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Free Childcare: Costs and Benefits

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 19 February 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the costs and benefits of free childcare.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I probably ought to declare that I am father to 14-month-old Ophelia and expectant father to another child, which is on its way, so I have a vested interest in this topic. Somewhat ironically, a number of colleagues asked me to express their disappointment at not being able to make the debate, given that this is half-term week. This week was supposed to be a parliamentary recess, but the Government cancelled it, so the debate was drawn for a time when lots of colleagues have to look after their children.

The motion refers to free childcare. Clearly there is no such thing, given that someone will always have to pay—parents directly, the state or a bit of both—but the premise of my argument is that childcare that is fully funded by the state should be seen as a redistributive investment rather than a cost. Such an investment could create a more productive, more equal and happier country due to the contribution that fully paid childcare can make to the economy, the impact it can have on tackling class and gender inequality, and what it can do for family happiness.

It is worth summarising where we are today. I think it is fair to say that most parents, if not all, would say the childcare system is far too confusing. Someone with a two-year-old child can get 15 hours of childcare per week if they receive certain benefits or have a child with disabilities, or if the child is looked after by the local council, but parents who do not fit into those categories have to fund the equivalent childcare or not be in work to look after their children. For children aged three or four, parents can get 15 hours of childcare per week until reception class for up to 38 weeks each year, and an additional 15 hours per week can be claimed by a single parent in work, a couple of parents earning less than £100,000 a year—that is, of course, a generous income bracket—and those in some other technical situations.

On top of that, we also have childcare vouchers, tax-free childcare, working tax credits and universal credit. Childcare vouchers are claimed through work, but the Government are phasing them out. Tax-free childcare involves a prepayment top-up by the Government, with parents using an online system to make payments to registered childcare providers, but is only for those who do not receive childcare vouchers. People on low pay can claim universal credit or working tax credits, but doing so means they cannot claim tax-free childcare.

All those schemes rely on someone receiving a regular income from employment, creating difficulties for those who rely on commission—one of my constituents, who is an estate agent, found it very difficult to evidence her income to fit into some of those categories—who are in flexible work or who are self-employed. I recognise that the Government have made welcome changes to tax-free childcare for those in self-employment, but those difficulties come up frequently in my constituency surgeries. That is especially true for tax-free childcare, which has been mired in IT problems since its launch. Parents now have to take the time—every three months, I think—to log in, register their children and make payments into the system, and must find a childcare provider that is able to receive money through the system.

There were significant problems, which have now been fixed, for people with children with disabilities. Those people get a 40% top-up rather than a 20% top-up, but that was not calculated properly on the system. Constituents in well-paid jobs told me they were having to think about selling their car in order to pay for their childcare and stay in work. That just cannot be right. Not only is the system too confusing but parents do not use it because it is too much hassle. Only last week, we heard that only one in 14 eligible families claim their tax-free childcare. The system is too hard to use—it is too confusing—and parents are not using it.

All that is in the context that childcare is an enormous cost in the family budget. In 2014, which I appreciate is now some time ago, the Family and Childcare Trust conducted research into the cost of childcare across the country and concluded that, on average, families pay about £10,000 a year. That cost will now be higher, because of welcome changes such as having to pay the living wage and other costs faced by childcare providers.

Even with families paying such large costs, however, the system is still not sustainable. Childcare providers tell me that they cannot afford to make ends meet without applying additional costs to families, on top of the core costs of childcare. A Twitter follower of mine made the point that, under Government-funded childcare, and obviously with the right ratio of staff to children, her childcare business receives only £3.84 per hour per child. She says she is on the brink of closure. We have a system that is too complicated, that parents are not fully using, that is not sustainably funded and that is bringing the childcare system to the brink of closure.

My hon. Friend is making an eloquent speech on the realities that parents face. I congratulate him on his wonderful news. The situation in Wales is different, and I may come back to that in a later intervention.

I have anecdotal evidence that, in order to reduce the pressure on family budgets, lots of my friends who are our age and who have children find it more cost-effective to work part time or to rely on elderly relatives—not just grandparents but great-grandparents in some cases—for childcare. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the long term, regardless of which Administration lead on childcare, that is simply not sustainable?

I agree with my hon. Friend and thank him for his intervention. It has been shown that parents—especially mums, as I will come on to in a moment—often go from working full time to part time and do not return to full-time work until their children are in primary education. They are out of the labour market for years when they may wish to be in it. That is a systemic issue associated with the pressures of childcare.

I am not moaning about looking after children; I enjoy looking after my children. However, the fact of the matter is that I also want to contribute and to have a career, as does my wife. We should not have to live in a system where having a career is a trade-off between one and the other; where the childcare system is not fit for purpose; and where our way of life does not allow us fully to contribute to the success of the economy. The system is ripe for reform, not only so that we can help families or spend taxpayers’ money more efficiently but to create a country in which we can all be happier and more productive.

Moving on to the economy, OECD research shows that moving to a culture in which men and women are able to share parental duties, without mum or dad trading off who looks after the child, and therefore creating equal participation in the labour market, would increase GDP by about 10% by 2030. Under their current policies the Government seem to be in the mood to surrender GDP growth in the coming years, so reform of the childcare system may be a welcome contribution to increasing GDP.

This issue is particularly relevant to parents of children with disabilities, who find the system even harder and more expensive. I am proud that the Flamingo Chicks charity in my constituency teaches ballet to children with disabilities because there was no such provision. It not only provides excellent services for young people in Bristol and across the country—it is a growing organisation—but does research, too. I hosted the charity in Westminster a few weeks ago, when it launched research showing that only one in 10 dads feels able to tell their employer that their child has a disability. They fear telling their employer because they think that it might impact on their career. How sad is that? People ought to be able to tell their employer that they need to claim their right to flexitime or childcare leave in order to care for their children. In order to maintain their career, they should not feel pressured into having to put their job first and hiding the fact that they have children who need to be looked after. That is entirely incorrect.

I am also pleased that several Bristol businesses have signed up to the new Flamingo Chicks employers’ charter, under which employers should proactively encourage their staff to take flexitime, if required, to look after their children—whether they are disabled or otherwise—and which encourages policies to support staff in playing a more positive and proactive role in looking after their families without it having an impact on their career.

If more parents are in work, it has the obvious benefit of more people paying tax, which, which is welcome and helps to fund systems such as these. That is especially true for in respect of properly funded childcare providers. If we have a sustainable, fully funded childcare provider system across the country, we will create lots of reasonably well paid jobs that people value. Creating a public service we can be proud of will help us to rebalance the regional economies, invest in the next generation and help families to do better today.

Some have suggested that fully funded childcare could increase economic productivity because it would give parents more flexibility around their working days and around the way in which they take time off work to care for their children. That means that we would get more output from them at work, because they would not have to take so much time off at short notice or reduce their hours to fit what the current childcare facilities provide.

The Minister may wish to refer to some studies, including that from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that say that there is little connection between childcare policies and parents in work. Of course, some parents will choose to stay at home and care for their children, and it is absolutely their right to do so, but surely we would not wish to miss the prospect of increasing GDP, tax returns and productivity. Surely we should aim to help those who want to be in work to lead more productive and meaningful, less discriminatory and happier lives. Not that long ago, the Government started to measure happiness—I think it was under Prime Minister Cameron. I do not know whether they still do so, but it would be interesting to see the statistics.

