hour in order that we could pay our staff”
at that rate. She goes on to say that they now receive only £3.87 per child per hour.
I should add that this is something that all Suffolk Members have been working on, and I am grateful to the Minister, who has taken the time to meet us and go through our concerns with his officials in great detail. We also held a meeting at County Hall, for which unfortunately I was ill and unable to attend. However, again, the core point is that funding seems to be lower at a time when costs are rising, so we as MPs have been trying to understand exactly why that is happening and whether it is driven by factors at a county level or because of the national formula.
I will quote from one other provider. Cheryl Leeks, who runs Woodland Corner, said:
“As you are aware, Suffolk County Council reduced our funding for 3 and 4-year-old children by 11% on 1 April with only 7 week’s notice. Historically the rate received from SCC has been higher than the rate we charge for non-funded children—or additional hours. We were always keen to have funded children as we used to receive £4.24 and a block funding allowance of £550 per term.”
She goes on to say that only £3.87 per child per hour will now be provided.
There are complexities—that is showing one side of the picture—but the key point for us in Suffolk at county level is that we feel that, in comparison to other counties, and particularly neighbouring counties, we seem to be doing particularly badly. Like all Suffolk MPs, I received a note from Gordon Jones, the cabinet member for children’s services at Suffolk County Council, with a table of all our neighbours who get a better allocation than we have received through the early years national funding formula.
This issue is obviously important to me personally because I have children in early years, but in Suffolk we have had a huge amount of feedback from very worried providers. I support in principle the drive for 30 hours—it is really important for our economy to achieve the dynamism we want and flexibility in our labour market that we have this greater provision—but there are clearly issues to address. I believe the Minister is aware of that. I do not want to go on too much longer, because we are in the middle of a discussion about it with him. I simply say that we would like him to recognise that there are these pressures not just of the money going down but of costs going up.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing the debate. Though I now have the role of shadow pensions Minister, it is children’s issues that are closest to my heart. I considered it a privilege to work alongside the former Member for North West Durham, Pat Glass, on the Childcare Bill Committee when the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah) was Children’s Minister. That Bill led to the Childcare Act 2016 and the launch of the 30-hour childcare offer.
The Minister then chose to ignore statements not just from Labour Members but from providers and charities across the piece that there was insufficient rigour built into the planning for the 30-hour offer. So it has proved to be the case. I well remember one particular exchange I had with the Minister about the need for flexibility in the childcare system, where I sought assurances that parents would be guaranteed the free care they required without having to subsidise it. We have heard how parents are subsidising that care. I was hoping he would legislate specifically to require local authorities to have a duty to secure specific provision to meet the individual needs of parents and guarantee that local authorities would have the resources. He said:
“I feel strongly that setting out in primary legislation a requirement for local authorities to secure provision to meet each parent's individual needs will not work in practice.”––[Official Report, Childcare Public Bill Committee, 10 December 2015; c. 104.]
Sadly, for parents, we were right in demanding such a requirement because, across the country, countless parents and their children are missing out. Had there been a requirement, perhaps the many people who have missed out because they did not know about the provision or how to access it, would have had the support they needed.
This morning I spoke to the manager of the church-based New Life Children’s Centre in Billingham in my constituency, who told me that it had to coach many parents through the Government’s system, and that many others had lost out on their first three months because they missed the Government’s deadline. Her colleagues at the nearby Billingham nursery also spoke of the lack of information provided to parents, many of whom discovered almost by accident that they could access the 30 hours. Perhaps the Minister could tell us what flexibility is being offered to parents in all settings so that they can opt for provision early morning, or at teatime perhaps, to fit in with their work patterns.
On the Bill Committee, we also discussed costs and the need to ensure that the fee structure was developed to reflect local need. We knew that costs were different in different parts of the country. I do not know what work the Minister did after that before moving to his prisons job, but funding is failing to deliver what is needed. We only have to think about children with a disability. People in my constituency and across the country tell me that they are the people who are having the most difficulty in trying to secure a place for their child. Again, during the Bill Committee I sought assurance from the Minister that the parents of children with a disability would not be disadvantaged in the system. He was confident in his response. He said:
“By having tax-free childcare and the high needs block, and also by having increased the hourly rate, we will ensure that local authorities continue to have the flexibility to target funding where it is most needed”.—[Official Report, Childcare Public Bill Committee, 8 December 2015; c. 32.]
It is simply not happening. His confidence was somewhat misplaced, as parents of children who have a disability are still the ones most likely to struggle more to secure nursery provision.
It is all too easy to say that local authorities have the flexibility to ensure that all needs are met. My understanding is that they do not, particularly when it comes to finding the right placement for children with a disability. I ask the Minister to go back, look at the extra barriers facing such parents and find ways to deliver for them much more comprehensively.
