Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 2nd Report from the Delegated Powers Committee, 3rd Report from the Constitution Committee
Clause 1: Duty to secure 30 hours free childcare available for working parents
Amendment 20 not moved.
21: Clause 1, page 2, line 23, at end insert—
“( ) Regulations as described in subsection (5)(c) must ensure that the times available provide sufficient flexibility—
(a) to parents who work outside the hours of 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday; and(b) to ensure that childcare is available during school holidays within the local authority area of the relevant childcare provider.”
My Lords, we are recommencing our discussions on this very important and much welcomed Bill to extend free childcare by 15 hours per week. The purpose of this amendment is to require more explicit flexibility in the provision as outlined. I welcome the Minister’s assurances that there will be flexibility within the provision, but, sadly, that is not entirely clear in the Bill.
What do we mean by flexibility and why is it so important that we have put down an amendment? The Bill would be much improved if it stated that the Government intend to provide 1,140 hours of free childcare per year rather than, as stated in the Bill, 15 hours for each of the 38 weeks of the school year. It would encourage providers to think about the needs of families and their young children. Many parents have non-standard hours of work, often in low-paid work such as cleaning, hotel work or caring for older people, and some parents work shifts, particularly in the nursing profession. All those people would benefit from greater flexibility in the provision. In our view, this will not happen unless there is encouragement and incentive from the Government to do so.
In addition to trying to meet the working hours of parents, there is the additional challenge of providing free childcare during the school holidays: the 14 weeks of the year in which schools are not working. That is a not insignificant problem for many families. In those 14 weeks, they have to try to juggle grandparents, neighbours and other people who willingly give up time to help them manage their working lives and the need to provide childcare—or they have to pay for additional childcare, often, as we discussed earlier in Committee, at a very much increased hourly rate, sometimes as much as twice the rate that is paid by the Government for the so-called free hours. That is a huge challenge for many families. Flexibility during holiday times and enabling families to get out to work in times other than the traditional nine to five, which is the basic provision in the Bill, would be greatly welcomed by many families, particularly those on low pay, on whom I hope this Bill is particularly focused. I beg to move.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 23 and 24. They would place in the Bill the current permitted staff to child ratios for childminders and nurseries. One of the central themes running through the Second Reading debate was concern about the capacity of the early years sector to provide the extra free hours. For example, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham spoke of the strains on providers not in purpose-built facilities who cannot extend their opening hours. My noble friend Lord Sawyer and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, talked of low pay and staff shortages. Many noble Lords spoke of the underfunding crisis in the sector and the limitations of cross-subsidy options. As we know, this point will be part of the Government’s review of the finances of the extension.
The Minister and this side have a difference of view about the health of the sector and its capacity to expand and take on new duties. I sincerely hope that we are proved wrong, but in the mean time, there is concern that the Government will look again at increasing the staff to child ratio as a quick fix to deal with the capacity issues. We believe that these amendments are necessary because of this Government’s public statements and attempts in the past to increase the ratios.
This would be all too easy in the future as the current ratios are in regulations which can be changed by the Secretary of State. We are therefore keen to provide the necessary reassurance and guarantees to parents and professionals alike that the current ratios are safeguarded. Noble Lords will recall that there was a massive outcry across the sector when it was proposed to change the ratios. It was felt that this move would compromise quality and put children’s lives at risk and, as a result, the Government had second thoughts and backed down.
However, there is real concern that with the drive to increase the supply of early years places the Government might revisit the original plan. We believe that the current ratios have stood the test of time in balancing the quality of provision with the cost to providers and therefore parents. Professor Nutbrown, who has advised the Government on early years provision, has made it clear that she would oppose any change in the ratio. She quite rightly makes it clear that good-quality provision is directly related to the qualifications and training of the staff involved, as well as their capacity to relate to the children on an individual basis. This is crucial to the well-being and development of young children.
Our proposals would ensure that a single childminder can care for up to six children under the age of eight, including a maximum of one baby under 12 months and another two children under five. By anyone’s imagination it would be quite a workload and a challenge to provide appropriate care across the age group. I looked after one of my granddaughters, aged 22 months, for part of the weekend and can certainly testify that it was challenging indeed.
There must be one member of staff at a nursery for every four children aged two and three and one for every eight children over the age of three. We would also set out the minimum qualifications for these staff members in regulations. Again, the ratios as they stand sound fairly challenging. But they are necessary not just to support the crucial period of early years development but to provide safeguarding and protection for vulnerable children. Nursery staff already work under considerable pressure and we should not be tempted to add to it. So we believe that it is necessary to protect the current ratios and putting them in the Bill would guarantee that if any changes are proposed in the future they would have to come to Parliament and be subject to extensive parliamentary scrutiny and debate. We believe that that would be the right way forward.
My Lords, might I ask in the context of this debate what the Government mean and we mean by quality in childcare? Is it the quality of childcare only or the quality of childcare and the relationship between the adult and the child? I respectfully submit that one of the most important factors in childcare is the relationship that develops between the child and the carer.