Moving on to gender and class, we should not shy away from the fact that the childcare system facilitates discrimination in the workplace and the education system. Gender inequality is obvious, isn’t it? The Government admitted that in testimony for the Treasury Committee’s excellent report on childcare of March last year. In that inquiry, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that women having children end up on the “mummy track”—that well-known phrase—doing less skilled work than they are perfectly able to do, for a salary that is less than they are worth.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, in its report on wage progression and the gender wage gap, said that by the time a woman’s first child is 20, she will have lost on average three whole years’ worth of salary compared with men, and will have spent the equivalent of 10 years out of work in terms of time lost, loss of progression and lack of career development. Those are enormous numbers; it is an enormous impact. Even in our increasingly modern society, it is disproportionately applied to women and mums.

In my view, we should talk more about class inequality. The childcare system has a really important role to play here, too. The Sutton Trust and others have shown that, by the time children leave secondary school, the attainment gap in terms of education, training and skills, means that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have lost nearly two years’ worth of schooling, compared with those from more advantaged backgrounds. That has to be unacceptable in our country. We know that the class gap starts from the earliest of ages, with attainment gaps of more than four months of equivalent schooling having been noted at the compulsory education age of five.

I saw that frequently, because I used to be the chair of governors at the primary school that I used to go to in what is now my constituency. Everyone who has been a governor knows that they look at lots of data on progression, attainment, attendance and all that stuff. The primary school is in Lawrence Weston, where I am from, which still has one of the lowest levels of attainment in the country for education, training and skills. When children come into the reception class, the gap between those who are the most prepared for mainstream education and those who are the least is really quite significant. Primary schools like Nova Primary School—it was called Avon Primary School when I was there and it was not an academy—put in enormous effort to try to bring children up to the average by year 6. Primary schools do a really good job, but it takes a huge amount of effort and support from teaching staff and teaching assistants to get them there.

Then, of course, the environment changes in the secondary education system—there are more children and less one-to-one support—and the children who were brought up to the average in year 6 start to fall back again. That is when we get an attainment gap at the end of secondary school of so many years’ equivalent of educational outcome, compared with those from more advantaged backgrounds.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. We should target childcare at the poor more comprehensively, because as he has described, when children arrive in school they are sometimes not ready—they are not even properly toilet trained and they cannot use a knife and fork. Does he agree that we should lament the number of Sure Start centres that have gone to the wall recently? They provided the foundation for better preparing those children for school.

I agree entirely. I am pleased that, in Bristol, we have managed to keep our children’s centres open by coupling them with nursery schools in the majority of cases, and by creating a funding environment that means we have not needed to close them.

We do not need to look far from my constituency, however, to see how many centres have closed around the country under the current Government. I wish that my predecessors in the Labour Government had thought about the scheme sooner, because they introduced it late in their time in government. It was the right thing to do and I hope that we will be able to reintroduce such schemes under a future Labour Government. The evidence is clear: intervention at an earlier age is essential for tackling the inequality gap.

I will touch on maintained nursery schools and the link to childcare.

My hon. Friend talks about the closure of centres across England, but of course things are different in Wales. In my constituency, two new Flying Start centres have opened in the last two years. I was previously a cabinet member for education in a local authority in Wales and we continued to open such Flying Start centres.

All the evidence from Welsh Government analysis and local government analysis shows that early intervention works. It can be clearly shown that, where early intervention takes place around potty training, interaction with adults and early learning, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) mentioned, it makes a huge difference. Things can be done differently and are being done differently by the Labour-led Welsh Government.

I declare an interest because there are two islands within my constituency—Steel Holm and Flat Holm. One of them officially belongs to Wales, so I class myself as a Bristolian and a Welsh MP. I take great pride in joining my hon. Friend in recognising the achievements of the Labour Government in Wales and I long for such achievements in Westminster too.

One issue with the Sure Start centres was that some data suggested that they were being utilised most by more middle-class families, although the policy intention was to tackle the inequality gap that I have referred to. My argument is that a fully funded childcare system, because it is considered a public service, is not seen as a nanny state or someone trying to intervene to tell people how to parent; it is just available and it is what it is. We could have a more mainstream application of early years intervention in this type of system, which would tackle some of the challenges of the past.

I return to my soapbox on maintained nursery schools, which I and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire), and other hon. Members, have talked about frequently. We have some excellent maintained nursery schools in Bristol, which have the costs of and are regulated as schools, but which are funded as private childcare providers. Some of the Minister’s colleagues have recently responded about them in the House of Commons.

The evidence from maintained nursery schools clearly shows that putting in the intervention and assistance before mainstream school has a huge impact on bringing those children up to the average when they get to mainstream education, which helps to tackle the inequality gap. We should take that evidence seriously and apply it to our public policy, to show that it could be done not just in cities and regions that still have maintained nursery schools—they do not exist everywhere in the country—but across all the regions and nations.

On happier families, the Resolution Foundation produced an interesting report last week that looked at wellbeing markers for the happiness of families. To no one’s surprise, it concluded that being in meaningful work and having more disposable income generally makes people happier. It specifically showed that an extra £1,000 a year of disposable income can have a measurable impact on the wellbeing and happiness of someone’s family life, especially for those on the lowest incomes. To perhaps no one’s surprise, as income gets towards £100,000 a year, extra disposable income has less of an impact, but it can have an enormous impact for someone on £13,000.

Helping parents to be in work and providing fully funded childcare could have an impact on the average cost of £10,000 a year for working families [Interruption.]. One of the consequences of reading a speech from an iPad, Mr Davies, is that pressing the wrong place on the screen returns the speech to the start, rather than staying where I was speaking from. Reducing the amount of disposable income that working families spend on childcare, especially those on the lowest incomes, would have a measurable impact on their wellbeing and happiness. In many situations, parents are having to trade off between each other’s jobs, after-work arrangements, work trips, having to look after children, who does the school run and all those things. We could make a difference not only to family life planning, but to their income.

I do not have any evidence for this, and I would be interested in the Minister’s view, but surely fully funded childcare is an investment in the country. If we allow parents to work, reduce the amount of disposable income they spend on childcare, give them more money to spend on the high street or elsewhere in the market, allow them to pay taxes and VAT on the products they buy and fund properly paid childcare providers which then pay their own income tax through their workers in a fully funded childcare system, that money will not just go into a black hole, but will create a system that could help us achieve public policy priorities on gender, class, economic productivity and all the issues I have raised today. It seems an obvious thing for the Government to want to look at and reform, because it will mean something to so many people across the country, while also stimulating all those important factors.

In conclusion, it is clear that the current childcare system is too complicated, does not work and is not sustainable. When we speak to anyone involved, that is what they say. Parents are not aware which system is most relevant to them. It is very confusing. People might think they are on a better scheme with childcare vouchers, which are easily done through work, and they are being told that is coming to an end and they should consider tax-free childcare, but then the IT system does not work and they cannot calculate which scheme is better. If someone is about to be or has already been pushed on to universal credit, they are told they cannot get tax-free childcare, even though they may have been able to get childcare vouchers if they were on working tax credits. It just does not work.

