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Nursery Provision: South-west England

Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered nursery provision in the South West.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. Every parent in the south-west should be able to access affordable nursery provision for their children, but childcare bills have rocketed to eye-watering levels, all during a cost of living crisis. Some families cannot even access childcare in the first place, as more and more nurseries in the south-west buckle under financial pressures because of a shortage of available staff. There are some marvellous childcare providers in Plymouth and across the west country; I want to thank all those who work in the sector.

Despite the promises and Government rhetoric around childcare, the gap between those promises and the reality is growing bigger. My worry is that the rhetoric hides a really dangerous situation for our nurseries. Spiralling costs and a retention and recruitment crisis mean fewer places, more expensive places and a deepening crisis. All that is inflamed by the geography of the south-west, the challenges of attracting new workers to the far south-west, especially down the peninsula, the rural nature of many of our communities, the higher than average levels of deprivation and a worsening housing crisis, which means that childcare workers often cannot afford to live in the communities where they are needed most.

I am listening carefully to all the causes that the hon. Gentleman has cited for the difficulty that childcare providers have in recruiting staff in his region. Not all of them apply to my constituency in Cheshire, but providers are finding some of the same problems. The community needs such provision, yet it cannot be fulfilled because the sector cannot recruit.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention. We have a concern that is not party political: it is simply about Members of Parliament reflecting the reality that in their constituencies there is a shortage of available staff. That means that there are not enough places in nurseries, so families who want to take up Ministers’ offer of free childcare places are unable to do so. That is the nub of the problem. Nationwide, there are communities experiencing very similar problems.

It is not only nurseries. Before and after-school clubs are experiencing exactly the same recruitment challenge.

I agree. It is a real problem with delivering on the promises that politicians have made. Setting an expectation that parents will be able to access a certain amount of free childcare, as well as wraparound school provision, is a worthy aim to shoot for. The problem is that the delivery is not working in the way it ought to. With big changes only a few weeks away, there is a real concern that promises and delivery are getting further and further apart.

In the south-west, because of our geography, the situation is harder. In the west country, it is harder to recruit every single type of professional—from nuclear engineers to social workers, from teachers to sewage workers. Unbelievably, it is harder because of our geography. Our geography—the beaches, the moorlands, the countryside—is what makes the south-west beautiful, but the rurality, the coastal communities and the distance often work against us when it comes to recruiting the people we need, especially those who work on the frontline, often in roles that are not paid as well as they should be, when we have high prices that make it hard for people to live there.

Last summer, I raised the issue in the House with the Education Secretary and subsequently secured a meeting with her to warn about the childcare crisis in the west country. I brought with me Cheryl Hadland—the owner of Tops Day Nurseries, one of Plymouth’s largest childcare providers—to explain the financial strain that nurseries are under. I have visited many Tops nursery sites across Plymouth, as well as lots of other providers. I have seen the importance and value of play-based learning and have spoken to the brilliant staff and to parents.

Nurseries are a lifeline service. They are a catalyst for parents to return to work and a great start for young children, who learn through play, interact with other children and learn social skills, which are even more important when we look at some of the consequences of covid. Since my meeting with the Education Secretary, yet another nursery in Plymouth has been forced to close, leaving 100 families without childcare, and others tell me that they are on the brink.

The closure of nurseries especially impacts poorer communities. Time is running out for nurseries in those communities. Plymouth is not alone in that respect; this is a problem felt across the south-west and, as we have heard, across the country.

I commend the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right that Plymouth is not alone in this. I will make the case for Strangford, if I can. The average cost of a full-time childcare place in Northern Ireland is now £10,036 a year, an increase of 14% on 2021. Day nursery costs are more expensive: they average £229 per week and are increasing faster than inflation. With the Northern Ireland Assembly returned, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Minister, as a matter of urgency, should undertake discussions with the Education Minister back home to tackle these costs to support the development of children and ease the pressure on families? Quite simply, we cannot go on. If nothing is done, we lose it all.

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention; I have the same concerns for people in Plymouth and the south-west that he has for his constituents. There are structural issues that mean that nurseries share the same concerns no matter what postcode they are in. Across the United Kingdom, it is important that those structural issues are addressed. The best way of doing so is through collaboration, first to identify the issue and then to work out what the solutions could be. I hope the Minister has heard the matter that the hon. Gentleman raised and will respond to it.

Nursery providers face a perfect storm, with rising bills, free childcare funding that does not meet the cost of providing childcare, and a drive for parents to return to work to pay bills in the middle of a cost of living crisis, All the while, nurseries are experiencing a shortage of trained staff, who, with the qualifications and skills that we require of them, can often earn more elsewhere. That is simply an unsustainable position for our nurseries.