The Government have adopted the early years formula and put a lot of money into it. I think that they are absolutely right to do so, but I suggest that to some extent this Bill in mechanising, as it were, the management of the care of children runs the risk of losing the relationship by which a very young child learns to love, care and interrelate with other human beings. I wonder if the fact that so often we are losing that relationship in the early years is not the cause of some of our troubles in family life later on as the young people get older.
My Lords, I have a good deal of sympathy for some of things said by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, although I would not follow him the entire way. However, while I understand why noble Lords have tried to provoke a debate on regulations—we do need one at some point—at this stage of policy development it is quite difficult because we still have not resolved the underlying issue of the nature of what we are about.
I understand the logic of it, but I am concerned by the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. We already have before us a proposal for the state to provide universal childcare for 1,140 hours a year—although the state will not provide it: the poor old providers in the schools and all the other people will have do that. As we found at Second Reading, that is more than we ask for sixth-formers studying for A-level courses or for pupils studying for their GCSEs. However, we are saying to those three and four year-olds, “Come here and stay for 1,140 hours”. That cannot in any sense all be about education—it certainly is not entirely about the effective relationships that the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, was talking about. Now, on top of that, to say in Amendment 21 that the settings must provide even more than 1,140 hours a year is, if you will forgive the classical allusion, to pile Pelion on Ossa. It is simply not conceivable that under regulation, which applies to everybody who works in this sector—you cannot have some people obeying the regulation, while others do not—these extra hours should be piled on also.
We hear a lot of talk about flexibility, and of course I support that, but again I urge the Committee to recognise that a lot of the women who provide this care and education—and they are mostly women; I keep saying that, but it is true—want their flexibility too. A lot of them are young mothers or grandmothers, and they cannot sit around in these settings at the behest of the state for hour after hour. That is simply not the way things work in the real world. Therefore if we are to have a debate about flexibility, can we please bear in mind the flexibility of the good people who have to provide that service and who have the vocational wish to provide education? I would be very wary about adding to the burden, as this amendment would, and I think my noble friend will be cautious about it.
On the regulation amendments, this may be premature, and I fully understand where the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, is coming from, but there are inherent disparities in the existing regulations. Maintained schools have to provide a lower ratio than private and voluntary providers. I do not quite understand the overall logic for that, but that is what it is. When plans to change the ratios were put forward recently, which I thought deserved a hearing, there was a bit of—what was the word used?—an outcry. However, the reality is that we cannot at once argue that a ratio of 1:13 is fine if you are in a maintained sector, but if you are in a non-maintained sector it has to be 1:8 or less. Clearly, there is room for some discussion about where to fit the right level.
Again, I will be nervous until we see the colour of the Government’s money—or, rather, the way in which this system will work. It is premature in the debate to say that the existing regulations and hours are necessarily the right ones, as they may well not be affordable. There is a trade-off. You cannot have an immensely expensive policy of employment subsidy by providing places for children to be placed while their parents go off and do other things and necessarily do everything at the level you want to. Therefore we have to think about that. Again, however, I underline what I have tried to make my main theme in this Committee; if we are talking about quality, there is a lot out there that is to do with education, such as good learning and advancement of children’s development. In trying to create a single universal policy by regulation, we must not lose sight of the diversity and richness of the educational element of early years care, which certainly cannot take place over a longer period than sixth-formers and GCSE students are asked to support. That is simply not on. I would be nervous about settling on particular regulations just at this moment, but I hope that we will have a chance to have this debate. My noble friend has offered the road to that in later proceedings on the Bill.
My Lords, I would like to speak to Amendments 21, 23 and 24 on the flexibility of the extended entitlement to childcare for working parents. I thank the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock, Lady Tyler and Lady Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, for highlighting this important issue. I hope that the noble Lord has fully recovered from his daughter’s wedding last week.
Enabling greater freedoms and flexibility for providers to meet the needs of parents has been an important part of the steps that we have already taken to help delivery of the existing funded entitlement. The regulatory framework for the early years was thoroughly reviewed in 2012 and unnecessary red tape and burdens were stripped away. Steps have already been taken to ensure that parents can more easily access a place with a willing provider of their choice if that provider meets the quality standards set by Ofsted.
We have enabled and encouraged all parts of the market to grow, because we believe, as my noble friend Lord True pointed out, that diversity in this sector is extremely important. This is being done through, for example, the creation of childminder agencies and enabling childminders to deliver childcare on non-domestic premises, and measures to help school nurseries expand or work in collaboration with private, voluntary and independent providers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, set out in Amendment 21, it is important that the 30 hours of free childcare for working parents of three and four year-olds is made available at times that provide sufficient flexibility to parents working outside the hours of 9 am to 5 pm and during holiday periods. I would like to provide reassurance that there is already flexibility in the system to accommodate both of these. Providers are not constrained to providing the existing funded hours over 38 weeks of the year or during standard working hours. They can instead make a “stretched offer” available. Working-tax credits, universal credit and, later, tax-free childcare will also enable parents to budget and pay for childcare throughout the year.