As a consequence, the Treasury has been saving money. The budget allocation for tax-free childcare alone—that is just one aspect of this complicated service—went from £800 million to £37 million. The Treasury has made a saving of hundreds of millions of pounds. Where has that money gone? Why is it not being invested back into reforming childcare systems? The fact of the matter is that while the Treasury is clawing back this money and spending it on God knows what—ship companies with no ships, or whatever it might be—childcare providers are having to charge parents on top of the already expensive price of childcare, whether it is for food, activities or private hours outside of the hours provided by the system.

We see that time and again. Whether it is policing, council services or childcare, the Government cut the funding to public services and those who provide for our constituents, and then push those costs on to hard-pressed families, whether it is through increased council tax to pay for the police funding that the Government have cut or to cover their cuts to the core grants to councils, or passing on more costs to parents from the attempt to save money on childcare systems. Enough really is enough.

We should be aiming for a fully funded childcare system, with qualified and decently paid childcare professionals. It is an investment in our future. It will break down gender and class inequalities and will help foster happier and healthier families right across our country. I do not see why it is even a debate. I hope that the Minister will set out today what he will do to make it a reality.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) on securing this important debate. I am pleased to speak today, particularly following the debate that I secured here last week on nurture care and early intervention in primary schools, which feeds nicely into this subject.

Early years education and nursery provision are crucial to ensuring that every child has the best start in life. Last week I spoke about that with reference to primary schools, although I said that the need for such support starts even earlier. As the hon. Gentleman said, free childcare is considered important because it allows parents to return to work and—for me, this is even more important—it ensures that children receive a good educational foundation. Without the right support in early life, children suffer, challenges become more complex, and costs grow. That is why I am an advocate of early intervention and proper support for disadvantaged and troubled families.

Across Mansfield and Warsop many low-income families rely on free childcare, and would certainly benefit from greater support with those costs. We have a relatively high take-up of the free childcare offer for two-year-olds, but I continue to have concerns that those most in need do not take up such support. The financial viability of those free places is a huge challenge for nurseries. Costs for nursery owners have increased because of payroll costs and other elements of inflation, and the funding offered by the Government to support childcare providers has not increased proportionately. That issue is consistently raised with me by local providers, and one local nursery owner also raised a valid point about wages and staffing.

In general, nursery staff are not particularly well paid, and progression can be unclear. That means there is a high turnover of staff, and providers cannot retain their best and most experienced people. After a few years working in childcare many people leave the sector and go elsewhere looking for better wages, and when we discuss the costs and benefits of free childcare we must also consider those aspects. I know from my experience with my now five and two-year-old boys that the attachments children make to nursery staff are important and emotional. My boys come from a safe and loving home, and it stands to reason that for children from the hardest backgrounds with problems at home, those relationships and the structure and safety of nursery are even more important. High levels of staff turnover are not helpful in delivering that continuity of care.

The Sutton Trust has been campaigning on that issue, and it argues that we should consider giving early years teachers qualified teacher status. The increase in pay, conditions and status that that would entail would help to retain a skilled and experienced workforce in that sector, although it would need funding to make it work.

I welcome the commitment by Ministers in autumn to support early development at home, including funding for additional training for health visitors to identify speech, language and communication needs. That is a good step towards tackling disadvantage and helping to identify special educational needs, in order to offer the best and earliest interventions. I would like early years education to be part of a formal intervention to which those children who most need it can be referred, following those early identifications. Giving children access to such support as early as possible, perhaps in a more formal and directive way for parents, would be helpful.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good case for those who are less advantaged than most of us. Does he share my view about Sure Start centres? They were developed to provide outreach, yet we have lost a lot of that. Will he encourage the Minister to encourage greater outreach into those communities, as we had under Sure Start?

That is an interesting prospect. Sure Start centres, and the ideas behind them, are positive, and we need that early support and intervention for families, and that hub for them to receive such support. I do not know whether Sure Start centres are always the right place—as the hon. Member for Bristol North West said, take-up at those centres is often by middle- class families and people who perhaps have the social capital to go out and find that support, when perhaps it could be more focused and targeted on those who most need it.

It is good that we are spending more than any other Government on supporting early years education at around £6 billion a year by 2020, and it is positive that more than 90% of all three and four-year-olds are accessing Government-funded early education. We are heading in the right direction in many respects, but we need to look more carefully at the impact of such provision, especially when it comes to the existing childcare offer. The Government’s policy of 30 hours of free childcare amounts to just over 1,100 hours of free childcare a year for many families, including my own—indeed, I count down the days until September when my youngest will be eligible for free childcare, and all the holidays I will be able to go on with that extra money. That perhaps identifies the problem—the funding should not necessarily pay for my holidays, which might be what it is used for.

The Education Committee, which I have the privilege of sitting on, noted in our recent report, “Tackling disadvantage in the early years”, that the policy might have entrenched inequality, rather than helping to close the gap. The Committee argued that the Government should reduce the upper earnings cap for 30 hours of childcare, the extra funding providing more early education targeted at the most disadvantaged children.

In 2016, a two-parent family on the national living wage with an annual wage of £19,000 a year, received 6% more in childcare support than a two-parent family on £100,000 a year, but now the former receive 20% less childcare support than the latter, because support has increased for wealthier parents, not the other way around. That is according to the Education Policy Institute. There is a balance to all such things. An important element is to provide value and support for those in work, so that people feel the benefit of work, but perhaps support has moved slightly too far from prioritising children who most need early intervention and support from the education system.

The social mobility index places Mansfield 524th out of 533 constituencies in England. I care passionately about social justice, an issue that is at the centre of my work in Mansfield and Warsop, and one of the best ways to tackle that low social mobility is to improve education, and early years support and intervention, focused on those most vulnerable children and families. I hope that the Minister will commit to look at ways in which we can reform education right from the start, from those early years, in order to support the most disadvantaged children, including many from Mansfield.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) on bringing this issue to the Floor for consideration. I deal with this issue every week in my office, and in particular with my staff. I will give the Chamber an example of how the matter works in practice.

I have six staff, five of whom are ladies, so the issue comes through clearly. They are of differing ages, though I will not mention their names or refer to their ages, because that is something we do not do, if we want to live well. My part-time worker is in her 50s and is a grandmother. I allow her flexibility to change her days so she can mind her grandchildren and come into my office on the days or mornings that she does not have the children. That is a practical arrangement that works for her and for me—that is important.

A further two staff members in their 40s have children in the last year of schooling, so they are able to work their normal full-time hours. It is easier when children attend secondary schools and further education. I also have a staff member in her 20s who is due to marry next year, and she has informed me that I should be prepared for her maternity announcement the following year, as she wants children right away after she gets married. Again, I support her wholeheartedly in that.

My parliamentary aide is in her 30s, and has a three-year-old and a four-year-old. Her childcare arrangements are more pressing. They are all key members of staff, but she is in particular. When she returned to work after her second child, we came to a flexible working arrangement that allows her to work at home on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursdays, when I am at Westminster.

In practice, when my aide’s kids are at nursery in the mornings, she works away for me, and when her husband gets home at 6 pm, she works on. She is my speech writer, preparing many of my speeches, so she probably has little to do—I jest, because I keep her busy. I talk the speeches over with her, but cut and add to them as I progress through the time. She is kept very busy, and her workload means that I sometimes see work coming through to me at 1 o’clock in the morning. That is a fact; it is how she does it with her flexible hours—I am very fortunate to have her working for me.

