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Free Childcare

Volume 630: debated on Monday 6 November 2017

13. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of 30 hours of free childcare. (901610)

The early intelligence that we are gathering about the autumn term is very encouraging. More than 216,000 parents have received eligibility codes for this term and more than 90% have found places. Independent evaluation of the early delivery areas found that a quarter of mothers and one in 10 fathers had increased their working hours. Providers are willing and able to deliver the offer to working parents.

I welcome the Minister’s reply, but has he seen the online campaign entitled “Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding”? The truth is that providers are really struggling to provide the 30 hours of childcare that the Government say they should. A woman in my constituency, Claire Gallagher, is rated outstanding as a childminder, but she has faced a 32% cut in her hourly rate from £6.05 an hour to £4.10, despite the Government’s claim that no provider would be more than 10% worse off. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in the Treasury to ensure that this policy is adequately funded in the upcoming Budget? If there have not been any such discussions, when will there be?

I was going to advise the hon. Lady to pursue an Adjournment debate on this matter, until I realised that in fact she had just had one.

We carried out detailed work using Frontier Economics, which reported in July 2017, and we have increased the funding to £4.94 on average from £4.56. I have met a number of nurseries that seem to be outliers that, unlike most, are unable to deliver for that price. We have asked them to supply detailed information to find out why that is. Is it because they are not working to the ratios that others are? Is it because they have high property costs? We would be keen to see that detailed information and to find out why they are outliers, so that we can work with them to ensure that they can deliver within the money, as the majority of providers are doing.

Constituents of mine who use or work in nursery facilities on both sides of the England-Wales border report the capacity issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) has just mentioned. The Minister says that 90% have found places. Will he tell us how many of that 90% have got the full 30 hours?

Well, it is certainly up to them. The evidence that I get when I visit nurseries up and down the country is that many parents are actually taking extra hours and paying for the wraparound hours. When I was at a nursery in Wolverhampton two weeks ago, parents there told me that they already had their children in the nursery and were having trouble finding the funding for that, but that when their children turned three in January, they would then get access to the 30 hours funding. So the vast majority of parents are accessing the full 30 hours. Also, they can mix and match between childminders, nurseries and other voluntary sector providers.

Last week, I met Cheryl Hadland, the managing director of Tops Day Nurseries, which includes the much-valued nursery at Musgrove Park Hospital, to discuss what the 30 hours of free childcare means for nurseries. The recruitment and retention of nursery workers is that organisation’s ongoing challenge, and staff account for 70% of its costs, which relate to the minimum wage and the living wage. I applaud this Government’s commitment to the 30 hours of free childcare, which has been welcomed by parents. However, will the Minister ensure that any increases in the living wage and the minimum wage are taken into account, so that nurseries can successfully deliver this service in Taunton Deane?

The hon. Lady’s eloquence has ensured that Taunton Deane makes Wavertree look like a model of pithiness.

We are of course well aware of the cost pressures that may fall upon nurseries, and we are keen to work with them to address some of the business management decisions that they may need to make in order to live within the funding that we are making available. As we have discovered, the mean cost of funding is £3.72 per hour, and our funding is £4.94 per hour and therefore allows for adequate funding, as the evidence has shown.

16. Nearly 200,000 children in Britain fall behind by the age of five, and one children’s centre closes every single week. In order to improve life chances, does the Minister believe that funding for Sure Start should be ring-fenced and that the closures should be stopped? (901613)

Local authorities make decisions about how best to address the needs of children from underprivileged backgrounds. Much has changed since 2010, including the early years pupil premium and the 15 hours of free childcare for those who would qualify for free school meals, for example. It is up to local authorities to decide how best to deliver that. Indeed, my local Sure Start centre raised with me the issue of the many children who should be at the centre who are not. That is a role for those who are going out to mentor people in their communities.

The Minister’s colleague, the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), wrote to a constituent stating that the funding of the 30-hour entitlement is based on the premise that 15 hours was for educational provision and the additional 15 hours was just for general care without an educational focus. However, the Conservative party has always promised high-quality early education, so was his colleague correct or not?

No, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) was not correct. Indeed, she made that clear when I spoke to her about it; she had misheard something that was said to her. The hon. Lady keeps falling into the trap of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Indeed, she has also lured some journalists into that trap. Will she finally admit that the policy is working successfully and that children are receiving the childcare they need?