Under an existing duty, local authorities have to ensure, as far as is practicable, sufficient childcare for working parents who require it. In carrying out that duty, local authorities should take account of the different patterns of demand in the area, which will include childcare out of hours and during the holidays. Local authorities should encourage existing providers to expand their provision and encourage new providers into the market to help parents to find suitable provision. A similar approach is needed for early years provision during the school holidays. It can be less of an issue for parents of children who have not yet reached compulsory school age, but we will continue to work with schools to encourage and support them to extend their nursery offers and hours outside term time.
I turn to Amendments 23 and 24 about adult child ratios for childminders and non-domestic group providers such as day nurseries. All early years childminders and group providers registered on the early years register must meet the early years foundation stage framework requirements around child development and welfare and well-being, including ratio and qualification requirements. The existing ratios give the flexibility to deliver the 30-hour entitlement in a safe, secure and welcoming way that contributes to child welfare and child development. We will not tolerate any provision that is detrimental to this, and provision will be regulated.
As noble Lords will be well aware, the English childcare system has some of the highest adult-child ratio requirements in the world. The current ratios and qualifications for early years childminders, group providers and the additional requirements referred to in the amendments are already set out in the early years foundation stage statutory framework. Ofsted is already able to determine that a provider must observe a higher staff-child ratio if needed to ensure the safety and welfare of children. These ratios provide significant flexibility for registered providers. For example, for children aged three and over in provision where a person with a suitable level 6 qualification is working with children, a 1:13 ratio can already be used.
With support from government, the National Day Nurseries Association produced case studies to help practitioners make use of the flexibility already available to them. The amendment seeks to enshrine ratios in primary legislation for the extended free childcare entitlement. As I have said, ratios for all providers are currently set out in secondary legislation, and this allows the flexibility to respond quickly if changes are needed to ensure that children are kept safe and well cared for. As we set out in the preceding Committee session, next year we shall consult on draft regulations and draft guidance for the proposed new duty.
The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, raised the important issue of what we mean by quality. The EYFS statutory framework recognises that together good parenting and high-quality early learning provide the foundation that children need to make the most of their abilities and talents as they grow up. Of course continuity of care is important, but I hope that we can take strong reassurance that Ofsted inspectors take account of the need for the well-established key person system that helps children to form secure attachments and promotes their well-being and independence.
In conclusion, I reiterate that delivering flexibility for parents is a vital principle of the Bill. I hope that noble Lords and noble Baronesses will have been reassured by my response to their amendments, and I ask that the amendment be withdrawn.
Amendment 21 withdrawn.
Amendments 22 to 26 not moved.
Clause 1, as amended, agreed.
Clause 2: Supplementary provision about regulations under section 1
Amendment 27 not moved.
28: Clause 2, page 3, line 21, at end insert—
“( ) Nothing in any regulations under this Act may impose any obligation on any private or voluntary childcare setting or school that does not wish, or is unable, to—
(a) participate in a scheme, or any part of a scheme;(b) provide such information to the Secretary of State, a public body or local authority as may be required under this Act of participants in a scheme,under this Act to provide 30 hours of free childcare.”
My Lords, I can be relatively brief, since some of this follows earlier discussions. I have yet to be persuaded that the ranks of providers and settings that we are told are required will spring into being. I was interested in what my noble friend said in response to the previous amendment: new settings will emerge that will enable flexibility. When I think of the struggles that I have as a local authority leader to find settings for primary schools, let alone nursery schools, I do not think it will necessarily be quite as easy as that. Furthermore, I urge that, when we read through this debate, the point that I made about flexibility as it applies to part-time workers and the people providing the service is understood. We ask a lot of our nursery teachers at the moment and many of them have busy family lives.
My main point with regard to this amendment is that, at the moment, the voluntary, private, independent sector is relatively small. However, the Bill envisages an economy in which we move to an expectation that any setting that is participating in this scheme will actually provide 30 hours of care for 38 weeks a year. As I tried to illustrate on an earlier amendment, there are a very large number of settings in rented premises such as church halls and parish halls, or providers whose teachers want to follow the school term because they themselves have children at school; it suits many such employees to have school holidays. For various reasons, many providers will simply not be able to provide the 30 hours for 38 weeks on any method. Some will not be willing to do so because they place greater emphasis on educational purpose than on occupying the crease. There is a dashing element to education and there is a Geoff Boycott mode of being there for 1,140 hours to fulfil the commitment. I do not expect a formal answer from my noble friend. All I am asking on this amendment is to consider those extremely valuable settings in villages and small places where the parish hall may be required for other purposes. Socially, they are extremely important and they should not be hyper-regulated to whatever extent the Treasury says we have to regulate this new sector to protect public money—so that for the 30 hours and 38 weeks we have to comply with 65 pages of new regulations to ensure that the state’s money is protected.
All I am asking is that it is understood, just as we understand with independent education, academies and free schools, that there may be some variety. There may be places where good-quality education is provided where it is not necessary to conform to every regulation that the state puts forward for this 30-hour, 38-week scheme. This is a plea to my noble friend as he reflects on this. This informal sector should not be snuffed out by being crowded out by state-supported provision and commercial ventures that are allowed to borrow against the certain stream of the 30-hour, 38-week commitment from the taxpayer. If it is to be nurtured, can we give those settings the same degree of latitude with regulations, while obviously making the same demands about inspection, that we give to the excellent educators in academies, free schools and the independent sector in maintained education, where we do not necessarily expect everything to be the same? That is the thought behind Amendment 28. It is not necessarily a perfect amendment, but just a thought that I place.