The early years will determine the academic achievements of children as they get older. I really worry about those in my constituency and across the country who come from the most deprived areas. They are the children who need the support the most and who are being left without the necessary support. I hope the Government will take a long, cold look at what is happening on the ground and take the necessary action to get it sorted out.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on securing this important debate. The issue of properly funded, decent childcare has a huge impact on families in my constituency and across the country. It would be good to be able to welcome the Government’s actions on that and their commitment to 30 hours’ free childcare, but I see, from talking to both parents and childcare providers in my constituency, that there are clearly serious problems with the proposals and how they are being implemented.
First, the funding is simply inadequate. The shortfall in the Government’s commitment is detrimental to childcare providers. Last week, I spoke to the manager of a successful and popular nursery in Enfield Southgate. She told me that the Government’s plans make her fearful for her business. The inadequate money from the Government will put a terrible strain on the way in which her nursery is run. She told me that parents who used to pay for her nursery privately are now accessing the 30 hours’ childcare, but the shortfall in money from the Government to fund that will put wages and staffing costs under considerable strain. She also told me that if she were to decide not to offer the 30 hours to parents, she would lose out to other companies that will be offering it.
That hard-working nursery manager feels caught in a double bind: does she offer the 30 hours’ free childcare and risk her business making a loss, or does she avoid offering it and go under because others, who doubtless feel similarly trapped, will be offering it? We know from the excellent research done by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) that the fears of that nursery manager are not the exception; they are now the rule. Research also shows that three quarters of childcare providers expect the Government’s policy to have a negative impact on their business; fewer than 7% believe that it will be positive.
The Pre-school Learning Alliance estimates that there is a 20% shortfall between the amount the Government are giving local authorities to fund the scheme and the actual cost to nurseries.
Worse still, the Government are proposing that funding levels will stay the same until the end of this Parliament, even though the cost of wages, rents, pensions and much more are likely to rise during that time. Why should nursery managers and childcare providers such as the one I referred to in Enfield Southgate shoulder the financial risk caused by the Government’s ill-considered plans? The proposal of free childcare is far from free if hard-working childcare providers are carrying the cost, to the extent of even being put out of business. That is not to mention the anxiety and disruption caused to parents and children when a trusted childcare provider goes out of business, sometimes at short notice. If the 30-hour offer is to be truly free for both parents and providers, it must be funded properly now and in the future.
The other serious flaw in this pledge is that it will not help those who need it the most. I know from talking to my constituents that many parents welcome the prospect of 30 hours’ free childcare, especially those who are struggling in low-paid, insecure work. However, those who need help could easily slip through the net with this scheme, not least because of the many technical problems that parents are experiencing. After having huge technical problems accessing the scheme, one constituent contacted me last week to say:
“This is the government’s flagship childcare scheme and it’s an utter shambles with no prospect in sight of a resolution.”
Even more disturbing is the fact that to be eligible for the scheme, a parent must earn more—
Order. There is a four-minute time limit. I call Liz Twist.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) for her very clear explanation of some of the issues facing this sector and the concerns of many childcare organisations about the impact of the funding regime. We heard also about the real costs of employing staff, which are increasing, and about the pilots. As late as 31 August this year, the Pre-school Learning Alliance was drawing attention to the funding concerns of many providers. I thank my hon. Friend for her speech.
I want to talk about a nursery in my constituency. Bright Sparks Nursery in Crawcrook contacted me to explain its concerns about the funding arrangements for the Government’s 30 hours’ free childcare scheme and how that will bring financial difficulties for the provider and have an impact upon what it can do for children. Bright Sparks has been established for nearly 40 years and has been consistently rated outstanding by Ofsted, as well as being very popular with local parents. The nursery tells me that it has always offered the funded hours and wants to do the very best for the children there but is struggling with the new scheme due to the lack of funding in the formula.
Bright Sparks charges an hourly rate for three and four-year-old children of £5, and the basic rate locally is £3.85. The nursery gets an uplift from a quality payment, but even then, it is short of 70p per hour, per child in providing the nursery service. Every child is accessing funding in the nursery, which makes a massive difference, and Bright Sparks is now having to work with fewer staff and be less flexible in the sessions it can offer, to the detriment of the families that this policy is supposed to help. As a term-time only, school-hours setting, it does not have the flexibility to recoup money through other payments and is really concerned about its long-term viability under this scheme.
As we have heard, many nurseries and childminders have already closed their doors because the scheme simply does not add up. Bright Sparks fears the impact of this funding shortfall and says that it does not want to be another casualty of this Government. It wants to carry on providing high-quality childcare but needs to meet its essential costs.
Having accessible and affordable childcare is really important to families across the UK, but a policy that does not recognise the real cost of high-quality nursery provision risks reducing the availability of childcare places near to where parents and children live and near to communities, and I fear it will be counterproductive. I ask the Minister to look again at the funding arrangements to ensure that nurseries such as Bright Sparks can continue to operate and achieve high standards for children.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) for giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue.