I want the Government to act urgently before any more nurseries in the south-west close and before any more children lose their places at nursery. That is why I secured this debate: to put the issue in the public domain and to ask the Minister for more action from his Department to deliver for parents who are desperately short of nursery provision.

During the cost of living crisis, the cost of childcare is hitting families in the south-west hard. It now costs a staggering £15,000 a year on average for a child under two to receive full-time nursery care in Britain, according to analysis by the children’s charity Coram. In fact, parents in Britain spend among the highest proportion of their income on childcare in the OECD.

For some parents, childcare is simply unaffordable. Others have been forced to cut down their work hours because an extra day’s childcare is costing them more than an extra day’s wage. How can that be right? One mother, Shelley, told me that she can only afford to put her two-year-old in childcare part-time, which means that she can only work part-time and she is falling behind on her bills as a result. The Women’s Budget Group network says that 1.7 million women in England would do more paid work if they had better childcare. Finding the economic growth for which we are so desperate in this country comes from better childcare. Childcare is often most expensive for those who need flexible provision, like Tracey, a nurse at University Hospitals Plymouth who got in touch with me.

All the while, families in the south-west are having to contend with rising costs of energy and food, as well as a housing crisis. This matters, because when parents cannot afford childcare, there is a greater strain on their family. It hits children who do not have access to outdoor space at home and prevents a level playing field for children starting school. The Sutton Trust says that the lowest-income children are 11 months behind their peers by the time they start primary school. They do not have a fair start.

We cannot make childcare more affordable unless nurseries are financially viable, but nurseries in the south-west, not least in Plymouth, are struggling to stay afloat. A staggering 886 childcare providers in the south-west had to close in the last year alone. That is a sign not of a market working well, but of market failure. What that means for each family is disruption, worry and probably the extra cost of securing their child a place if they can find other provision. The Roundabout Nursery in Cattedown in Plymouth has just announced that it will shut its doors for good at the end of March, leaving more than 100 families without childcare. I know it did everything it could to stay open, like nurseries across the board facing the same challenges.

This is one of the issues that genuinely keeps me awake at night. The system is not working, and there is no recognition that it is failing. My inbox has been flooded with messages from worried parents who are rightly concerned about finding childcare elsewhere. That area of Plymouth has already suffered other closures. St Jude’s Church Pre-School closed in the face of the same financial pressures that closed the Roundabout Nursery. Staggeringly, parents tell me that they cannot find a place anywhere in the city.

The closure of provision in rural communities can leave parents without childcare options altogether. Melanie, who lives in the rural south-west, writes:

“There is a two-year waiting list for my local nursery. They are so full they won’t even take names on that list.”

How did we end up in this mess?

Nurseries face not only spiralling costs, but a retention and recruitment crisis. Dr Simon Opher in Stroud has been working with a good local playgroup in Uley that has been forced to close because there are no qualified staff in the area to employ. In Filton and Bradley Stoke, Claire Hazelgrove has been in touch with a local mum called Kate. She did everything right. She knew she would be going back to work, so she got a nursery place sorted early on, and everything was set. That was until she heard, just five weeks before her son was due to go to the nursery, that his start date had been pushed back by four months because of a lack of staff. That is an issue right across the south-west.

Again, I stress that it is not the fault of the staff who work in our nurseries. I have never met a more dedicated, warm and generous group of people. They care passionately about the children they care for. The system is not delivering on the objectives Ministers are setting it, so nurseries are facing real struggles to survive.

Another headache for nurseries is that the Government do not provide enough financial support for the free—Government-funded—childcare. The Early Years Alliance says that it is “financial suicide” for nurseries to sign up to provide more free childcare places. Some nurseries in the south-west are now reportedly asking parents for voluntary donations to cover the shortfall in Government funding for free places, and sometimes that donation is compulsory.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. He is making a really strong speech. Yesterday, I spoke to Sue Place, the chief executive officer of the Balsam Centre in Wincanton, which runs Conkers Community Nursery. She has seven infants with special educational needs in her care, but one-to-one funding for just one place. She told me that

“we end up subsidising the state because the Government relies on nurseries to meet these additional costs”.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need more ringfenced funding for education, health and care plans for very young children to avoid nurseries being forced to hike their prices to survive, putting them out of reach for many hard-working families?