Amendment 38 is simply a rider to that. Ofsted does important work, and every setting needs a “good” or “outstanding” Ofsted finding to succeed. When Ofsted is assessing educational quality—not just Geoff Boycott occupying the crease—can we be sure that in no circumstances will it include in any report that the setting is not open for 1,140 hours and is therefore not conforming to the standards that are expected? It is very easy to slip into that sort of position.
I am not expecting an answer now because Report and later stages of the Bill will follow, but I fear that the independent informal sector may grow simply because it physically cannot conform to the requirements of 30 hours and 38 weeks. We should not resent that or compete with it. We should nurture it and that should be understood in the policy approach to regulation and inspection. I beg to move.
I want to comment on two aspects of what the noble Lord, Lord True, has proposed. He raised the issue of capacity, which we raised on the first day in Committee. We received assurances from the Minister that capacity would be much less of an issue than some of us feared. I trust that the Minister believes that to be the case. If so, perhaps the noble Lord, Lord True, is overstating the issues that he has raised today.
The second matter is more important and concerns the continuity of care provided if we go for this 30 hours a week. Almost inevitably, as we said on the first day in Committee, many children will take part in different settings, so 15 hours may be in a school nursery setting and the other 15 in a private nursery, with a childminder or a combination of all three—childminder, private sector day nursery and state nursery. We should think very carefully about that. I hope that the Minister will be able to come back with some thoughts about this. Very young children may be moving between those three different settings during the course of a day. How does that benefit them? How can we overcome some of those changes that the noble Lord, Lord True, has raised in the discussion around his amendment this afternoon?
My Lords, I make a very brief intervention and I have to declare an interest. Is there not some scope for grandparents in this pattern? Will it be possible, for example, for some of those hours to be taken up formally by grandparents or other relations of the child?
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 28 and 38. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord True, for raising this issue and I hope I can satisfy him that we are keen to stimulate new provision and not crowd it out by regulations. As someone who has fielded against Boycott, I can assure him that his approach is deceptive. He does actually hit the ball extremely hard.
As I explained in Committee last week, no provider is required to offer places under the existing entitlement. It is of course very pleasing that so many choose to do so. I do not expect that providers will be required to provide places for these additional hours should they choose not to do so. If they do not, they will not be prevented from providing places under the existing entitlement of 15 hours. We have no plans to make the regime more burdensome. If a provider is providing the existing 15 hours, he will have a service-level agreement with a local authority and if that is how he decides to provide the extra 15 hours, he will have a service-level agreement for that provision. However, if a provider decides not to deliver this, there will be no plans for extra regulation.
The noble Lord asked whether failure to provide places will be reflected in Ofsted assessments. A rigorous inspection regime is important to ensuring the effective use of government funding and improving the quality of provision that children receive, regardless of whether they accept children under the free entitlement or not. However, I reassure the noble Lord that whether or not a provider offers free places will not be a factor in Ofsted inspection judgments. Of course, the quality of provision provided to such children will continue to be inspected. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that, as I said last week, if grandparents are working they can therefore qualify for the provision. I will reflect on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord True, and the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, and I am happy to discuss those with them privately. I hope I have reassured the noble Lord others who have spoken about their concerns. I therefore urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful, as ever, to my noble friend for listening carefully; I found what he said very reassuring. I will obviously want to look closely at Hansard, but what is important above all is his clear commitment to continuing the dialogue with providers and to understand the mixed nature of the sector. Having heard what he said, particularly his assurance regarding Ofsted—and in no way resisting the comments about quality, which is vital—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 28 withdrawn.
Clause 2 agreed.
Amendments 29 to 33 not moved.
34: Before Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty to report: child poverty target
(1) The Secretary of State must, in each financial year, starting with the date 12 months after the commencement of this Act, report on the impact of the free entitlement to childcare on meeting child poverty targets.
(2) For the purposes of this section, “child poverty targets” means the targets set out in sections 3 to 6 of the Child Poverty Act 2010.”
My Lords, this is a timely amendment, given the Government’s Statement of last week. When we were considering the Bill’s impact, it seemed to us that it would be a progressive move to relate the benefits of the additional free hours of childcare to improvement or otherwise in measures of child poverty, hence the amendment tabled in my name.
When considering the impact of the Bill, we became concerned that the financial benefits claimed by the Government could be completely undermined by changes they are going to make elsewhere. We were right to be concerned, given their announcement last week that they aim to abolish the measures of child poverty that were instituted in the Child Poverty Act 2010. In particular, we are concerned that the combination of those changes and the changes to working families’ benefits will have an adverse impact on child poverty.
There was cross-party support for the Government’s attempt in the 2010 Act to set out targets to reduce child poverty. Therefore, I am disappointed—to put it mildly—that the Government are now intent on removing the income-related figures for child poverty and replacing them with measures of worklessness and educational attainment. If you are a child living in a family on low income or benefits, it matters little whether that is the consequence of your parents’ worklessness or educational attainment, and there is little you can do about it. It is really important that we get to grips with this and use the Childcare Bill to lift more children out of poverty. I am sure there is a commitment to doing that across this House; it is the way we do it that will be a matter of debate.