When I asked my aide about childcare, her answer was simple: “Jim, I earn too much to get help from Government but not enough to pay the £300 a week for someone else to mind the children. I am holding on for the P2s”—primary school—“when the kids are in until 3 pm, and I can then cut back on night-time hours.” That has made me ask some questions. How many young families working to pay for childcare are holding on by a thread until they get the care? How many grannies and grandas are missing out on actually relaxing in retirement because their children are not able to pay for childcare?

Too many families are over the threshold for tax credits and struggle to do it all. That was illustrated clearly by the hon. Members for Bristol North West and for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) in their contributions. Families earn too much for social housing, but not enough to be comfortable.

What we have is what I refer to as the working poor and there are a greater number of them, and every one of us could probably reflect that and illustrate that in our constituencies. I believe that if the burden of childcare was lifted, there would be benefits for the quality of life for so many families throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We need more schemes such as the tax-free childcare scheme, which puts 20% of Government funding alongside someone’s 80%. The fact is that, although that is good, not many people are aware of it and I look to the Minister to give us some illustration of what can be done to improve that. There are many people who just do not know about the scheme.

Some 91,000 families made use of the new tax-free childcare system in December, which is far below the expected number. What are the Government doing to increase that number and increase awareness, because official figures show that the Government had planned and budgeted for 415,000 families? We are far off that figure, for a scheme that was launched in October 2017. It is a gentle question, but hopefully it will receive an answer. At one point, 3 million could qualify for the help, meaning that only about one in 14 eligible families had applied for it. So we really have an issue to increase that number.

When we look at countries around the world, we see that we are at the top of the league for costs, and they must come down. Just yesterday in the provincial press back home, there was an illustration of the cost of childcare per child across Northern Ireland. In my constituency of Strangford, and in mid and east Down, we have the highest levels of childcare costs anywhere in Northern Ireland. We have a middle class that is squeezed beyond control, with rising rates, rising insurance costs for their home and car, rising food prices and rising petrol prices. Everything is more money, apart from their wages, which remain the same.

It is little wonder that so many people believe that it is better not to work. We have mothers and fathers who slog it out at work, and then try to cram in time with their children in the evening hours, and stay on top of housework and mundane issues. I believe that they need help.

I will finish with this comment: childcare is one way we can help and encourage women with young children to have a career, and find a way to do it all. So I urge the Government to expand the 20% help for childcare and bring us down in the global charts, instead of our being “Top of the Pops” for all the wrong reasons.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Davies.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) on an excellent speech. It is a shame that he was not around a few years ago, because he could have been on the Bill Committee that considered the Childcare Act 2016. He would have been a tremendous asset at that time.

Although I would prefer to see a Labour Government delivering big on childcare, I, for one, recognise how the last Tory Government built on the legacy of the Blair-Brown Government—they most certainly did. I know that they like to pinch our policies, but I am always happy when they pinch the right ones.

I am saddened, however, that despite the Government’s policy of expanding childcare, which was progressive and actually made some progress, we are in danger of failing to land the kind of childcare provision that we want, because the implementation has fallen short. It has fallen short because the Government failed to engage properly with the sector originally. They failed to recognise the challenge they were facing in building capacity; they failed to understand the need to develop a sector that would be even more professionally led; and, despite the very welcome cash that came with the policy, they failed to recognise the need for professional staff to be paid a decent wage for looking after all our children.

I am a dad and a grandad, and my sons and grandson are the most precious of precious people to me; I am sure that there is not an MP here in Westminster Hall, or across the Estate, who does not think of their family in that way. Yet as a nation, we seem content to leave those most precious young members of our families to be looked after by people who are often on the minimum wage and discontented with their working lives. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) referred to that issue in some detail, and I am sure that he agrees that we need much more action on it.

After all, childcare staff are some of the most loving and dedicated people that we have in our country. They do the job because it is their vocation. They do it despite a system that does not appreciate them for not just looking after our children, but keeping them safe. Should we really devalue them so much?

We know why we believe in childcare. It allows parents, especially mothers, to go back to work, which is important not just so that they can earn, but because it gives them the fulfilment of a challenging daily routine beyond childcare—believe you me, I know that that too can be challenging—the fulfilment of earning their own living and supporting their family, or perhaps the fulfilment of doing work that they feel passionate about.

We must ensure that parents have a choice, which the 15 or 30-hour offer provides, but we need to make sure that it is easily accessible and well resourced, and that we create happy spaces for children that result in happy parents who are content to leave them there. If the free childcare that we all like to boast of is not resourced properly, parents end up subsidising it through expensive contributions to meals and the provision of nappies and materials—even wet wipes.

Not everyone is covered, of course, and childcare can be expensive for those who are not. Some rely on family, but not everybody has family members who they can rely on or expect to take up childcare responsibilities. It is also important to recognise the specific needs of adoptive parents. If we are serious about encouraging people to foster and adopt, we must ensure that the law and regulations are favourable and provide them with an environment that supports them and enables them to do their jobs as well.

When I served on the Childcare Bill Committee—I lament the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West was not there—one area we looked at was the costs associated with the provision for disabled children. Parents of disabled children need an extra level of support. Often, going back to work is not an option for them, but they are in desperate need of respite care. From talking to my own local authority, Stockton-on-Tees, I know how difficult it can be to provide adequate respite services to all the families who need it. Last week, the Government passed yet more cuts to authorities, particularly across the north, which does not help to deliver on that agenda.

As other hon. Members have said, in the mainstream, we have a system of childcare vouchers and tax-free childcare. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West that the new tax-free childcare system is less favourable than the voucher system we are moving away from. In a previous debate on childcare, I reminded hon. Members of what the Prime Minster said on the steps of Downing Street after she entered office:

“We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.”

Perhaps the Minister can share with us how the Government are actually helping poorer families who are in desperate need of childcare but do not currently qualify for the scheme. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West referred to the Treasury Committee’s report on childcare, which found several gaps in the Government’s childcare schemes, including that one.

Access to childcare support while training is a real issue. Mothers who opt to do a nursing degree are particularly badly hit, especially with the advent of universal credit. There are women in my constituency who struggle to qualify for universal credit because, despite the fact that they work—and I believe they do work—on the wards during training, they do not accrue sufficient working hours, which has a direct knock-on effect on their entitlement to childcare. They are left to survive on child benefit and a student loan that they will have to pay back one day. We all know about the loss of the bursary scheme.

Parents aged 20 who wish to take on training can seek support only if they are on a further education course and are facing financial hardship. Childcare costs are a barrier to the participation of parents, especially young parents, in courses. Those costs actively prevent them from taking on the training that could advance their careers and give them more money to support their families.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West also mentioned the gig economy. Zero-hours contracts are notoriously inflexible, no matter how much people try to portray them as the opposite. Shifts are offered at the last minute, so staff who can drop everything to come into work at the drop of a hat are prioritised. Workers are also told at the last minute that they are not needed, so they lose out on a day’s expected pay.