I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Member raises a really important issue, which I think all Members across the House will be familiar with. One group of children for whom nursery provision is most essential are those with special educational needs and disabilities, but parents with SEND children often struggle the most to access childcare. According to a BBC report from January, only one in five councils has sufficient childcare available for children with SEND, and one third expect fewer SEND places to be available after the Government’s proposed childcare roll-out than before it. That is not right, and it shows that the roll-out is having a perverse, unintended consequence. I genuinely do not believe that the Minister wants to cut the number of SEND places in nursery provision, but that is the effect that the roll-out is having on some nurseries.

We need to ensure that the message is sent out loud and clear that a child with SEND should have the support to fulfil their full potential. That means not only support in nursery but support in primary and secondary school to ensure that they can be properly assessed for their needs and properly provided for. If the consequence of the changes the Government are rolling out is that fewer SEND children will get the support they need, we are failing more SEND children and failing the families of more SEND children. The consequences of that will be felt not just for the next few years or in the next spending review period, but for the child’s entire lifetime. That is something we should reflect on to see whether this policy is working, because I do not think it is working for parents of SEND children, in particular.

One concern I have is about an inequality in the effect on parents with different income levels. Those who can afford to pay are often in a more favoured position than those who cannot. I do not believe that that was the intention of the Minister or his predecessor when this was originally rolled out, but that is the consequence—effectively baking in an inequality because Government-funded childcare does not cover the cost of the place. That means compulsory top-ups—no matter whether they are framed as voluntary or as being for a certain product—that parents have to pay to secure the place. That means that parents need to have the money to pay for their nursery—pay for that top-up—and that is not right. It means that the very people we should be encouraging back to work, who would benefit most by being back in employment, are struggling most to access the childcare to deliver that opportunity for them and their families.

Nurseries have been left with huge uncertainty because of the extended free childcare roll-out. Bambinos childcare in Plymouth has told me that the funding rates for the new scheme, launching in April, have not yet been released, leaving it with no ability to plan its staffing requirements or speak to parents. One area I would like the Minister to look at is how he can provide certainty for the sector. We know that there is a feeling of vulnerability and of uncertainty and worry, not just from parents but from the people who run the nurseries, who cannot plan their workforce or train people to offer the right provision, because they do not know how much money will be coming in. That uncertainty is really crippling when it comes to having a vibrant and successful sector.

Before I conclude, may I ask the Minister four questions? I would be grateful if, in his response, he could set out what he is doing to stop nurseries closing in the south-west. Are there levels of intervention that his Department can be making to support nurseries in the south-west? Can he guarantee that the Government will deliver on their free childcare promise for every child in the south-west? I note that the Education Secretary rowed back on that promise in the media this week. I would be grateful if this Minister could provide some clarity on what is actually being delivered, because and nurseries need certainty as to what is coming in only a few weeks’ time. Can the Minister set out what he and his Department are doing to reduce the eye-watering cost of childcare for families? Finally, what steps is he taking to tackle the lack of provision in some areas—especially the poorest areas in our region—where nurseries are struggling to survive?

A good local nursery is a lifeline service for families in the south-west, but just as with access to a GP or to an NHS dentist, it is harder for the poorest in our communities to find a good, local, affordable nursery. I know that this is at odds with the language that the Minister uses, but I am raising the issue again today because the people I represent are experiencing real challenges in accessing the help the Minister is claiming to offer. It is not enough to say that free childcare is available if it is not actually available and if, when parents access it, the viability of the nursery is put in doubt. We know that childcare will be an election issue because the system we have is not working well enough, especially for parents on low incomes and those who cannot afford to pay for top-ups.

I genuinely look forward to this debate and hon. Members’ contributions. I know that this concern is shared by not just Labour MPs, and I hope to hear from Conservative MPs as well. I also know that the particular geography of the south-west makes things harder and compounds some of the structural problems that have been experienced nationwide. I hope the Minister will look at our geography to see what support he can offer nurseries in the south-west, in particular.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who represents my birthplace and is, therefore, a fellow Janner, on securing this debate. It is appropriate for the two of us to be speaking today, following on from the joint visit we made last year with the Education Secretary and Cheryl Hadland to raise some of the issues being experienced, not just by Tops Nursery—there are five of its nurseries in Plymouth and one in Torquay, in my patch—but more generally in the nursery sector. We then did a double act for BBC “Spotlight” afterwards, so it is good to reprise that role today.

This is a timely debate, when we look at the changes coming forward in childcare and at some of those that have taken place over the past year. As we know, there are currently three childcare entitlements: the 15 hours universal entitlement for all three and four-year-olds, the 15 hours entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds and the extended 30 hours entitlement for three and four-year-olds of eligible working parents. Within the next two months, the 30 hours entitlement will be extended in stages to children aged nine months to three years. We are seeing a big increase in what will be expected and what will need to be provided physically in our communities. Parents are obviously looking forward to those entitlements being available, but that means that good-quality nurseries need to be ready and able to deliver them.