The Government will want to use the undoubted benefits of the Bill to achieve that by agreeing to amendments that would extend the definition of working parents to those seeking to improve their education and skills. That would marry very neatly with what the Government said in the other place last week about educational attainment being a measure of poverty. If that is to be one of their measures, using the Bill to help parents who are seeking to improve their skills by going into education or training would combine the wishes of the Government with the Childcare Bill. That is something we could perhaps all agree to.
When I raised this issue last week, the Minister said that there were other ways for young parents who were in education to access some form of childcare, and he is right. But, having asked people over the weekend how this works, I can assure him that it is not that easy for young parents going into college, university or training to access really good free childcare. Aligning the Bill with the requirements of people going into education and training would be an enormously progressive move towards helping low-income families and therefore tackling child poverty.
If there is something we can do to lift more children out of poverty—which would have long-term benefits not just for them but for the country as a whole—and if we can do it fairly simply by linking parents’ educational needs with the Bill, we should all try to do it. I would be very pleased indeed if the Minister rethought the answer he gave me last week, in the light of the Government’s announcement, and I urge him to do so. I beg to move.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for moving this amendment. The Child Poverty Action Group has told us that it welcomes this legislation because of the positive impact that it is likely to have on child poverty. I hope that it may be helpful to remind the House of concerns about other current factors in play which might impact on child poverty.
I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing to a meeting on the issue of homeless families. I am reminded of a couple of times recently where, due to a combination of policy factors, many poor families have had to move out of London because they can no longer afford to live here. That is causing concern to employers, as their workforce is leaving London, and one must be concerned that those families are going to areas where they will have difficulty finding employment. While I know that this is an extremely difficult issue, it is helpful when we are talking about policies which will raise children out of poverty to keep in mind other things that might be pushing children into poverty and to think carefully about what we can do to hit that on the head as well.
My Lords, I add my support to the amendment and to the comments of the noble Baroness and the noble Earl. What the Government are proposing in terms of redefining child poverty is an absolute disgrace. What we need is not a change to the definition of poverty but a plan to deal with poverty. The truth is that, after child poverty fell under the previous Government, last week’s Households Below Average Income DWP statistics show that more than 4 million children have plunged into absolute poverty under this Government. The Government seem to be determined to disguise the fact that they are on course to miss the target of abolishing child poverty by 2020 by changing the statistical goalposts. So what assessment have the Government made of the DWP statistics? Do they accept that the number of children in absolute poverty is increasing?
Following on from the Oral Question on the Family and Childcare Trust report, Access Denied, how will the provisions of the Bill contribute to meeting the child poverty target when children in disadvantaged areas are expected to miss out disproportionately on the early years provision? Does the Minister accept that families on low incomes frequently work on unstable contracts both in terms of the hours they are offered each week and the length of contract? These are the points that we rehearsed in the debates last week. So how can we be assured that low-income families will benefit from these proposals rather than being penalised —or even possibly criminalised—by their uncertain working patterns, where, for example, shifts are cancelled at short notice and the eight-hours criterion is not always met? This is a real challenge for us. How are we going to measure the progress that we are making on these issues? How can we be assured that disadvantaged children are not going to miss out disproportionately once again through these proposals? I look forward to the noble Lord’s response.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 34, moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock. I recognise that, following recent announcements, noble Lords will be seeking to debate the wider issue of child poverty in the fullest way and I have no doubt that there will be further opportunities in the future. As the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions confirmed in the other place last Wednesday, the Government will be bringing forward legislation to remove the existing measures and targets in the Child Poverty Act, as well as the other duties and provisions. When this legislation is brought forward, there will of course be further opportunities to debate the many specific details. However, the legislation will at the same time introduce a statutory duty to report on measures of worklessness and educational attainment. We do not underestimate the importance of income and its impact on children’s life chances, but we are clear that the current low-income measures do not drive the right action to tackle the root causes of child poverty, which are what we really need to focus on. That is why we have set out our proposals for new measures.
We have long talked about the importance of work as a way for families to stay out of poverty. The Government have a proud record on this and we want to do even more. The provisions in the Bill will enable parents to take up work or increase their hours at work so that they can support their families. We know that work is the best route out of poverty. Around three-quarters of children from low-income families move out of income poverty when a parent moves into work or from part-time to full-time work. Compared to 2010, there are 390,000 fewer children living in workless households, which is a record low. That is why this measure is important and why we are focusing on helping families to increase their hours of work, if they so choose.
I hope that noble Lords will recognise that the debate today, and the focus of this Committee, is on the provisions in the Bill. With this in mind, I will respond to the amendment and not seek to address wider questions at this stage. During Committee, we debated how this extended free childcare entitlement will impact on children from disadvantaged homes. The investment that the Government have made in extending the offer of 15 hours’ free early education to two year-olds from the 40% most disadvantaged homes and the early years pupil premium are extremely important. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, is as proud as we are that these two programmes were implemented in the last Parliament.