There is a real risk of a parent needing last-minute childcare to be able to pick up a shift, but that flexibility does not exist in the system. Parents have to pay for childcare, but they frequently get to work and find that they are not needed, so they are shelling out money that they do not have. Not every worker knows their shift pattern two weeks or a month in advance—a bit like MPs, perhaps. Sometimes, workers are lucky to know 48 hours in advance. I am repeating myself, but we need childcare provision that matches the economy people work in.

During the Bill Committee a few years ago, Pat Glass, the then MP for North West Durham, and I challenged the then Minister time and again on building capacity, on the need for a professional-led service, on engaging with the sector and on so many other things. I know that it was not the Minister before us today, but the former Minister gave reassurances that have proved to be no more than fantasy. We were told that the market would sort it out, that there were people keen to enter the market—many did—that there were sufficient people coming through to staff the system, and that all would be well.

Sadly, that has not really happened. We have seen nurseries close, and we still see demands from parents for more and more support. We have a long way to go to ensure that we have that professional-led service. I would never do down our nurseries, which do tremendous work, but professionals should be leading that service. We need that provision to help people on the bottom rung of society who cannot get a job because they cannot get the training they need, since they do not qualify for the comprehensive childcare they need.

It is time to look again. We have a vast wealth of talent sitting dormant at home, often on social security, because our system does not recognise their need the way it should. We should concentrate resources on those people—starting with childcare, to allow them to get on with work. I also say to the Minister: please look again at the provision for people with disabled children, which remains totally inadequate. We really need action in that area.

I call Thangam Debbonaire. I will call the first of the Front Benchers at 10.30, so you have a reasonable amount of time.

Thank you, Mr Davies. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) and to other colleagues, who made excellent points. I will try to do what I always swore I would and not say things that others have covered.

Both parents and early years providers in Bristol West report problems with the current system, including the cost to the economy in lost work and skills when parents are unable to take up childcare because of the complexity of the system or its inappropriateness for their needs. However, I will focus on the social costs, in particular the social cost to gender equality and the social and economic cost to lone parents.

In 2015, the OECD published statistics on net childcare costs as a percentage of average wages for a two-earner, two-child couple. The eurozone average was 14%, but in Malta the cost was 0%, in Austria 3%, in Sweden 5%, in Iceland 5% and in Germany 5%. In the UK, the cost was 55%—higher even than the United States. I just put that down as a marker for two-parent families. For single parents, there are of course often benefits and benefits in kind that help even out the additional burden of being the sole provider and income earner, but there is no doubt that free or very low-cost childcare is a great contributor to gender equality and to single parents’ ability to provide for their families.

Other Members have mentioned parents using childcare for economic benefit, so I want to focus briefly on its impact on gender equality, and particularly on its use for training, job interviews and voluntary work, which are essential for women re-entering the workforce, leaving violent partners or needing to fit childcare around being a lone parent. A single parent cannot get free childcare to go to a job interview or just to clean up the house and go to the shops, which is unbelievably difficult for a lone parent with young children. Free childcare also helps those starting up in business. Again, that has a particular impact on women, who often choose that route into employment after having children. Of course, all that benefits the economy, but there are also social benefits, which include older relatives’ ability to participate in the workforce or in other activities when they no longer have to offer to provide free childcare to enable their daughters or female relatives to do training, job interviews and so on.

Continuing on the theme of gender equality, of course men and women love their children and want to be with them, but men and women also want to provide for them, contribute to the wider world and develop their skills. If high quality, affordable childcare is widely available—the OECD defines “low cost” as less than 10% of average wages, although in the United Kingdom it is nowhere near that—that allows men and women to make decisions based on what is best for them and their children, rather than on the probable inequality of their wages, which further reinforces the inequality of their wages.

I have friends in the Netherlands, where the childcare system is far from perfect, but where there is at least a cultural understanding that when someone becomes a parent, whether they are a man or a woman, they should work fewer hours, and that men and women have an equal responsibility for picking up children from childcare or school. I am constantly amazed that, when I pick up friends’ children from school in the Netherlands, there are roughly equal numbers of men and women, and nobody notices because it is not a thing. I have friends who moved to four-day working weeks after they became parents. That is the norm. That means that each child is in childcare for three days per week and with parents for a total of four, but it allows both parents to maintain their work and play a full and active role in their child’s life, as so many parents deeply want.

In my constituency of Bristol West, childcare providers and state-maintained nurseries report problems with the take-up of free childcare by families on low incomes in general, but particularly by single parents—usually women—who struggle to fit the complexity of the system around their needs and those of their families. The OECD has documented the consequent restrictions on their economic participation.

There are other social benefits involving gender. Childcare that is free at the point of delivery, such as Sure Start —a wonderful achievement of the previous Labour Government, of which I will always be proud to bear the legacy—provides many other benefits for women. My friend Jude Grant, who is now a Labour councillor, used to run a domestic abuse support service in the north-east out of a Sure Start centre. Why did that matter? She did that in parallel with a support service for women with post-natal depression, and both those services could operate completely confidentially. When a woman went through the door of that building, everybody—including, importantly, their partners—thought they were going in for a bit of a playgroup. It meant that they could get advice, information, support, guidance on developing a new life and economic support, which was often critical for those women.

Jude has told me of her memories of teaching women how to set up bank accounts and how to organise their finances—things that their abusive partners had never let them have any control over. Their domestic abuse support was not just about recovery from emotional, sexual and physical abuse, important though that was. Having free childcare on site provided both the practical support, so that the children were well cared-for, and the confidentiality and the reduction in stigma that allowed them to move on to safe lives. I pay tribute to my friend Jude and many others who did similar things in Sure Starts across the country. As a domestic abuse specialist, I was grieved greatly to see all those specialist services gradually shut down as Sure Starts across the country were reduced.

My hon. Friend has tempted me to tell a story about a young woman who came to me when I was a member of the council. She had many of the problems that have just been described. I said, “One of the things you could do is go to the neighbourhood centre and meet people, because they have childcare people and things like that.” She said, “Okay, I might do that.” Her entire life was home, school, shop, home, and all of a sudden she had an extra place to go. She eventually got into employment. I found her at the till in Tesco, not buying but working, and she recounted the fact that she had come to see me. Such opportunities are absolutely critical.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for adding that example from his caseload. I could tell many a story of people I worked with in Sure Start centres across the country who had similar tales to tell about having that stigma-free, confidential safe space in which their children could be cared for, but with other services wrapped around it. That was transformative for women’s lives, and it grieves me greatly to see them gone.

I have several questions for the Minister. I believe he is an honourable gentleman who wants the best for children and families across the country. I have asked Treasury Ministers and other Children’s Ministers—not this Minister—about funding for early years, and I have not really got satisfaction. There is a tendency for each to refer me to the other side. I raised early years childcare funding two weeks ago on the Floor of the House when the Education Committee presented its report on the subject.

I will ask the Minister a few questions. First, what will his Department do about the exclusion and complexity of the current system, particularly for women and lone parents, that other hon. Members have described? Secondly, what will he do about the difficulties for lone parents in getting childcare and its impact on their getting training and job interviews? That is critical for getting lone parents, who are often skilled but unable to work owing to childcare problems, back into employment. Thirdly, has his Department carried out a gender impact assessment of the current childcare system? Fourthly, has his Department assessed the impact of the system specifically on low-income families? Fifthly, has his Department had time to review the Select Committee report? It is not all about funding; there are related issues.