I am aware of how the funding is provided to local authorities. People might think of my constituency of Torbay as a retirement area, where the focus is more likely to be on those over a certain age—I sometimes reference the fact that 9% of the population in one of my wards is aged 86 or over. However, when one digs into the figures, we also have some of the areas of highest deprivation, and that particularly falls on many working families in parts of our community. People probably would not realise that the Paignton parish is one of the most deprived in the Exeter diocese, because it does not include the areas of retirement in Torbay.

That presents some interesting challenges, particularly when we are talking about recruitment. If many people in the population are aged over 80, they are unlikely to be looking for work in childcare. They are more likely to be retired and looking for care for themselves than providing care elsewhere. That means that, for the size of population, the pool of working-age people in the urban area of Torbay will be slightly smaller than it might be if we had, for example, Plymouth’s age demographics.

As has rightly been highlighted, there are challenges in terms of housing and what makes a pool of workers available. When I had one of my old briefs, people would suggest that having a visa would be a great solution. Well, if we do not sort out housing issues and pay and reward issues and there is no transport—all the things that go with someone being able to sustain a job in early years education—even that visa is not going to provide a magic solution.

That is not to say that there is not good provision in Torbay. There are some long-standing nurseries that offer excellent provision to local people, sometimes in quite challenging circumstances. Sometimes, they very much rely on the fact that they are based in a community-motivated building. For example, Preston Community Preschool is based in Preston Baptist Church, and is able to benefit from the fact that the landlord is clearly not a commercial one and is very community-minded. The long-standing manager there, Susan Gibbons, and her deputy, Terena Cottell, have worked hard for many years to keep that facility going. They certainly do not take the type of rewards that you might expect people with their skills and experience to take, and last year they picked up issues around the funding amount.

There is good provision, but it will be interesting to hear the Minister’s thoughts on how we make sure that provision—and a choice of provision—is available. As some of us have found, we say that parents can choose where they would like to send their children to primary school, but when they move into an area, they realise that they are pretty much being told, “Here is the school with a vacancy in your year group”—and that is that, particularly if their child is entering primary school above reception or entering secondary school above year 7. When we are looking at nursery provision, how do we make sure that parents will generally have a choice? That innately requires some flexibility in the system—not planning that if, for example, 7,000 places are needed, 7,000 places will be provided, but ensuring that there will be some scope. It would be interesting to hear the thinking around ensuring that there is some capacity to allow parents to choose the right nursery provision for their child, in the way that they would want to choose the right primary or secondary school provision.

Torbay is not the lowest funded area, partly due to some of our demographics but, again, there is some funding disparity. It would be interesting to hear some thoughts about how that could be lessened to address some of the costs we have talking about of trying to recruit and retain staff. The nursery sector in Torbay will be competing with sectors such as hospitality for school leavers and people who are looking to start training. I am always particularly interested in what link-ups we have with local colleges. One of my local colleges, South Devon College, is effectively becoming the sixth-form provision for one of the local schools. That is great, and if it works well, it will give people, particularly those from difficult backgrounds, some really good opportunities, potentially with an academy trust, to start at nursery school and be supported all the way through primary and secondary school. After that, they would flow naturally straight into college to get qualifications and then straight into fulfilling and rewarding jobs and opportunities and, crucially, into well-paid careers. That is a great thing. It is about how we make sure that people see this as a new opportunity not just for the pupils and children who will be cared for, but for those who will look to work in this sector.

The debate is therefore very welcome—and welcome in the light of the fact that we need to look at nursery capacities because of the massive extension of eligibility for parents. We should have in the back of our minds the reason for this challenge, which is that many more parents will be able to access childcare following the reforms that the Government are making and the changes that have already been and are due to be implemented.

To sum up, I want the Minister to cover some specific points. What steps are the Government taking to assess the capacity of provision in local areas and regions to meet the expected demand from April, alongside the assessment of capacity nationally? It would be easy to draw a graph showing the number of places and eligible children across England. Clearly, a nursery space in Plymouth will not be of much use to a family in Torbay, and a nursery space in Torbay will not be of much use to a family in Plymouth, so what work is being done particularly at local authority level to identify that capacity is there?

How are the Government working to ensure choice of provision? How do they see family hubs such as those in Torquay and Paignton supporting parents during the roll-out of this provision? In particular, how will the Minister work to achieve consistency of funding?