As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said, the Government were pleased that the Child Poverty Action Group welcomed the additional free childcare as,
“an extremely positive move overall”.
Ahead of Committee, the Government published their assessment of the impact of this legislation on child poverty. The assessment found that implementing this policy could result in fewer workless families, higher earnings from employment for those who increase their hours and a higher disposable income for those who already pay for additional hours of childcare to purchase other goods. I reassure noble Lords that the Government want to see this policy impact positively on the lives of all working families. We want the availability of more free childcare for three and four year-olds to reduce the childcare bill of hard-working families. We want flexible and affordable quality childcare to enable parents to increase their earnings to better support their families.
The effect of this amendment, as with a number of others debated during Committee, would be to require the Secretary of State to evaluate the impact of this entitlement in order to report on it annually. The Government understand the calls from noble Lords to increase our evidence and understanding of the impact of childcare and early education. As my noble friend Lord Nash and I referenced in the debate last week, the new longitudinal study of early education and development commissioned by the Department for Education is a significant commitment by the Government to evaluating the effectiveness of the current early education model in England and the impact of providing funded early years education—particularly, as the noble Baroness said, with regard to two year-olds from lower income families. I hope that noble Lords will be reassured that the intention of this amendment is understood and that the Government value the evidence base about the early years and the impact of significant investment such as this extension of free entitlement. On this basis, I therefore ask the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, to withdraw her amendment.
Before the noble Baroness withdraws her amendment, I thank the Minister for her comments and her elucidation of the Government’s plans on child poverty. I recognise that she does not want to give any details now but it was helpful to have that information. I omitted to say that I was at a meeting with the Local Government Association a little while ago, which was chaired by her colleague the noble Baroness, Lady Eaton. The association is asking for greater flexibility in borrowing for housing, for instance. The Government might choose to take certain measures which would help it to increase the supply of housing. I will leave that with the Minister for her to think about.
Amendment 34 withdrawn.
Clause 3: Publication of Information
35: Clause 3, page 3, leave out lines 26 to 28
My Lords, having just spoken from a point of view sympathetic to providers, I now come forward as a paid-up member of the trade union of local authority leaders. I suppose that that is a switch from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde, since local authorities have not always been the flavour of the month in my noble friend’s department. However, they do try honourably every day to assist in the provision of high-quality education, and I hope that that will be recognised as work on this legislation goes forward. Local authorities are not the enemy: they are often part of the solution.
This is a probing amendment—that is very clear. We are told that further regulations are to be produced requiring each English local authority to provide all sorts of as yet unspecified information. Governments have a terrible habit of requiring information from people, and I am afraid that local authorities sometimes do as well—I plead guilty to that, although I have tried to eradicate it. Every piece of information asked for that is not germane is a burden on business and a burden on the setting. It should be avoided unless it is of overwhelming social benefit. Filling in forms, answering emails and getting involved in chit-chat about whether information is expressed in the right way all take time away from administering, teaching and other important jobs. I hope that providing this unspecified information, whatever it is to be, will not add administrative burdens and costs to local authorities above the minimum level and certainly that it will not prove a burden on the providers and small settings.
The policy statement so helpfully circulated by my noble friend refers to the fact that, under existing legislation, local authorities currently provide a certain amount of useful information: the hours of the setting, where there is one; costs, if people wish to declare them; and other similar items. You can go on your local authority website and find out about nursery settings in your area. The policy statement goes on to say that although the new regulations will require more information, it will not be very different from what is already provided under the existing system. If that is the case, why have this regulatory power? How is it going to be used? Once we have given it away to the Government, or whoever, is there not a risk of regulatory creep as one Government succeed another? I do not think it is necessarily enough to pass a law that everything should stay the same. I ask for an assurance that over the course of the Bill we can have a dialogue about the burden that providing information imposes both on local authorities and on providers.
I conclude with one point that goes back to the position of the provider—particularly those providers that may be on the fringes of staying in the scheme. The more you press them for information, the more they become unwilling to give it, the more careless they get about filling in what they are doing and the more coercive systems can become. None of that is intended, but with accretive creep it could happen. If we are to have regulation then let us be absolutely clear about the boundaries, let us not take it too far and let us never consider that quality is necessarily assured by regulation. Regulation may be part of it, but quality is assured by good service and is tested and assessed in this sector by Ofsted. If this policy is as successful as my noble friend hopes, and anybody in this country is enabled to choose the care they want, then quality will also be provided—perish the thought—by the market, because no one will be constrained from making the childcare choices they want, and logically the good settings will succeed and the bad settings will not. So, please: let us have restraint on regulation. As we go forward I would be grateful for an assurance that my noble friend will talk to local authorities and providers about finding the right balance in the regulations required, lest we get into a merry-go-round of demand, counterdemand and otiose administration. I beg to move.
My Lords, in responding to the debate on the first group of amendments the noble Baroness asked whether I had recovered from my daughter’s wedding, which took place last Thursday. We ended it yesterday with a family lunch. As the noble Lord, Lord Nash, and I agreed last week, in Wales a wedding can last a number of days. In my daughter’s case that was certainly true.
