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Children: UNICEF report

Volume 706: debated on Thursday 18 December 2008


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to Report Card 8—The Childcare Transition, published by UNICEF on 11 December.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as a trustee of UNICEF UK.

My Lords, the Government are passionate about helping children to reach their full potential and about eradicating child poverty. We are proud of the progress we have made through our childcare strategy. We recognise that we have more to do. Our relationship with UNICEF is important to us but we are concerned that the report does not reflect our major achievements and falls short of the high standards of accuracy that we expect from the organisation.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. I hope she will accept that organisations sometimes have to take OECD data that are not as up to date for every country as they are for some, and I hope she will recognise that UNICEF has recognised the Government’s commitment to young children. However, what about parental leave? Does she accept that remuneration, as well as duration, is crucial regarding whether parents can afford to take the full amount of leave to which they are entitled and that this is important for the cognitive, social and emotional development of their babies? Do the Government have any plans to increase the level of remuneration for both parents so that they can spend that important time with their babies?

My Lords, the Government made their plans clear in the recent pre-Budget announcement. We intend to continue making significant investment in childcare and support for parents. I accept the noble Baroness’s assertion that the financial position of parents is extremely important in allowing them to support their children. That is why we have worked so hard to promote child tax credits to 450,000 lower and middle income families. I will look carefully at what plans we have on parental leave, but she must accept that we have made real progress in supporting parents to take the time off that they need to look after their children when they are young.

My Lords, given the Government’s commitment to childcare provision, why has the United Kingdom fallen behind countries such as Slovenia and Hungary in achieving the benchmarks laid out in UNICEF’s report, managing only five out of the 10 benchmarks?

My Lords, I would not say that we have fallen behind. If we were to look carefully at how the benchmarks are defined we might find that this country deserves a further three benchmarks, which would put us on a par with France and Denmark. I do not really wish to be lectured by the party opposite on the question of childcare because I can remember a time when it felt that childcare was very much a private matter and not something that the Government should invest in.

My Lords, given the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about the need for both parents to be supported in their role and in view of the fact that very little flexitime is given by employers to male parents, what do the Government intend to do to encourage a better response from employers in this direction?

My Lords, it was in the Times that the role of fathers in childcare was picked up. The UNICEF report does not look very carefully at the role of fathers as parents. The noble Baroness is right because it is not until both parents have the opportunity to fulfil their potential as parents that we will see children benefit from the maximum potential of quality childcare. There is therefore a great deal more that we can do as government. We do a lot of work to promote positive parenting through more than 2,900 children’s centres around the country. We are committed to make sure that we have a children’s centre in every community.

My Lords, given the importance attached by the report to high quality care in those early childhood settings, how far is the Minister encouraging graduates to go into childcare in order to improve professional development in those settings?

My Lords, it is our ambition that a graduate should be taking a leadership role in every early-years setting. It will take us some time to get there, but we are investing significantly in developing the children’s workforce, including early-years staff. The noble Baroness is right to draw out that question. It is very important that we have high quality people working in these settings.

My Lords, if the Government’s ambition is to have childcare all around the country and they have not yet achieved it, why are they encouraging single parents with children between one and five to get into work?

My Lords, we need to make it clear that it is this Government’s expectation that lone parents should work where they have the opportunity to do so and quality childcare is available. It is in the interests of their children because of its impact on child poverty. As we know, the intergenerational effect of child poverty is marked. Ninety-five per cent of three year-olds and four year-olds in this country now take up free early learning and childcare, which was never available in the past. We are also piloting an entitlement for two year-olds to have access to the new early-years foundation stage. These are transformational changes in the availability of childcare places, which has doubled in recent years. We are not expecting anyone to go out into the workforce where we are not doing our best to provide adequate and appropriate childcare.

My Lords, are the Government satisfied that the training of social workers and other professionals involved in childcare is adequate to their task, or does that training remain bedevilled by the gender, race and class agenda?

My Lords, the Government feel strongly that we need to do an enormous amount of work to embed the improvements that we have made across the board in the children’s workforce. The noble Lord referred to social work. Last week, we established a joint task force with the Department of Health to take an end-to-end look at the profession, from recruitment and retention to training, and higher education, too. How we can improve and develop further the training of workforces such as those in social work and early years is an important question for us.