The changes to childcare entitlements will make a big difference to many children and families in our constituencies, potentially helping the early years development of many thousands of children and setting them up to have the best course and the best start in life. It is just about making sure that that promise is delivered, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reassurances about how he will make that happen.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the chair, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on his expert introduction to the debate. He has covered many points, but it is always good to reiterate them. The debate gives me the opportunity to thank all the childcare providers, the early years providers and the nurseries in Bath. They are doing a fabulous job. We have already heard today how very important it is for a child’s, and, later, a grown-up’s, life that we get early years right. I add my voice to what has already been said, but it cannot be said often enough.

Nurseries are not just somewhere for children to go while their parents work—they are a child’s first education. The first 1,001 days are the most important for children’s development. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for childhood trauma, and we talk again and again about how important early years development is and how the brain starts to develop. Therefore, a safe, fun early educational environment is one of the most important things we can give to a person. Early years spaces allow children to grow and have fun in safe and supportive environments. Getting this right gives children the greatest chance of reaching their full potential in later life.

Early years settings also provide long-term benefits for our economy, as we have heard. They remove barriers to employment and training, particularly for women, and close the attainment gap between children from low-income families and their more advantaged peers. Research shows that 40% of the gap in attainment outcomes is evident by the age of five. But the sector is in crisis. The UK has one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world, and costs continue to rise. We need childcare that is properly funded and genuinely free—not cross-financed by those who can afford to pay the fees or top-ups, because that in itself leads to massive inequalities. Yet the Government have failed to invest in it properly, and the cracks are showing.

My constituency of Bath saw two nursery closures last year alone. That left parents scrambling for alternatives. It is already incredibly difficult to get spaces. Some nurseries do not have spaces until September 2025. One early years practitioner told me that parents have already asked for a space to be saved for 2025 for a child who has not even been born, although they hope a child will be born by then. It is not a sustainable situation. Current levels of funding do not cover the full range of costs faced by nurseries, which include rent and staff salaries, so nurseries are continuing to cross-finance the free childcare spaces that the Government provide.

Even before the pandemic, the early years sector struggled to meet the gap between what the Government pay to cover free hours and their overheads. Fees have soared as a result, and nurseries struggle to continue to pay good wages. Another reason for closures, which is absolutely linked to that, is staff shortages. Another important point is to ensure that people looking at careers see early education as a proper career that is properly paid throughout their professional life. Nursery staff are paid professionals, but are often not treated as others in the education sector are. That is in spite of their role supporting children’s early development and their close relationships with parents and carers. It is an incredibly important relationship. I say that from my own experience 30 years ago. The nursery that my children attended in Liverpool was absolutely wonderful and has set them up for life. I will say that again and again. In fact, I will name-check it here: Monkton nursery in Liverpool, which is still going and still under the same family. However, I know that even they are struggling with all the increasing costs.

The work involves long hours and poor pay, and providers are struggling to find and recruit qualified candidates. To go back to my constituency, one provider in Bath said:

“All these things are linked. If we were funded properly we could pay our staff decent wages, and then they wouldn’t need to leave…and we wouldn’t have a recruitment crisis.”

Nursery provision is an equalities issue. It is dispro-portionately mothers who are forced to choose between caring for their child and their careers. That is an issue I have raised time and again, particularly when I was the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on equalities. It is an equalities matter. In the end, it is mostly the mothers, who then do not go back to work and cannot get on with their careers. That is a very important point that we should not forget. It affects their career trajectory, their confidence and their long-term earning potential.

At the same time, the achievement gap between the richer and poorer, which can best be tackled in early years, is rising. Just one in five families who earn less than £20,000 will have access to the planned expansion of funded places for one and two-year-olds, compared with 80% of households whose incomes are over £45,000. Funding given to early years settings to support disadvantaged children in their cohort is a quarter of the amount given as pupil premium funding to primary schools. That has come at a time when more than a quarter of parents have had to use credit cards and to borrow money and get into debt to afford increasing childcare costs. Nobody should be pushed into poverty for deciding to start a family.

Relaxing staff-to-child ratios is not the answer to any of those problems; nurseries have told me that many times. Many nurseries are worried about decreasing the child-to-staff ratio. The Government have decided to cut corners at the expense of children, rather than properly funding providers. Doing that will not bring down costs. Most nurseries, especially purpose-built nurseries, have been built to accommodate a ratio of 1:4. One nursery can still only take eight children and would need to have two members of staff. If the Government paid providers for the costs that they actually face, they would not need to consider compromising children’s safety in that way.

