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Early Years Services and Childcare

Volume 715: debated on Monday 23 May 2022

We are committed to improving the cost, choice and availability of childcare and early education. We have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on early education entitlements, and up to £180 million on addressing the impact of the pandemic on children’s early development.

Parents of children attending the YMCA community nursery in Bedford are facing unaffordable sevenfold price increases. Rising business costs, huge losses and staff shortages are the consequences of the Government’s funding model, which goes nowhere near funding the costs for nurseries or parents. Does the Minister agree that levelling up means nothing if children cannot access the best start to their education and their parents cannot work because they cannot afford nursery costs?

That is exactly why we spend more than £5 billion a year on childcare and early years, including: the offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds; the offer of 15 and 30 hours for three and four-year-olds, which is worth about £6,000 per child to parents; the universal credit offer, which is worth up to 85% of childcare costs; the tax-free childcare; and the holiday activities and food programme. Of course we take this issue incredibly seriously.

For families with young children, soaring childcare costs are a huge pressure on the cost of living. A quarter of households earning between £20,000 and £30,000 a year are paying more than £100 a week for childcare. The Government’s only response so far has been a proposed cut to staff to child ratios in early years settings. Parents have not asked for that, and 98% of providers believe that it will do nothing to cut costs for parents and could reduce the quality of care. Will the Minister set out why he believes that asking parents to pay more for less is a remotely adequate response to the rising cost of living?

Over the summer, we will consult on moving to the Scottish staff to child ratios for two-year-olds—from a ratio of one to four compared with one to five. I want all parents and carers to receive value for money, and more families to benefit from affordable, flexible and quality childcare. Such changes would help settings to deliver that by handing them more autonomy and flexibility. However—this is important—my priority continues to be to provide safe and high-quality early years provision for our very youngest children; as I have said before, I will not compromise on those things.

More than half of families with two-year-olds do not access any formal early years education or childcare at all, while a shocking 65% of eligible two-year-olds are not receiving the full free entitlement. Early years education makes a huge difference to children’s development and can have a lifelong impact by mitigating disadvantage. What is the Minister doing to increase the pitifully low uptake of free places for two-year-olds?

The hon lady is absolutely right that take-up of the two-year-old disadvantage offer is much lower than we want it to be. In truth, take-up of the universal credit childcare offer is lower than we want it to be and take-up of the tax-free childcare offer is lower than we want it to be. Throughout the House, we all have a duty to promote those offers more widely, and I certainly understand that the House will.

The truth is that even with the billions of pounds that have been spent on childcare, the issue has proved to be a hot mess for Governments of all colours for a number of years. I applaud the Department for trying to grapple with this tricky issue. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he is looking carefully—it is right that he does so—at regulations across the whole of the childcare piece that drive up costs for families, and that he is talking to parents and the childcare sector about that? Will he also confirm that he is looking to support childminders in respect of future changes to regulations?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are working jointly with other Departments to consider options for how to improve the system within the parameters of the 2021 spending review. As I have said, as well as the quality of provision, health and safety will continue to be of paramount importance, and any significant changes to regulations would require consultation. My hon. Friend is right that we need more childminders to enter the market; they are often the most flexible and affordable type of provision and I am looking into the regulatory changes we can make to encourage more of them to enter the profession.