My noble friend Lady Massey of Darwen cannot be with us this afternoon, so I shall speak to her Amendment 37. It is a straightforward amendment, which would place a duty on each local council to share information directly with partner agencies in the area, including children’s centres. In my experience, something as simple as this is all too often overlooked when we consider a measure such as the Bill. To digress for a moment, I know from personal experience of the National Health Service in the past couple of years that structures are often in place that actively work against information sharing, to the detriment of a patient.
With this amendment we have the chance to ensure that this does not happen with the Childcare Bill. Information about childcare services is crucial and can be complex. Sources of information vary from the formal, through local authority networks, to the informal, by word of mouth. We welcome the Government’s intention to ensure that parents can access information about childcare and other services through a range of sources in a local authority area. The amendment suggests that the requirement on local authorities to publish this information could go further to ensure that those who would benefit most from childcare support are made aware of good-quality care. Children’s centres can and do work hard to reach parents. Action for Children’s parent champions for childcare, based in children’s centres, can give personal support and advice, which is often much needed.
There is much merit in the amendment. I hope that the Minister, if she cannot accept it today, will at the very least reflect on it and come back to us on Report.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 35 and 37 to Clause 3. I welcome the noble Lords’ interest in this clause, which will help parents and prospective parents to access information on childcare and other services in their area by allowing regulations to require local authorities in England to publish prescribed information at prescribed intervals in a prescribed manner.
Parents and prospective parents currently face an information deficit on childcare. A recent report that the Department for Education commissioned found that parents are unsure where to find information and often are unaware of the range of childcare provision in their area. This is particularly important for parents returning to work, so that they can make decisions based on all available information.
Under Section 12 of the Childcare Act 2006, local authorities are required to establish and maintain a service—commonly known as a family information service—to provide information, advice and assistance to parents, and information for the benefit of children and young people. In operating their service, local authorities receive and collect certain information about childcare providers and other services and facilities in their area. This includes details of the overall picture of childcare offered and details of wraparound care on offer.
Where local authorities establish and maintain a good service and make information available it is extremely valuable for parents and prospective parents. However, local authorities are not required to publish this information. By putting local authorities under a specific duty in the Bill, we intend to change that. Therefore, we will set out in regulations the information that local authorities will have to publish. We are considering the information that we will prescribe for this purpose and I can reassure my noble friend Lord True that we do not currently envisage that this will be very different from the information collated under existing regulations. Of course, we are very happy to have further conversations with him outside the Chamber to further reassure him of this.
Of course, not only parents have an interest in accessing this information. Agencies and other organisations that provide information, advice and guidance to parents all need up-to-date and reliable information to share with service users. All, including partner agencies of the local authority and children’s centres, will be able to access and benefit from the publication of information and data that local authorities are already collecting. We will set out in regulations when and how local authorities will be required to publish information.
I also reassure my noble friend Lord True that it is not our intention to enable or require local authorities to interfere in the normal day-to-day business of childcare providers, including nursery schools. Our focus is clearly on the publication of information that will help parents with their childcare choices. We entirely understand the importance of getting these details right and draft regulations will therefore be subject to public consultation in 2016.
I hope that noble Lords agree that this clause is a necessary and important step forward to help parents have access to the information they need to make the right childcare decisions for their families. On that basis, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
May I ask the Minister about a point of detail? At a recent meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group dealing with children’s centres, one of the practitioners said that, while in the past Ofsted has examined centres to see how they were engaging with fathers, it had been decided that it should no longer do that. For instance, when providing information to parents, a centre might say, “Dear Mum and Dad” or “Dear Mother and Father”, rather than saying “Dear Parents”, in order to reach out to and engage fathers. They do a lot of work to try to reach fathers. That should be recognised. It may not be the case—it was only one practitioner’s experience—but I would be grateful if the Minister could write to me to confirm whether Ofsted is checking this, acknowledging the good work in this area.
My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend. She looked around to see whether I was still in my place. I share the concern of noble Lords who are coming in about the trauma being inflicted on the people of Greece by the euro project, and I have moved along to allow other people to come in and make a point. I have to leave after this stage.
I am very grateful to my noble friend for what she said. It is important always to remember, before every piece of legislation that comes before this House, that the need for one local government officer at a relatively low grade across the 32 boroughs of London alone costs £1 million. That is besides the rest of the country and is a minimum sum, so noble Lords will understand why I am concerned that no regulatory demand should place pressure on local authorities to employ even more.
I am very grateful for the undertaking that we can have discussions on this and I am very grateful for the spirit in which my noble friend responded to the amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 35 withdrawn.
Amendments 36 to 38A not moved.
Clause 3 agreed.
39: After Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—
“Impact of childcare entitlement on low income working parents
(1) Within 24 months of the commencement of section 1 of this Act, the Secretary of State must publish a report on the benefits of free childcare provided under section 1 for low income working parents.