When a family are spending a majority of their income on childcare, something has to give. We continuously hear how we should be more economically stable in work than out of work, and I am sure we all agree with that. However, that means that we need childcare that is accessible and there for families when they need it. With wages stagnant, and dropping in real terms, 30 hours a week of free childcare would save the average family £5,000 a year. This policy is a positive step in the right direction for families, and I welcome it.
We need childcare that is affordable and people not being priced out of the market; childcare that works for parents, families, and most of all, children. Children learn through interaction, play and exploration, and early years education is fundamental for a child’s development. Every child matters—rich or poor, from north or south, from the country or the city. Each and every one of those children deserves the best start in life. I think we all agree on that, so why are we allowing parents and families to be priced out of early years education, when we all understand that it is vital?
We need to recognise that many families are still unable to access the 30 hours of free childcare. With cuts to local authorities and education budgets, the Government are, unfortunately, failing these families and children. Those children will fall behind other children in their academic, social and emotional development. With cuts and closures to Sure Start centres—I speak as a former headteacher of a school with a Sure Start centre—our most vulnerable families are now without the necessary support and early intervention that they could rely on under a Labour Government. The Conservative party said in its general election manifesto that, by September 2017, three and four-year-olds would be receiving free childcare, yet we have still not had a full roll-out of the policy. On top of that, local providers in my constituency of Colne Valley tell me that it is time-consuming to administer the entitlement.
We need to recognise that many families in areas where the roll-out has taken place have had issues accessing the portal to register. From the perspective of Kirklees Council, there remains a lack of clarity about what childcare providers can charge for as an optional extra, and what constitutes a condition of access. That limits the opportunity for local authorities to champion the rights of parents and families. Prior to the full country roll-out, those issues need to be resolved, to make sure that those families who can be in receipt of 30 hours of childcare can access it. We need a childcare provision that works for the many, not the few.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) on her heartfelt speech, which was also accurate in highlighting some of the challenges that this project faces.
I put my cards on the table: I think this is a great project. It is something myself and other parties were excited about when it launched, because it is something that myself and my party have been advocating for a long time. I was consequently disappointed that the Government are trying to introduce what is essentially a Rolls-Royce programme, but not with Rolls-Royce-adequate funding. My fear is that, if we do not get this tremendous programme right—it is supported across the piece and across the political parties—for the sake of essentially 42p to 48p per child per hour, the programme could crash.
If the programme crashes, it could be a long time before it is picked up again, not because of a lack of will among the other parties—I know Labour has been pushing for this programme for a long time—but because the industry will be so badly fractured and morale so damaged that I am not sure it will be ready to pick itself up.
I believe that that is quite possible. Recent research shows that 56% of nurseries think they could be out of business in the next 18 months. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that a quarter are affected. If 12%, 15% or 18% of a sector closes its doors and drops out of business, that is a car crash. That is a matter of tremendous urgency, and I urge the Minister to get behind it and to talk to his colleague the Chancellor in the Treasury.
I know the Minister from my previous time in the House, and I have a lot of respect for him. I know that he is passionate about this issue. Although I am sure he will deny it, when he stands up at the end of the debate and says that everything is fine, it is all going to be cushty and nobody is complaining, I know that he will know that is not true. Knowing the Minister from before as I do, my view is that he would support me in the submission that that extra x number of pence—I know it is multiplied many times—would make a considerable difference to this programme.
I know the hon. Gentleman is talking about pence, but is he aware that a 10% increase in funding would be well in excess of £250 million per year?
I am well aware of that. I would say to the Minister that if the whole programme crunches and 20%, 18% or 25% of the providers drop out of the business there will be no business for our children. Truly, I believe that £250 million split across that sector, particularly for something as important for our children and their future, is a price worth paying.
Time is always limited in these debates, so I ask the Minister to consider three proposals seriously. First, will he meet with representatives from the childcare provider and nursery sector, and also from independent providers? In my Eastbourne constituency I know many of the independent providers. They are Ofsted-tested, professional, trained women, half of whom, frankly, I can see pulling out of the industry as independents in the next nine months if the situation is not sorted. Will he meet with representatives from the sector, both nurseries and independent childminders?
Secondly, will the Minister also commit to listen to those representatives and to explore how much additional funding would be needed to just make this programme work? We appreciate that it is early days, but there are always teething problems when things start up—do not even get me going on universal credit, or I will be here all day—and if the Minister met with the people who know how much difference the finances would make, that would be terribly useful.
Last but not least, will the Minister reconsider giving providers flexibility when they make that offer to parents? If they have that little bit of flexibility, they can put on the paper, “This is how much extra we would charge you; you would get this.” I will tell the Minister what happens when they do not have that flexibility: people have to be disingenuous, and I do not like that. I know a lot of the childcare providers and the independents. They are honourable people who care passionately for what they do. If they do not continue being disingenuous, what then? They will go bust—
Happy Tots is a charity-run pre-school in east Ipswich, which has been successfully running for over 30 years. The pre-school has approximately 75 on its roll—there are morning and afternoon sessions for 38 children aged between two and five—and it employs 16 staff. Last year, it was awarded Millie’s Mark for inspiring excellence in paediatric first aid—the only pre-school in Suffolk to hold the award.