We need a fast, decisive response to secure the future of the nursery sector. Early years settings and their staff are vital parts of our national infrastructure. Many parents dread their nursery being the next that is forced to close.

I will mention a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) raised, which is that, for us, it is very important to have proper provision for SEND children. I would like to hear a response to that. The Government must provide comprehensive support, starting with raising the rates paid to providers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing this important debate and on all the work he does to advocate for children and families in his constituency. I was delighted to visit Plymouth in November to meet care leavers and those who support them. It was absolutely clear the important role my hon. Friend plays as a strong voice for his constituency.

I am grateful to all the hon. Members who spoke in the debate. Many highlighted the problems experienced in the south-west, but many of those problems are common across the whole country. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport spoke about the problems with recruiting staff, which were also recognised by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and other hon. Members. My hon. Friend also spoke about the rising bills that providers face; funding that does not meet the costs of delivering the provision under the entitlement; the increasing number of families looking to go back to work or to extend their hours; and low pay in the sector.

Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), mentioned the extreme challenges faced by parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities, including the additional and often hidden costs that parents are forced to pay as a consequence of a broken funding model.

Hon. Members also mentioned providers’ inability to plan when the funding rates are not published in a timely manner. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) mentioned issues with the recruitment of staff in his constituency, and the hon. Member for Bath mentioned the unique opportunity, during those crucial early years, to intervene positively and influence the rest of a child’s life with high quality early education and childcare.

Children’s earliest years are crucial to their development and life chances, and many of the factors that contribute to the education attainment gap are already present by the time children start school. Early years education should be focused on ensuring that families have the early support they need to give their children the best start in life, and we should deliver affordable childcare to enable parents to work. I pay tribute to everyone who works in early years education and childcare. They are a skilled and dedicated workforce, who all too often are under-recognised and underpaid for their work. They fall victim to the current hours-based model of childcare funding, which is fundamentally not working for providers or families. For families, it is inaccessible and complex. It does not reflect the reality of their lives and working patterns, nor does it deliver affordability. At the same time, 4,800 providers were forced to close their doors last year due to rising costs, so the current model is not working for them either.

Parents have seen rising costs year on year and growing childcare deserts, where they cannot access the childcare they need. There are now two children for every Ofsted-registered childcare place in England, creating a barrier to parents, particularly women, taking on employment. Both women of childbearing age and women who are grandparents are leaving the workforce because they are being priced out as a consequence of the cost of childcare. As we have mentioned, it is parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities who find it the hardest of all to find childcare places.

The Government have delivered a triple whammy: the most expensive childcare in Europe, an unviable financial model for providers and significant childcare deserts. It is a colossal failure for both families and the skilled professionals who work in early years education. It is clear from speaking to many different people who work in the sector that the policies that the Government have introduced in response to the crisis will not fix the problems. Additional funding is really welcome, but pumping it into a system that is already broken will not deliver the change that families need.

Childcare providers have made it clear that, as things stand, they cannot deliver the expanded entitlement. A survey of 800 providers by the Early Years Alliance found that only 20% of providers that currently offer places to two-year-olds plan to deliver additional places under the expanded entitlement. Another 33% said that they were unsure whether they would deliver any places at all under the new scheme. That is because the expansion was a pledge without a plan to expand the workforce in order to deliver the increased entitlement in a sector already struggling to recruit and retain staff. There is no plan for premises, for which there are rightly strict requirements in the early years sector.

It leaves parents likely to face problems in accessing the places that the Government have promised them. Even the Secretary of State admits that there are problems, although sometimes it is difficult to work out what she thinks. She is unwilling to commit to a guarantee that parents will be able to access the places that they have been promised by the Government from April, so I hope the Minister will at least admit that the Government’s plans are in chaos. It is families who will be let down as a result.

Childcare must be about more than just minding children while their parents work; it should be able to provide every child with a high quality early years education. A Labour Government will be driven by our mission to break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage, including by boosting child development, with 500,000 more children hitting the early learning goals by 2030. Labour is determined that childcare should offer more flexibility, better availability, and high standards for children and families. We will draw on best practice internationally to drive an ambitious and coherent programme of reform, with higher standards in early education, better availability, stronger regulation of providers’ financial sustainability and a clear strategy for the childcare workforce. We have commissioned the former Ofsted chief inspector, Sir David Bell, to undertake a full review of the early years sector and help to develop the detail of our early years plan.

