Skip to main content

Childcare Payments Bill

Volume 758: debated on Wednesday 17 December 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what specific estimates they have made of the impact of the Childcare Payments Bill on maternal employment rates and the level of income tax paid by working mothers.

My Lords, the Government expect a positive impact on both participation in employment and hours worked as a result of the Childcare Payments Act, although it is not currently possible to quantify this, given the lack of recent literature evidence for the UK. Further evaluation of the evidence around employment effects can be found in the recently published updated impact assessment available on the parliament.uk website.

I thank my noble friend for his typically detailed reply. I wonder whether he is aware that the Select Committee on Affordable Childcare, on which I serve, has been requesting an answer to that question from the Treasury for some months. The committee has been deeply disappointed by his department’s apparent inability—refusal, even—to provide a Minister to give evidence before it, even though the Exchequer Secretary has specific and named responsibility for childcare, women and the economy. Would my noble friend, whose own accountability credentials are impeccable, care to comment on his department’s understanding of parliamentary accountability, it being the season of good will?

Thank you for that. My Lords, it is standard practice that Treasury Ministers appear before only the Treasury Committee and the Lords Economic Affairs Committee when specific Treasury policy leads. I personally regret that, but I failed completely to get my Treasury colleagues to see the error of their ways.

My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a member of the Affordable Childcare Committee. Does the Minister agree that matters of children and families should be cross-departmental as well as cross-party? Does he not therefore think it disgraceful that the Affordable Childcare Committee could not attract a Minister or anyone from the Treasury to comment on our proceedings? We lack its expertise on that.

My Lords, as I said, I have considerable sympathy with the noble Baroness’s view. However, when I was on the Economic Affairs Sub-Committee on the Finance Bill, not only did the Treasury refuse under Gordon Brown to send a Minister, it refused to send officials or to answer a detailed letter.

My Lords, I also declare an interest as a member of the committee. Does my noble friend share my concern that, during our deliberations looking at the effect of childcare affordability and availability on maternal employment, we found that there was a distinct lack of research on where the tipping points are for families when they make a decision about whether both parents should work? In the light of that concern, does my noble friend share our frustration that we could not get a Minister there? The Department for Education provided an excellent Minister, who gave us a lot of answers to questions that arose out of his evidence, and that is the advantage of having a Minister in front of you. We did not have the opportunity to do that with the Treasury.

My Lords, I absolutely take that point. However, as my noble friend will be aware, the chairman of the committee wrote to my honourable friend and she replied to the chairman of the committee a couple of days ago, I hope giving useful information which will be for the benefit of the committee.

My Lords, on the issue of childcare, as chairman of a civic welfare and benefits group in Scotland, along with my colleagues in the churches, trade unions, local authorities and charities I visited a food bank in Drumchapel last week. We were informed there that over 25% of the clients were working poor, mostly women with childcare needs. That supports research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which stated last year that there were more working poor in the UK than non-working poor households. Given that situation, if the Government are to live up to their rhetoric of helping hard-working families, is there not a case for Iain Duncan Smith—who, incidentally, visited Drumchapel—to look at this situation urgently so that we can indeed help the working poor and so that the Government can live up to their promises?

My Lords, the Government are doing a whole raft of things to help the working poor. One of the main reasons why the working poor are quite so poor is that they are not working as many hours as they would like to work. One of the interesting findings from recent survey evidence is that nearly a quarter of employed mothers said that they would increase their working hours if they could arrange reliable, convenient, affordable and good-quality childcare. Many of those are exactly the kind of parents to whom the noble Lord referred.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that Treasury Ministers also refused to appear in front of the ad hoc Select Committee on Personal Service Companies, even though that was clearly a Treasury responsibility, and officials were not allowed to appear either. Is this not clearly, whatever the previous precedents might have been, a totally unsatisfactory situation if we are to hold the Government to account? Therefore, if my noble friend cannot persuade Treasury Ministers, should we not have a meeting between the Liaison Committee or the Leader of the House and the Chancellor of the Exchequer? We really cannot go on having matters that we are investigating, which are Treasury matters, with Treasury Ministers refusing to appear or allowing their officials to do so.

My Lords, I would personally welcome any measures that would put more pressure on my Treasury colleagues to appear before your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, on the practical aspects of this Question, does the Minister agree that it is important that not only should the Government support working parents with the cost of childcare, they should also look at ways to help improve access to flexible childcare? What action are the Government taking in this very important respect?

My Lords, the key thing is to increase both the quantity and the quality of the childcare that is available. A welcome development is the fact that a larger number of primary schools are now providing nursery places. Also, the Government have been supporting, by way of grant, individuals to set up as childminders, as a result of which there are now several tens of thousands more places available than was the case a couple of years ago.

My Lords, it may be the season of good will, but there is not much good will on the part of the Government to women. Will he confirm that 85% of the additional cash received by the Government through changes to direct taxes and benefits is in fact obtained from women?

My Lords, that is a figure I have never heard and do not recognise. I would just remind the noble Lord that more women are now in work than ever before, that there is better support in terms of free childcare for young children, that free school meals are provided for all children at a young age and that the pupil premium means, in effect, that families with several young children now get several thousand pounds-worth of direct benefit each year. None of these things obtained under the previous Administration.