Happy Tots has told me that, to implement the 30 hours, it will have to lose some of the places for children who are already attending, as it is unable to recruit sufficient additional staff. Even if it were able to do so, it would need to expand its premises to accommodate the extra child hours, and there are no suitable larger premises in the area into which it could move. It has been looking for larger premises that it can afford for over three years, without success. Any larger premises locally are at a higher rate of rent, which, as a charity, Happy Tots would not be able to afford. Unlike some private providers, it is not able to cross-subsidise its places from paid placements. It is clearly wrong that any provider should have to cross-subsidise anyway, but for those charity providers in deprived areas where that is not an option, the current proposals will threaten their very existence—exactly the opposite of the Government’s declared intention to improve provision for deprived areas.
The £3.87 per child, per hour that Happy Tots will receive under the new funding arrangements is a 25p drop from the existing funding. It may be forced to close the pre-school if it suffers the financial losses that it is expecting. The only way that it can try to ensure that that does not happen is by asking parents—most of whom would expect their children to receive free school meals once they are at school—for termly snack contributions. It is divisive and unjust to expect them to have to pay more for their younger children or, even worse, decide that they are unable to pay, and face the stigma of being parents who cannot provide for their children.
Like my colleagues, I fully support the concept of expanding the availability of childcare, but these proposals are rushed, ill thought out and likely to reduce the availability of childcare, not increase it.
I thank my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George), for securing this debate, because investing in quality, sustainable and affordable childcare is, quite simply, the best investment a country can make. It enables children to excel and fulfil their potential, and parents to get out to work and fulfil theirs. It enables communities to become more economically active and more highly skilled, and offers the taxpayer immediate savings in benefits expenditure and in the long-term cost of the NHS, the education system and so on.
I am not usually delighted by Conservative manifestos, but when the Conservatives added a pledge of 30 hours a week of free childcare to their 2015 manifesto, I have to confess that I was delighted to see them nick one of Labour’s best commitments. It meant that, whichever party won the election, childcare was about to become more affordable and more accessible for struggling parents. If ever we should have consensus in an area, it is in this one.
As a parent of a nursery-age child myself, I declare an interest. I have also put three older children through nursery, so I can absolutely relate to the thousands of parents for whom the costs of childcare push household finances to the brink. As Members of Parliament we are all paid on very generous terms, but even so, when my youngest two children were in nursery at the same time, the monthly bill came to more than our mortgage, so the need to get this policy right is paramount. That is why I am so bitterly disappointed that the Government have failed to put their money where their mouth is.
I asked parents and childcare professionals in my constituency to send me their early experiences of the policy. Three clear problems emerged: first, local nurseries and childminders have an unsustainable raw deal financially; secondly, the registration system is chaotic and unfit for purpose; and finally, the eligibility criteria for the scheme are far too strict.
Let me start with the terrible deal that nurseries have been dealt and the dire consequences of that. The amount that the Government have given local authorities to provide these supposedly free hours is simply not enough. It does not cover the cost of wages, premises, utilities, food or learning resources. One outstanding nursery told me that it was losing £500 per year for every free 15-hours place. That will double to an impossible loss of £1,000 per place when extended to 30 hours.
Nurseries that offer the 30 free hours are left at risk of closure because they lose money for every hour’s childcare they provide, but nurseries that do not offer them are at risk of closure because parents will, understandably, choose to go elsewhere. Almost all nurseries are therefore being forced to cut costs, and it is children who pay the price. Given that there is a proven link between the amount that staff are paid and the likelihood of a nursery being rated outstanding, a race to the bottom is clearly bad news for staff, kids and parents alike.
The registration system for parents is far too complicated. My constituent Cat applied online in April. The nursery asked for her code, which had not yet been provided. That code took 10 days to arrive, by which time the nursery was told that it had expired. She has repeated the process several times now, with endless phone calls and emails, and is now anxiously waiting to find out whether her application for her child’s place has been successful. That seems a bizarre set of hoops to have to jump through to gain a funded place at a nursery her child is already at.
I have constituents who are not entitled to these free hours because the Government do not deem them to be eligible. They include John and Nicola Andrews from Dukinfield. John works full time, but Nicola is a trainee midwife. Although she works an excess of 40 hours a week practising and studying for the NHS, because that is unpaid, she is not deemed to be a fit candidate for free childcare. This woman is working hard in a valued public service, but we are not going to help her with her childcare—Minister, that is wrong.
Likewise, I have constituents not in work who would like to return but cannot apply for jobs and attend interviews without childcare being in place. We should simply be offering free hours to parents whether they are in work or not, which is the Labour party policy and should become the Government’s policy too.