A Labour Government will work with the early years sector to build capacity. We will also work with the sector to ensure that there is a plan for the early years workforce that offers more opportunities through high quality training and recognition for the skilled work of early years practitioners. We recognise that childcare does not end when children start school. We will deliver fully funded breakfast clubs in every primary school to help parents work, provide opportunities for children to play, learn and socialise at the start of the school day, and ensure that every child can access a healthy, nutritious breakfast and start the school day ready to learn.

The most expensive childcare in Europe; childcare providers closing their doors; childcare deserts across the country—that is the Government’s record. That is the experience for communities in the south-west, and it is true for communities across England. This Government have always regarded children as an afterthought and, in doing so, they have failed children and their families. After 13 years, their sticking-plaster solutions will not fix things now. A Labour Government will deliver a childcare system that works for children and their families from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school. We put children at the heart of our programme of Government from 1997 to 2010, and we will do so again.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing a debate on this important subject at this important time. This Government are rolling out the largest childcare expansion in England’s history. By September 2025, we will be providing working parents with 30 hours of free childcare a week, from when their child is nine months old until they start school. By 2027-28, we will be spending in excess of £8 billion every year on free hours and early education, double the amount that we are currently spending.

Let me be clear at the outset that we are confident in the strength of the childcare market in the south-west, and I will explain why. I will start with funding rates, because that has been a strong theme in this debate. We regularly survey a nationally representative sample of over 10,000 childcare providers to gain detailed insights into how they run their provision and the costs they are facing. We also regularly survey over 6,000 parents to understand their use of childcare. We are working closely with local authorities, including all those in the south-west, to support them to deliver the early years expansion from April, when parents will be able to get the first 15 hours for their two-year-olds.

We regularly engage with every single local authority, and we have provided an additional £12 million this year to help them to meet the costs associated with this expansion. We have also appointed a local delivery partner that provides expert advice and support to help LAs with their childcare sufficiency duties. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport asked about support for local authorities. That partner, Hempsalls, physically goes to every local authority any time they are concerned about not having the number of places. It is Hempsalls’ job to work with them, as it has done in the past, to ensure that they have the places they need.

The 2024-25 Government hourly funding rates for all early years entitlements were announced on 29 November. That was slightly later than originally planned because we wanted to incorporate the Government’s near 10% increase in the national living wage and provide additional funding to be able to incorporate that. We are in close contact with local authorities, and we do recognise the need to confirm the rates as early as possible. It has been the case that local authorities could do this until 31 March, and we have been pushing them to ensure that they do it as early as possible. Almost all have now committed to do so this month, rather than next month. As of 31 January, almost 50 had already published their final funding rates. Where they have not, they have usually provided indicative rates that then need confirmation, sometimes from school forums or their cabinet, depending on the local authority. We are confident that all providers will at least know their indicative local rates over the next couple of weeks.

I also announced on Friday that, to stop this happening again—because I have nothing but sympathy for providers waiting on their rates from local authorities—we will take further steps and introduce a window, likely to be a maximum of eight weeks, within which local authorities will have to confirm their rates once we have announced them. It is our intention for local authorities to have eight weeks from whenever we announce the rates, and we are working with them on exactly what is required to enable them to do that.

It is the case, however, that we have given significant increases in the rates paid. To take Plymouth, the three and four-year-old rate has increased in the last couple of years from £4.95 to £5.65; the two-year-old rate has gone from £5.57 to £8.08; and for under twos, £11 will be the new rate. Those are significant increases in the rates paid and compare well with what many parents pay for provision privately.

The estimated number of registered childcare places in the south-west specifically increased by 3% between 2022 and 2023, from 128,782 to 132,981. That compares with a 1% increase in registered places across England as a whole, which we were pleased with, but it is even better that the south-west stands at 3%. The south-west also has a higher take-up rate of the entitlements compared with the national average. As of January 2023, take-up of our disadvantaged two-year-old entitlement was 78% in the south-west compared with 74% nationally. Take-up of the universal entitlement for three and four-year-olds was 95% in the south-west, compared with 94% nationally. Provision is high quality as well, because as of 31 December, 97% of early years-registered providers in the south-west region had a “good” or “outstanding” rating. That is in line with national averages, but the south-west had a slightly higher percentage of outstanding settings, at 15% compared with 14%. That is all good news.

Turning to recruitment, we need to grow the workforce as we roll this out over the next 18 months, so that we have the required places. That is why we phased the implementation of the new entitlements to make sure that providers could develop the capacity they needed. In the spring Budget, we announced an additional £288 million for 2024-25 and £204 million for 2023-24 to fund the new early years and childcare entitlements. That is in addition to the £400 million we announced in November, in part to incorporate the new increase in the national living wage.