(2) A report under subsection (1) must include an assessment of—
(a) the monetary value of the free childcare entitlement to low income working parents;(b) the educational value of the free childcare entitlement for children of low income working parents;(c) the number of low income working parents taking up provision of the free childcare entitlement.(3) An assessment under subsection (2)(a) must include an assessment of the extent to which any monetary benefit to low income working parents from the free childcare entitlement is offset by any changes to—
(a) working tax credits;(b) child tax credits;(c) universal credit;(d) child benefit,that have occurred since the coming into force of this Act.(4) An assessment under subsection (2)(c) must include an assessment of the impact on the number of working parents of any changes to working tax credits that have occurred since the coming into force of this Act.
(5) For the purpose of this section “free childcare entitlement” means any childcare provided free of charge under the duty set out in section 1 of this Act.”
My Lords, Amendment 39 is in my name and that of my noble friend Lord German and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. The amendment is an extension of our discussion on Amendment 34 on the links between this Bill and child poverty. As we know, the Government have a way of encouraging people out of poverty by encouraging them into work, and to make work pay. One of the ways of making work pay is by providing additional free childcare. Those who have relatives with young families will know the huge cost of paying for childcare in order to go out to work. We know that some working parents currently pass over most of their income to childcare costs, so this Bill is to be greatly welcomed.
However, I would like to explore through this amendment the link between the Bill and the incomes that families will have, and the changes to those incomes that we know are on the cards later this week in an announcement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Government have claimed, no doubt accurately, that the provisions in the Bill will see an additional benefit to families of around £2,500 a year. That would be a huge and significant saving to parents. However, the simple fact is that for those on low incomes and who most need the benefits of free childcare, all that good work could be wiped out by government cuts to tax credits of various kinds and perhaps to housing benefit.
I know that the Minister will be unable to tell us exactly what cuts to tax credits we are set to see in the Budget this week. Indeed, the Government have been singularly unwilling to spell out where their £12 billion of welfare savings will come from, but I think all sides of the House can agree that these cuts are likely to come at the expense of lower-income working families. The Prime Minister has already trailed that we will see cuts in tax credits, with some people suggesting that there might be up to £5 billion of projected savings. If that is the case, it would result in families with two children losing up to £1,700 a year, seriously diminishing the very welcome impact of the free additional childcare.
Despite what the Prime Minister suggested about companies paying more to workers to offset the impact of any cuts to tax credits, without real action on the minimum and living wage that is frankly rather more hope than expectation. We cannot assume that employers will be either able or willing to pick up the slack by paying a living wage to make up for the loss, for instance, of working tax credits. The decision about tax credits will make a huge difference to people, whether in employment or not. Cuts will mean that it is no longer financially possible for someone with high childcare costs to go out to work. That means that they will lose not only their tax credits but potentially the entitlement of free childcare, a double whammy that will do what none of us wants and punish the children of those families.
However, as much of this detail is still to be discussed and we may not know the Government’s intentions until Wednesday, we propose in this amendment to have a review two years hence of the financial impact on lower-income working families of the combination of the free childcare offer and any reductions in working tax credits, child tax credits and housing benefit. I made the case earlier today about the important link between this Bill, child poverty and the impact on low-income families. If the Government want to be progressive—I am sure they do—they will see that link and try to make work pay by ensuring that childcare is of benefit to low-income families. Ultimately, that is the purpose of this amendment: to consider the link between the two. I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to the national living wage. I believe that two former advisers to the Prime Minister recently endorsed a move towards the living wage. Clearly, this Bill would be that much more effective and there would be much more incentive for people to take what is offered in it if we moved to a national living wage. What current position do the Government take towards the gradual introduction of a national living wage?
In Amendment 39, the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, seeks assurance that the Government will monitor and report on the impact of the entitlement. She spoke with passion about the importance of supporting low-income working families with the cost of childcare, which is the subject of today’s debate, and I will confine my remarks to the subject of today’s discussion. I agree that it is extremely important and must be kept in mind at all stages of policy development in the early years.
The Government have ably and amply demonstrated their commitment to supporting low-income working families with the cost of childcare and to improving the educational outcomes of all children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. As my noble friend and I have set out in this debate and in previous discussions, the Government have committed to increasing childcare support within universal credit by around £350 million to provide 85% of childcare costs from 2016 where the lone parent or both parents in a couple are in work. The Government have introduced an entitlement to free early education for the most disadvantaged two year-olds, while the early years pupil premium will provide more support to improve outcomes for disadvantaged three and four year-olds.
The Government have demonstrated their commitment to understanding the impact of the provision of free childcare through previous projects such as the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education project and the new longitudinal study of early education and development, as my noble friend and I mentioned previously. The Government also collect a range of data on the take-up of the existing entitlements, including the number of children taking up a place. The most recent data were published on 25 June. They reflect the position in January of this year and are extremely encouraging. As detail of the new entitlement is developed further, we will consider what further data should be collected to enable effective monitoring of the new entitlement.
The Government recognise the benefits and importance of evaluating the impact of significant policies such as this but do not believe that it is necessary or appropriate to legislate for the production of a report or to define the timeline and content of such a report. I therefore urge the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, to withdraw her amendment.
Amendment 39 withdrawn.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5: Commencement
Amendments 40 to 42 not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.
Clause 6 agreed.
Bill reported with amendments.