Minister, please listen to these concerns. Do not hide behind reports from two years ago. This is a mess and it needs to be sorted out for a better deal for parents, providers and, most importantly, children up and down this country.
Obviously, everyone in this room welcomes the expansion of childcare to 30 hours, but we are hearing that entitlement to that is only if someone is already working. As the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) said, if someone is trying to get work they get caught in this trap where they cannot accept a job because they do not know whether they will be able to organise childcare.
That is one of the differences with the Scottish scheme, which also aims to provide 30 hours; but that is 30 hours across the board, whether someone is working or not. Our approach is partly to help more people into work, but is particularly about looking at it as early learning rather than just childcare. We all face the attainment gap, particularly in the most deprived areas, and lots of research shows that it is already embedded when a child enters primary school. We blame primary and secondary schools for trying to swim against the tide. The aim is that all three and four-year-olds will have 30 hours of accredited nursery places. That is also for vulnerable two-year olds, because the earlier we can interact with those children, the more we can try to make up for the situation that they find themselves in.
I welcome what the hon. Lady says about the need for early learning as opposed to babysitting. She will recognise that the Sure Start system that we developed in England was a tremendous success. We are now seeing the data, with headteachers saying that the children arriving in school are more equipped and school-ready than ever before—all the more reason why we must get this policy right as well.
There is no question about that. My son was in the first year of a four-year entry. The teacher noticed a difference in not having children crying and wetting themselves, totally shocked at being at school, because they had already had a gentle year in nursery. Therefore, when they started school, they went straight into learning. That is available earlier: we have it for three and four-year-olds. However, at the moment, 16 hours is not enough for people and it is not flexible enough. Increasing that to 30 hours and putting it across the board means that more women in particular can use it to get into work, by having it in place already, and we can invest in the early years development of our children.
Any of us with children know that raising them is expensive, and unfortunately families have taken quite a big hit. With the reduction in things such as tax credits—the limitation to the first two children, for example—it has never been harder for families. It is often forgotten that tax credits are for people who work, not for people who are unemployed. We often seem to forget that in these debates. There are many hard-working families who are struggling. As mentioned by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker), this could save up to £5,000 a year. That is a significant difference; but it is only a difference if someone can find a place. Therefore, if half the nurseries shut, it will be an almighty crisis. If parents have to pay for meals and other trimmings around the edges of the nursery, it is not free at all. In fact people will be hit by that who would not previously have been hit, so some people will be worse off.
We are doubling the funding. The minimum in Scotland will be £4.30 an hour, and the average will be £4.94 an hour, because ours is predicated on the real living wage, not the national living wage. That is the other thing when we talk about entitlement and the quality of nursery education. If there is just a revolving door of people who put up with it and put up with the low wages until they can get something better, we will never grow a profession that is aimed at developing the early years of our children.
We need to get ready for this. Obviously, we are having to expand this out—we need far more places than we have at the moment—so this will be workforce skills development funding. We need more diversity. Some 96% of those who work in early years are women. There are many children who have no good male role models in their lives, and we need to get more men into nursery and primary school to help to provide that. We should have a diverse workforce. There is funding to bring in over 400 more graduates to our nursery provision, because we want this to be about early learning, not just racking and stacking children so that their parents can be at work; that will not achieve what we are setting out. It is important that there is that investment in the workforce.
The most important thing is the empowerment of women to get back to work. That can get women out of the poverty trap. We already save them money. We in Scotland have the highest employment and lowest unemployment rate among women, but there are still women trapped. I remember offering a job to a woman recently. When she looked at all the sums, it was not doable, and the big piece that held her back was her childcare. That will be happening all over the place. This has to be dealt with. In Scotland we have 14 pilots on flexibility going ahead. Many Members have mentioned how inflexible the system is.
I worked as a senior registrar, as a surgeon. I was the first flexible surgical trainee in Scotland. I was paid 21 hours; I worked 50. That is fairly standard in the NHS. By the time I paid a nanny, because I needed to be on the ward shortly after seven, I took home less than unemployment benefit, because I needed to pay her a decent rate. We had to accept that for my career to go forward we had to ride through that and accept the debt, but many of these families cannot afford to work for nothing or less than nothing. If they have a job that has antisocial hours, long hours or is all spread at one end of the week, we need to have that flexibility. We have 14 pilots looking at a whole lot of versions, but the principle is the money follows the child, so that if a family need mix and match, they can have mix and match. That will also allow a quicker expansion. Empowering women and bringing them in will also support the economy.
We have all these brains across the country: people with talent, who have been highly educated. We spend maybe a decade bringing up our children and then do not get back into the workplace. We do not have wraparound childcare for school. We need to invest in women because they are also part of the country’s future economy.
There are things that we are trying to do in Scotland. Things are being discussed here. But if we are going to do this, we have to do it properly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Ruth George) for securing this much needed debate. We have heard some interesting and important contributions. I will just go through a few of them; unfortunately, time does not allow me to mention everyone.