I plead with the Minister to consider what has been said today. The impact on families of high quality childcare that is free or affordable at the point of delivery is immense.

As ever, my hon. Friend champions the people of Bristol West and those in our society who most need help and are most vulnerable. Does she agree that the Department for Education could learn from what is happening in Wales? The Welsh Government announced yesterday a 30-hour offer and investment in 150 new or redeveloped childcare centres, to ensure that all working families benefit. It will not be based on income but on genuine need, which will be met via Government intervention. That shows the difference that a forward-thinking and progressive Labour Government can make.

I applaud the Welsh Government and I look forward to seeing the impact of that, which may have lessons for the UK Government.

I believe that, like the Labour party, the UK Government want to champion people getting into work. We are the Labour party—the clue is in the name—but the Tory party also says that it wants people to be in good quality jobs and to be able to do those jobs without constantly worrying about what is going on at home or about childcare, or about not being able to make it to childcare. I have heard that as a Whip, when people I am whipping say to me that they need to leave before a vote otherwise they will not be able to pick their child up from childcare. That is manageable as a Member of Parliament—just.

I urge the Minister to answer my questions and those of other hon. Members, and to recognise the economic and social value of free childcare to the entire country.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as always, Mr Davies, and I thank you for your forbearance, as I did not intend to sum up the debate, hence I am sat next to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in our usual season ticket seats. I extend my sincere congratulations to the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) on securing the debate and, on behalf of my party, I wish him all the best for the impending arrival of his next child.

It has been an excellent debate. The hon. Gentleman gave a thorough speech and spoke about some of the economic arguments—that more people in work means more people paying tax and increased productivity. I certainly agree. He also challenged some of the gender inequality, which I thought was a powerful point. The hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) has a strong track record of speaking in debates on family issues. He spoke powerfully about early intervention, which I definitely agree with. He also spoke about the need to pay nursery staff better and about some of the impacts of current pay rates, such as the high level of staff turnover. I shall come on to my experience of that.

The hon. Member for Strangford spoke about his experience of employing six staff, five of whom are women, and the need for employers to be flexible. He has obviously grasped that as an employer. We, as Members, are all employers, and we know that it is better for staff productivity if we can be flexible. He also spoke about the mysterious Strangford speechwriter, who I think will be the only person furious that this week’s recess was cancelled because it means their having to write more speeches for the hon. Gentleman as he continues with his impressive speaking record.

The hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) spoke powerfully about his experience, particularly in the Bill Committee. He gave a fair critique of the Government’s policy and particularly the link to the gig economy—an additional dimension to the debate that I do not think anyone else raised. He, too, hammered home the need to pay nursery staff better; I want to come to that later. He also spoke powerfully about something that I see in my own case load—the need to support in particular parents of disabled children. I would like to hear the Minister refer to that point when he winds up the debate.

Lastly, the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) spoke about childcare for people attending job interviews and some of the social costs associated with childcare. She also spoke about her experience of seeing how things in the Netherlands work, particularly the equality between men and women. That is another issue that I want to come to. Finally, she spoke about some of the challenges experienced by lone parents.

At the outset of my remarks, I should probably, like the hon. Member for Bristol North West, declare a personal interest, in that I am already a beneficiary of free childcare for my son, Isaac, who since August last year has been part of Glasgow City Council’s expansion of nursery provision.

I want to break my remarks into three sections. First, I want to give the context of what we are doing in Scotland to try to revolutionise childcare. We have heard from Northern Ireland, Wales and England, so to complete the set, I will speak about Scotland. Secondly, I want to talk about some of the data picked up by CHANGE—Childcare and Nurture Glasgow East—which is a lottery-funded project in my constituency. Finally, I want to touch on one or two of the key challenges in this policy area.

The hon. Member for Bristol North West very eloquently set out the situation in the context of England, so I thought that it might be helpful if I set the scene in Scotland. The Scottish Government are pressing on with the implementation of their commitment to double the entitlement to funded early education and childcare for eligible two-year-olds and for all three and four-year-olds, taking that up to 1,140 hours by August 2020.

My own son, who attends a Scottish Gaelic-medium nursery, is already at nursery from 8 am to 1 pm five days a week, and my wife and I have greatly valued the flexibility that the current system allows us. As parents, we were able to decide whether we wanted him to attend for five half-days or whether it might be better to block-book two and a half days a week. In the end, because of my role as an MP and hers as a teacher, we decided that it would be best to spread the care over five days, but it was good to have that choice, which meant that we could tailor the care to our needs as a family. It is estimated that, in essence, the current investment in early learning and childcare is saving each family approximately £4,500 per child each year. That is certainly good news for families in my constituency of Glasgow East.

Having set the scene, I want to turn to some work that has been undertaken by an organisation doing work in my constituency and funded by the Big Lottery Fund. In a debate such as this, it is important that we look at the challenges, as well as the opportunities, that the provision-of-childcare policy will provoke. Although we have the ambitions that have been stated, there are also challenges, as I think we would all accept.

First, I know from my own constituency casework and the data collected by CHANGE that there are still challenges with nursery provision for children aged from zero to two. Fundamentally, fewer places are available and waiting lists are much more common. In the Parkhead area of my constituency, there are some outstanding nurseries, but there are serious supply and demand issues, on which I am currently lobbying Glasgow City Council; I hope that we might see action before long. When I met Anthony O’Malley from CHANGE, I was concerned to learn about the limited availability of childminders in my constituency, and it is now down to single figures. Certainly when I was a child growing up in the east end of Glasgow in the 1990s—I feel a bit strange talking about growing up when it was not that long ago—childminding was much more prevalent. We ought to be asking ourselves why the provision of that hugely beneficial service has declined in such a short time.

Secondly, childcare providers and families told the project that there is a need for more out-of-school care places in the area, especially in and around Parkhead. Perhaps an unintended consequence of the offer of extended nursery provision, coupled with the very well deserved increase in pay for child development officers in Scotland, is the concern that after or out-of-school care services may see an exodus of staff who see working in the nursery sector as a bit more attractive.

That brings me rather nicely to the final point that I wanted to touch on during the debate. It concerns general workforce and recruitment challenges for the expansion of early years provision. As a result of the ambitious plans to increase the offer of free childcare, we clearly need to recruit more child development officers.

Four or five months after I was elected, I attended a Scottish Government event at Tower View nursery in the Craigend area of my constituency. The event was a media launch of the campaign to recruit up to 11,000 additional staff to meet increased early years provision. One thing that struck me that day as I was going round carving pumpkins and meeting all the lovely children was the fact that we are still not getting it right in terms of seeing more men working in the sector; we perhaps need to do a little more to attract men to work in the nursery sector. Clearly, the debate around early years provision has moved more towards nurture, but I am not sure we are getting the balance right. I make that point as an observation and ask the people reflecting on these proceedings to consider that, because in Scotland only about 4% of the workforce in early years daycare provision is male. As we look to inspire children, we should look at role models, and perhaps we are not getting it right when 96% of the workforce is female.