There have been some suggestions of difficulties in achieving sufficient places nationally. Our annual survey of childcare and early years providers showed that the total number of paid staff in England increased by 4% between 2022 and 2023. We also had a 15,100 increase in places. Those positive figures are lost in a lot of the stories I see and a lot of the speeches I have heard today. I do not underestimate the challenges of the roll-out, but we feel confident in it, because we are pulling every lever we can and are already seeing positive progress on those headline figures.

To support the sector to recruit, on Friday we launched a new national campaign, “Do something BIG. Work with small children”. The campaign shines a light on the great careers available in the sector and recognises the lifelong impact that childcare professionals have on children during their most formative years. It will run across TV, cinema, social media, online, radio and billboard advertising. There is also a new website to help people find out more about gaining qualifications, search for existing vacancies and consider the different types of roles available. Part of the campaign also involves the piloting of financial incentives. In 20 local authorities, eligible joiners and returners can receive a tax and national insurance-free payment of up to £1,000 shortly after they take up their post.

On retention, we all know it is important not just to recruit but to retain staff. As well as significant uplifts to the rates and the increase in funding to meet the national living wage increase, we are working closely with providers to ensure meaningful career development and professional support for people in the sector. As I have said, I am open to any ideas that providers have about what we can do, in addition to what we have done to the early years foundation stage and so on, to make it easier for them to hire and keep the staff they need.

A number of Members raised important points about children with special educational needs. Just this morning I met with Dingley’s Promise again, which does great work in that area. We are working closely with local authorities to make sure there are places for children with SEND. We increased the early years pupil premium to the equivalent of £388 per eligible child per year to support better outcomes for disadvantaged children. Funding for the disability access fund, which is an additional payment to help to make reasonable adjustments within the provision to support eligible children with a disability, is increasing to £910 per eligible child per year.

There are around 60,000 different providers in the early years sector, largely made up of private, voluntary and independent organisations, which set their own rates of pay. We are providing additional funding to help with entitlements, giving more opportunities to increase staff pay and ensuring a phased implementation to allow the market to develop the capacity it needs. In October, we announced a series of changes to the early years foundation stage to make it easier for providers, based on things they told us they would like to see.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) was right that it is important to look at this by local authority, not by region, and that is exactly what we are doing. He is right that we want to have a choice of provision. There are interesting things going on in the early years market. For example, there has been at least a 20-year decline in the number of childminders, based on the choices that parents are making and so on. He is absolutely right that different parents want different things. In our recruitment strategy, we are trying a range of different things. We have early years bootcamps to support apprenticeships. We will hold a consultation on what more we can do to get more childminders into the sector, and we already have a childminder grant scheme to support parents to have choice wherever possible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Torbay asked about family hubs. I have been to family hubs that have nurseries within them. It is the central aim of family hubs to provide whatever services families need. That will include advising people on their childcare options. If there are any points I have not covered, I will write to my hon. Friend or other Members.

I want to leave the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport a couple of minutes to wind up, so I will conclude. I thank him for securing this important debate. As my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay alluded to, the Government are delivering the latest and largest expansion of childcare. Once completed, it will help families with one of the biggest cost pressures they are facing today, saving working families up to £6,500 a year and helping an estimated 1.5 million people to increase the number of hours they work. I look forward to working with Members present to deliver this transformative expansion.

I am grateful to all Members who have spoken in the debate. The hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) and I double-act on this issue, because it matters cross-party. The hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), for Somerton and Frome (Sarah Dyke) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) have also contributed to the debate. I am also grateful to the Minister and the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes).

This is a genuine concern, and it is only getting worse. I am grateful to the Minister for setting out all the methods and initiatives he is rolling out, and I am interested to see if any of the 20 pilots that he has announced are in the west country—perhaps he could write to me with that information. But the gap between the lived experience of many providers in the south-west and what the Minister has set out is quite stark. The route to finding a solution matters. It is something I wish him well on, because I want a solution that happens almost immediately, given the crisis that people are facing, not one that matters only after a general election.

I encourage the Minister to listen to the experiences of the providers, who are genuinely saying, notwithstanding the words he has said, that they are facing collapse and cannot afford the provision he is saying they offer. That will have a consequence for parents who are looking for childcare to deliver a better life for their families. Where we are united is in wanting everyone to have a good start in life. Where we differ is in our understanding of where this issue is today, so I encourage him to continue to listen. He would be welcome to come to Plymouth and see what the challenges are in the west country. I look forward to continuing to make the case for all our nurseries and that all our children deserve a good start in life.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered nursery provision in the South West.

Sitting adjourned.