My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak powerfully claimed that the pilot schemes were not actually working as the press said, and that there were nursery closures. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) acknowledged that there is a problem and tried to understand why. The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) would like to meet the Minister and providers. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich (Sandy Martin), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham). We also heard a powerful statement by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford)—I look forward to my invitation to Scotland to see. We also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), for Blaydon (Liz Twist) and for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker), who gave all sorts of information about portal difficulties and nursery managers saying that they will be closing.
We have had a wide-ranging debate, so I am going to use my contribution to touch on the most pressing issues. I hope that the Minister will use his closing remarks to answer in detail—regrettably, getting clear information from him to date has been slightly challenging to say the least—because both the Labour party and the Conservatives agree that we need more funded childcare. I stress that the problems raised with the policy are not because we disagree with the policy in principle. However, nearly as soon as David Cameron announced the offer at the 2015 general election, worries that it was underfunded came to light. The Government pushed on the delivery, and the voice of concern about the potential impact became louder.
The Pre-school Learning Alliance found a 20% funding shortfall. The Social Market Foundation and the New Economics Foundation have said that this version of free childcare is regressive. Research from Ceeda shows that nearly half the childcare settings are currently recruiting staff, but four out of five say that they are struggling to fill vacancies. If this were any other industry, we would be talking about a recruitment crisis. The Sutton Trust has warned that, as it stands, the 30 hours of free childcare offer widens the gap between disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers before they start school, as it benefits wealthier families. The Social Market Foundation shows that of the extra money that the Government are pumping into early years, 75% is being spent on the top 50% of earners and less than 3% will go to the most disadvantaged. Many providers have left or are in the process of leaving the sector. Will the Minister include in his summing-up how many Ofsted good or outstanding providers have left the sector in the past six months?
We are now well into the first term of this policy, and the Minister has told us that 216,384 parents have their codes for this term. However, just last night he told me via a written answer that 71% of parents had had their codes validated, but the Department for Education claims that the figure is now 90%, so which is it? Do we take the Minister’s word or the Department’s? I would welcome an intervention if he could clarify which is correct. If the figure is 90%, that leaves 20,000 children without a place during this August term, which will obviously be the quietest, as more children come of age later in the year. Does the Minister share our concern that the sector will struggle to provide places as the year rolls on, because of lack of funding?
We have talked about signing-up codes. To deal with an eligibility code, the application system has to be fit for purpose, which it clearly was not as the August deadline approached. The system’s inadequacies have left parents stranded. There is confusion between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and local authorities as to when the deadline for validating the code is. A constituent of mine has a code that is eligible until 7 December, but as she did not receive the code until 15 September the local authority has said that it cannot fund her place, and all the while HMRC is telling her that there is no problem and that she should be receiving her place. There is no clarity even on issues as simple as the deadline. It seems like amateur hour to me.
Variations from local authority to local authority are becoming a theme, with one authority planning to retain some disability access funding even though that should be passed on in full to providers. Another local authority is charging a provider for every minute that parents dropped off late and collected early, with the charges amounting to £4,000. Others require all providers offering funded places to receive an annual visit from the local authority’s early years team, which is what we all thought Ofsted was supposed to be there for. Getting payment out of local authorities is proving a struggle. Issues include refusing to pay monthly, bringing headcounts forward at short notice and requiring new email addresses and bank accounts in order for payments to be received.
The Minister knows full well that that is not an acceptable way to treat small businesses and microbusinesses. An issue that I have raised with him is that settings will charge for extras such as trips out, nappies and lunches in order to pay their staff and keep the lights on—to stay afloat. Can he guarantee today that there will not emerge a two-tier system whereby parents who cannot afford to pay for the extras do not have access to the policy? Does the Department intend to monitor the additional charges placed on parents, and will he commit to reporting on that? Will he consider a cap on those charges, or will it be a case of parents who cannot afford the extras being sent to the end of the waiting list?
If there is one thing noticeable by its absence, it is that the Minister never wants to talk about the quality of childcare. The Labour party has a policy to move to a graduate-led workforce and to put child outcomes at the heart of early years policy, by funding our policies properly. It is curious to me that the Conservatives do not have the same goals. Often, the highest-quality provision comes in the form of maintained nursery schools, many of which are seeing numbers drop, as they cannot offer 30 hours because of the cost of lunch provision. Nursery schools, which are often in the most deprived areas, provide excellent care, closing the gap between the most deprived children and those more fortunate.
Many children from deprived communities currently have access to quality nursery schools that employ qualified nursery school teachers. Those schools do a tremendous job of enhancing those children’s life chances, but they assure me that they will not be able to fund the continued employment of those qualified teachers. It is important that we distinguish between childcare and early years education. Save the Children is concerned that 40% of nurseries that took part in the pilot reported a loss in profits and, therefore, a threat to their sustainability. When I asked how many children were registered with maintained nursery schools for this academic year, the Minister was unwilling to share that information. Will he do so today?