I will finish where I started by talking about my own son’s experience. I want to say a massive thank you to all of the staff at his nursery who go the extra mile every single day and have a massive and hugely positive impact in shaping our little boy and how he perceives the world. We would all agree that that is a noble and rewarding profession, and I hope that many more people consider it as a career in the future.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. May I begin by saying how apt it is to be discussing childcare and early education this week when many Members and, perhaps more unfairly, the staff who work in this place will have had to organise last- minute and probably premium-cost childcare because of the late-notice recess cancellation? I am pleased to see the Minister stepping in for the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). Perhaps he is not here because he has a childcare problem, or perhaps, as the papers suggest, he is skiing. We wish him well and hope he comes back in one piece.

I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), who secured the debate and is a young father himself. I congratulate him on the fantastic news that another baby is on the way. It has been great to hear submissions from parents in all parties who have talked about their own childcare arrangements and how valuable those are in enabling them and their partners to do their jobs and fulfil their potential.

I will summarise some of the excellent contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West had a passionate and humane approach to what childcare is all about: creating happy, fulfilled families so that children can grow up in brilliant homes where they can fulfil their potential while feeling safe and secure. The extra £1,000—£20 a week extra in pay cheques—would bring happiness and flexibility to families. That money is vital for some families, certainly families on the breadline. For them, if a washing machine breaks down, that £20 could mean going to a food bank or not. It is absolutely imperative that we also look at the wider economic situations for some of the poorest families.

The idea of families selling their cars to pay for childcare is distressing. My hon. Friend’s focus on equality and families having to decide who goes part time and who loses out in their career progression was incredibly powerful. I was also interested to hear about Flamingo Chicks and would like to know more if he will meet me. Also, the focus on gender and class is really powerful. We know that the gender pay gap starts at the beginning when a woman has her first child. Women often never recover from that. In the creative industries—my previous career—we see the awards season and more men than ever winning awards, but why is that? Because women have to make a choice about stepping out of their careers. Then it takes forever to try to catch up. Some never catch up and they just step out permanently.

The disadvantage to women is not only in their earning power through the years, the loss of the opportunity to work and everything that means but in the effect on their pensions—they lose many years’ pension contributions and are more likely to be in poverty in retirement.

I absolutely agree and I will probably pick up later on the idea that, despite the welcome alignment of men and women’s pension age, some women are coming to me and saying, “I can’t look after my daughter’s children, so she can’t go back to work, and I’m having to continue working.” Women Against State Pension Inequality has a case to make about the fact that the inability to find cost-effective childcare is impacting on their families.

We have heard some fantastic contributions. I value the work that the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) is doing with the Education Committee. Let me take a moment to thank him and his colleagues on that cross-party Committee for their report, “Tackling disadvantage in the early years”, which was published last week. I will flag up to the Minister, although I am sure that he will comment on it, the Committee’s observation that the Government’s own policy on 30 hours of funded childcare is

“entrenching inequality rather than closing the gap”,

and the Committee’s recommendation that the Government

“resurrect their review of children’s centres and…explore promoting family hubs as a wider model for provision of integrated services.”

The Committee’s work is absolutely invaluable in trying to close that disadvantage gap.

I welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), including his personal stories about his workforce; his member of staff who sends speeches at 1 am deserves a medal. He, too, mentioned older women who are unable to look after their children’s children.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) celebrated childcare staff, and talked about nursing bursaries and nursing trainees. It is absolutely vital that we enable those people, who are going into incredibly stressful jobs—jobs that we absolutely need—to get the support they need to study, rather than their having to worry about getting a part-time job. My daughter is working in a bar at the moment and she is working alongside a nurse who is working there to top up her salary, in order to work at night. That cannot be conducive for training, can it?

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) was, as always, a fantastic champion for the single parent, for gender equality, and for childcare. Childcare for those who are training, volunteering or going to job interviews, and for entrepreneurs who are starting up, is absolutely vital. For example, 95% of businesses are run by women and were often started at their kitchen table. They need support, to help them to get their businesses up and running. There is also the magic of Sure Start—we have all said that, have we not?—with that confidentiality, and that opportunity to go in and get support.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), who is no longer in his place, made an intervention. It has been very interesting to hear what Wales and Scotland have on offer; I also welcomed the contribution by the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden). The number of childminders is falling off a cliff and it is really important that we pull that back, and find really great strategic ways to support childminders, because they are the ones providing the wraparound care.

I thank everyone for their contributions today. It goes without saying that free or affordable childcare is fundamentally a good thing. It gives families autonomy over their own decisions; parents, especially mums, can go back to work and work the hours they wish to, within a timeframe that suits them. We know that so often the greatest barrier to accessing childcare is the cost, so we should always applaud efforts to bring the costs to parents down.

Free and high quality childcare has an incredibly positive impact on children. A child’s brain grows at an extraordinary rate in their first few years of life, and it is so important that children have access to stimulation and learning. Our collective aim should be that as many children as possible receive high quality early years education.

However, all is not well. The Government have introduced 30 hours of free childcare, a flagship policy in this area, but there are problems. The 30-hour policy excludes children whose parents are out of work. Those people’s children, many of whom would benefit the most from free childcare, are exactly the children who are being cruelly excluded from accessing it, through no fault of their own. I believe that is a fundamental flaw in the policy, and we may not understand the repercussions of that decision for a long time to come.

This term, more than 200,000 three and four-year-olds will receive that free childcare; that is 200,000 children who are entitled to double the support of their future classmates. They will arrive at school potentially having received hundreds more hours of learning than their more disadvantaged peers. We would not accept such exclusion in primary, secondary, or any other form of education, and I would like it to end for early years too.

Maintained nurseries are one part of the early years sector that does incredible work with children from disadvantaged areas. There has rightly been a huge amount of recent debate and discussion about those schools, because they are often the standard bearers for the sector. Wherever they are present, standards across the board are improved. I know the Minister realises how essential it is that those schools receive news about their funding as soon as possible. We have been told not to expect that news until the next financial review, but chatter suggests that an announcement could be made as soon as the spring statement. I do not expect the Minister to announce the funding today, but if he could shed some light on when the Department expects to make that announcement, I, Members, schools and concerned parents would be extremely grateful.

According to Members, charities, settings, think-tanks, Select Committees—just about anyone other than Ministers—the 30-hours policy needs more investment to work how we want it to. Local authorities are given an hourly rate that is set by central Government and passed on to providers for the hours that they look after eligible children. Regrettably, in too many circumstances the funding falls short of what is required to provide good quality childcare. Sector analysts Ceeda estimate that there is currently a £616.5 million shortfall in the private and voluntary early years sector. Providers are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are struggling and sometimes unable to make ends meet, so they pass on extra costs to parents in other ways.

Since the policy was introduced I have consistently warned of the havoc facing providers, but it has never felt as if those concerns have been taken seriously by the Department. The weight of evidence is becoming undeniable. The Early Years Alliance—formerly the Pre-school Learning Alliance—published a survey of more than 1,600 early years practitioners in September 2018, in which four in 10 childcare providers said there is a chance that they will have to close their setting in the next academic year due to the funding—or under-funding—of 30 hours’ free childcare. Eight in 10 providers said that there will be a somewhat or significantly negative impact on them if the funding rate stays the same next year. It has since been confirmed that only two councils will receive an increase in funding in April 2019. Thirteen will see a decrease, and the rest will have no change.