When the Minister last spoke in the Chamber, he mentioned that he would like to get the 5,500 dormant childminders “back into that business”, but how will he do that if their wraparound care is not necessarily part of the 30 hours provision? Childminders are often highly qualified women with a level 3 national vocational qualification who have been Ofsted-assessed. I have been told categorically by a number of constituents that the county council funding provided means that they will go bankrupt. They are just going to throw in the towel—why bother?
I encourage the Minister to think again about a major injustice to childminders in this roll-out. His Department has relaxed the parent-child ratio for childminders who provide wraparound care. Is it the Government’s intention to relax that further in an attempt to make the funding work? Is that the way forward for childminders? How many freelance working parents have been excluded from the entitlement because they cannot guarantee that they will work more than 16 hours a week on the national minimum wage? The reality for many working parents in my constituency is that their employers will not guarantee them those hours, and nor can they, which makes it even harder for parents to return to work.
In the Chamber, the Minister said:
“There are colleagues in the House from places such as York, Northumberland”—
he goes on to list them—
“which have been in the pilot for a year. I have not heard a peep from anyone saying that the scheme is not working, so obviously the pilot has been successful.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 173.]
As my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak mentioned, those nurseries are having trouble squaring the circle. When papers, experts, providers and think-tanks all say that the policy is not sufficiently funded to work, surely it is time to reassess and ramp up the finances so that it is properly funded?
I have been startled by the number of providers who have said to me that they will not be able to take on children who need extra support. If such a child presented, they would put the child on a waiting list or gently suggest that there might be a better setting for them. That is discriminatory, but not unexpected when nurseries are budgeting to try to stay afloat, rather than to offer the best, most comprehensive service.
In conclusion, there is little doubt that the 30 free hours of childcare will be a welcome relief to many parents. It will bring childcare costs down for many parents, particularly at the upper end of the income scale, as research by Nursery World and the Resolution Foundation found recently. However, there is no getting away from the fact that this policy is chronically underfunded. No matter which way we look at it, providers are going to pay the price. The sector is known for its quality and passion—it transforms young people’s lives—and if the Government put that in peril with this policy, I suspect that they will not be forgiven lightly. As the Minister is well aware, tens of childcare providers are in this Chamber who would like to hear his views. Will he rethink his offer to come and meet them, as he originally intended?
Does the hon. Member for High Peak wish to exercise a short right of reply at the end?
Yes, if there is time.
I will make time for the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George) to respond. I congratulate her on securing this important debate and thank her for contributing to the debate on the urgent question on 6 September about the 30 hours of free childcare. I welcome her involvement in the all-party group on childcare and early education, and look forward to attending its meetings in due course.
I almost feel as if I am living in a parallel universe. I spend a lot of time visiting nurseries; indeed, yesterday I met someone who owns six nurseries in the south of England that are engaged with the scheme and delivering childcare on the basis of it.
I think I mentioned the parallel universe to the Minister in the Chamber. The nursery provider in his example has six nurseries and may be able to square the circle, but we are also concerned about the smaller providers.
Precisely. Indeed, the proprietors of many smaller providers often work in their nursery, so their costs are not necessarily higher.
There has been some confusion about the number of children who are eligible. Children become eligible as they turn three. We predicted that there would be approximately 200,000 eligible children in September, followed by another 100,000 or so after Christmas and Easter. Those are the figures that we have always borne in mind. We also estimated that only about 75% of parents would apply for the scheme—a similar figure to the proportion of more disadvantaged families who apply for the free 15 hours of care for two-year-olds.
Will the Minister give way?
May I make some progress? A lot of points have been made in the debate, and I would like to answer some of them.
I am sure that all hon. Members present join me in acknowledging that, for many families with young children, childcare is not just an issue, but the issue. In many cases, the costs of childcare are a huge barrier to work, particularly for those in lower-paid jobs. Some parents still spend over a third of their take-home pay on childcare—and when I say childcare, I mean good-quality early years educational experiences. Indeed, 93% of the delivery is good or outstanding.
The Government’s priority is to ensure that parents who want to work after having children can do so, and that the cost of childcare is not a barrier. We therefore delivered in September on our promise to double the free childcare available for working parents of three and four-year-olds. We are also supporting parents with childcare costs, through working tax credits and universal credit—where up to 85% of the costs are covered—and tax-free childcare, which provides a 20% subsidy that is worth up to £2,000 per child per year and up to £4,000 per year for disabled children. That answers the point made by the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) about particular help for disabled children.
Will the Minister give way?
I have very little time left, so I will make some progress now and give way at the end if I have time.
The Government are committed to giving every child the best start in life, whether their parents work or not. The 30 hours of free childcare are helping the lowest-paid working parents to manage their finances and have more money left over for their children’s needs. A lone parent needs to earn only around £6,500 a year to access the 30 hours of free childcare. Parents can apply for the 30 hours if they have a job offer; in answer to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and the SNP Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), I can confirm that we can issue a code on the basis of a job offer even when Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has no track record of a person’s income.
The problem is that a job may start quite quickly. Having a ticket does not mean that someone has found a place. That is the advantage of already being in a place.
As the hon. Lady points out, we have tranches of entry, so anyone who has an offer in August for a job that will start in September could get a code. The situation is similar for people who want more hours. We have been as flexible as possible in ensuring that those codes can be given. We take people’s word for it that their job offer is real, but when they confirm the code it becomes apparent.
This provision builds on the existing 15 hours a week of high-quality early learning that workless households of two, three and four-year-olds are entitled to. We know that starting education early makes a difference to long-term attainment and earnings, and that work is the best route out of poverty to transform children’s life chances. I heard this week from a school principal who had supported parents of two-year-olds getting the free hours to retrain and take up employment when their child became eligible for 30 hours. That is a fantastic outcome from a programme in its infancy. The 30 hours is making a real difference.
I cannot believe that the Minister is not receiving representations that list the problems with this policy. Let me give him an example that I could not fit into my speech in the time available: my children’s school is ending free provision for under-fours, because the funding simply does not work as it has worked in the past. There is actually a net reduction in provision. Is he honestly saying that he is not receiving messages like that from around the country?
I am surprised to hear that from the hon. Gentleman, because Tameside council in his area received a 25% increase in the hourly rate given after our review. We are putting our money where our mouth is.
As hon. Members will know, we rolled out the policy with a pilot that delivered for 15,000 children, and on 1 September, we rolled it out nationally, so that all eligible parents could join the 15,000 families in our pilot areas already benefiting from 30 hours. As expected, demand for the 30 hours offer has been high, and more than 216,000 parents have successfully received eligibility codes for the autumn term. I am pleased to be able to update the House: 90% of those codes have been checked by a provider on behalf of a parent seeking a 30 hours place. That is up 19 percentage points from 71% when I last reported, which is fantastic progress.
Of course, that figure may still continue to increase slightly, but I want to be clear that I do not expect it to reach 100%, because we cannot predict parents’ choices and situation. People’s circumstances will change. Not every person who successfully applied for a 30-hours code will decide to seek a free place for their three or four-year-old. Some parents will want to stick with a provider who does not offer 30 hours; other parents who applied for tax-free childcare and were eligible for 30 hours and who were issued a code will not want to take up that place because they might use the tax-free childcare offer. The figure may increase slightly, and I will keep the House updated.
Before the Minister concludes, I would like him to return to provision for disabled children. I accept that there is additional money in the system that was promised, but provision simply is not ramping up to the extent needed. What more can the Minister do, beyond funding, to encourage providers to give us facilities for disabled children?
Children with special needs certainly need special provision, and we are keen to ensure that we can continue to deliver that. As we move from the old statements to plans in mainstream education, it is proving an effective way to identify the children most in need. We must also consider how to help those in their early years as well.
Will the Minister give way?
Will the Minister give way?
No. I have very little time—three minutes—and I need to make a few points.
I am hearing fantastic individual stories showing the extraordinary impact that 30 hours childcare is having on families up and down the country. For example, a local employer in Staffordshire recently told us that parents who work at their factory no longer have to hand over their children in the car park as one parent clocks off and the other clocks on. Families like that are now enjoying family time together, rather than passing each other like ships in the night.
I will quickly cover one or two of the points made in the debate. The hon. Member for High Peak and the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) mentioned nurseries no longer being able to charge for lunches or additional hours. That is not the case. The early education strategy guidance is clear that providers can charge parents for meals and consumables, and for hours outside the free entitlement. Parents must not be required to pay any fee as a condition of taking up a free entitlement place. Many parents with a long working day need additional hours, and the system includes great flexibility,
I thank the Minister for giving way. Does he intend to cap those costs? Such charges will be what keep nurseries’ lights on and their staff employed. Will there be a two-tier system, and will he cap the costs?
Nurseries are entitled to charge for additional hours and meals, nappies and other consumables, and they are free to charge what they wish, but a parent with a code can shop around and get a place that meets their exact requirements. As I said, 90% of the codes issued have now been taken up by providers. We are seeing many flexible arrangements: for example, a nursery and a childminder may work together to deliver provision.
I must conclude, but there are a number of other points that I would like to have made. I will write to hon. Members to answer their specific points when I get the opportunity. I am proud of how the 30 hours childcare offer is transforming families’ lives. Parents up and down the country are enjoying more time with their children, more money in their pockets and less stress because the programme is cutting the cost of childcare. I hope that the hon. Member for High Peak has a few moments for a winding-up speech.
I thank all my colleagues who have made such excellent speeches and good points. I simply ask the Minister to revisit the costings and meet providers to learn from them, especially those in outstanding settings employing graduate and fully qualified staff in order to provide the best-quality childcare.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).