Will the Minister, when he responds to the debate, say whether any cross-Government discussions are taking place to increase funding for providers? What assessments are being carried out to ensure that parents are not paying for supposedly free hours of childcare through the back door? If those conversations are not happening, is he willing to facilitate a committee of providers—not just the big names, but childminders and small providers—to examine the day-to-day problems they face?

I am running out of time and I wish to give the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West an opportunity to respond to the debate. Briefly, however, let me mention a part of the sector that I am interested in—co-operatives. As Members will know, I sit as a Labour and Co-operative party MP. I have visited a number of co-operatives, and I am convinced we need to support them further. Co-ops allow time-rich but cash-poor families to contribute. They invite parents’ skills into the setting, and in return, parents get a say in how that setting is run. Those settings have huge potential, and in the spirit of co-operation I will conclude by saying that I will happily work with the Minister and his colleagues if he would like to explore ways of supporting co-ops.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) on securing this debate and his welcome news—and the interesting way he introduced it.

I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on childcare support. It is a pleasure to stand in for the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who I understand is seeing family in Washington DC, which is appropriate, given the debate on families that we are having.

I think the truth is that Members here violently agree on the importance of high quality childcare. Evidence shows that high quality childcare supports young children’s development and helps to prepare them for school. Affordable and convenient childcare gives parents the ability to balance work and family life, allowing them to enjoy the benefits of a job, safe in the knowledge that their children are in good hands.

When the Labour party left office in 2010, only 15 hours of free childcare was available for three and four-year-olds. It was the Conservative-led coalition Government that introduced free childcare for two-year-olds from disadvantaged families. Early education from the age of two has long-lasting benefits for children, and we believe that it helps to promote a child’s emotional, cognitive and social development.

However, evidence shows that, on average, disadvantaged families are less likely to use formal childcare provision than more advantaged families, which is why the Government introduced 15 hours of funded early years education for disadvantaged two-year-olds in September 2013. Eligibility was expanded in September 2014 to include children with a disability or special educational needs from low-income working families, or who have left care. Our balanced approach to managing the public finances enabled us to do that. The extended learning programme for two-year-olds has been popular with parents. Local authorities reported in January last year that 72% of eligible parents nationally took up their entitlement to a place. That is a significant increase from 2015, when the figure was 58%.

A year and a half ago, we also doubled the childcare entitlement of working parents of three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week. On the point made by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), only working parents are eligible for those additional 15 hours; the first 15 hours are universally available for parents of all three and four-year-olds. In its first year, the 30 hours of free childcare, alongside the Childcare Choices website and the childcare calculator, helped more than 340,000 children to take advantage of more high quality childcare, with savings for parents of up to £5,000 a year. Again, the Government’s balanced approach to the management of the public finances and the economy enabled us to do that and to provide that benefit to parents.

Independent evaluation of the first year of the 30-hours entitlement found more than a quarter of parents reporting that they had increased their working hours as result, with 15% of parents saying that they would not be working at all without the extended hours. Those effects were stronger for families on lower incomes, helping to fulfil our commitment to help disadvantaged families and to boost social mobility. Furthermore, surveys of parents highlight the impact that the 30 hours can have on parents’ working patterns, with a majority of parents reporting that the 30 hours have given them more flexibility in the hours that they can work, and a small but significant proportion of mothers reporting that the 30 hours had led them to enter work or to increase their hours.

The evaluation report quoted one parent as saying:

“By doing four days now instead of three…my company looks at my development and progression in a way that they wouldn’t if I was only doing three days.”

Some 86% of parents reported that they thought that their child was better prepared for school as a result, and 79% felt that their family’s quality of life had improved. The latest study of early education and development—SEED—report, published last year, also points to the clear evidence of the benefits of high quality early education for the cognitive and emotion development of all children aged two to four.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) asked for a commitment to support the most disadvantaged children, but that has been the driving force behind all our education reforms since 2010. On early years education, more than a quarter of children finish their reception year without the early communication and literacy skills that they need to thrive. The Government have ambitious plans to halve that proportion over the next 10 years. The Department is working closely with the sector to deliver on our commitment to reform the early years foundation stage profile. The reforms are an important opportunity to improve outcomes for all children, but especially to close the word gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. We know that the gaps can emerge much earlier in a child’s life, well before they enter reception. That is why we recently launched a capital bidding round of £30 million to invite leading schools to come forward with projects to create new high quality nursery places for two, three and four-year-olds. Those are the reasons why the Government are investing more than any other in childcare. We will spend around £6 billion a year on childcare support in 2019-20—a record amount.

In my contribution, I referred to the take-up figure of 91,000. The number that could take up the scheme is 417,000. I asked what the Government are doing to bridge that gap and ensure that people take up the scheme.

I will come to that point in a moment. We believe that the take-up of all the different schemes has been very high, but we always want to do more to ensure that it continues to increase.

The introduction of 30 hours has been a large-scale transformational programme, and such change can be challenging, but tens of thousands of providers have none the less responded to make it a success, because of their ongoing commitment to helping families. The evaluation of the introduction of the 30-hour entitlement found that three quarters of providers delivering free entitlement places were willing and able to deliver the extended hours with no negative effects on other provision or the sufficiency of childcare places. Almost two thirds of providers offered full flexibility with free choice to parents on when they could take the extended hours. Overall, we are already starting to see how the 30-hour entitlement is making a difference to families across the country.

The childcare market in England consists of a diverse range of provider types, allowing parents real choice in their childcare provision. The supply of childcare in England is generally high quality, with more than nine in 10 providers rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. There are strong indications that supply can meet parent demand for Government-funded entitlements. Nearly 79,000 private childcare providers were registered with Ofsted in August 2018 and more than 7,500 school-based providers, including maintained nursery schools, were offering early years childcare.

While there are some examples of providers closing, as the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) pointed out, there is no evidence of widespread closures in the private and voluntary childcare market. The latest official Ofsted data, published in December 2018, showed that the numbers of childcare providers on non-domestic premises is fairly stable over time, showing a marginal 2% decrease compared with 2012. Providers joining and leaving the Ofsted register is normal in a private market and can be due to a variety of reasons. In fact, more non-domestic providers joined the register between 31 March 2018 and 31 August 2018 than left.

Will the Minister accept that in order to keep the lights on, some smaller nurseries have had to ask parents for top-ups, such as baking birthday cakes and selling them, or even taking in ironing in order to keep their business going?

These issues are always raised. While there are some examples of providers closing, there is no evidence of widespread closures in the private or voluntary childcare sector. As important as the availability of places is, I am pleased that the quality of childcare providers remains high, with more than nine in 10 rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. In January 2018, more than 1.2 million children under five were receiving funded early education in settings rated good or outstanding. We continue to support growth in the childcare sector. As part of that, we have allocated £100 million in capital funding to create extra high quality childcare places.

Maintained nursery schools were mentioned in the debate. They provide high quality early education and support some of our disadvantaged children. I have seen that for myself in my constituency. In order to allow the hon. Member for Bristol North West to make some final remarks, I take the opportunity to again thank him for securing this debate. High quality childcare provides crucial support for children’s development and prepares children for school. The free childcare entitlements being provided by so many impressive providers are backed by record levels of Government spending.

I thank all Members for their contributions today. Like all parents and providers across the country, I look forward to seeing the Government’s words turned into actions.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the costs and benefits of free childcare.