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Free Childcare Hours

Volume 783: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2017


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will now repeat a Statement made in the other place earlier today by my honourable friend the Minister of State for Children and Families.

“Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and I thank you for allowing this Urgent Question, as it gives me the opportunity to highlight this Government’s determination to invest a record amount in childcare, supporting early education and helping parents financially. Our support will total £6 billion per annum by 2020.

My department is committed to ensuring that all three and four year-olds have access to free early education. All parents, regardless of income and employment status, are entitled to 15 hours of free early education for their three and four year-olds, and for those parents who work we are providing access to an additional 15 hours of free childcare from 2017. Parents who want to take up 30 hours of free childcare can apply through the digital childcare services. They can access the application via the Childcare Choices website, which provides information on all the Government’s childcare offers. The application process takes about 20 minutes. I have recently had a walk-through of the service myself; it is straightforward and the format will be very familiar to parents who have used other government digital services.

The childcare service is a complex IT system, which checks parents’ eligibility in real time by interfacing with the other government IT systems. The vast majority of parents will receive an instant eligibility response. However, there will be a delay for some parents whose eligibility is not immediately clear, for example some self-employed people. The service has also experienced technical issues, which has meant that it has been unavailable to parents on a small number of occasions. HMRC, which developed the service, has been working hard to resolve these issues and as a result the customer experience has improved.

The application has been open to parents of under-fours since 21 April and today my Treasury colleagues will make a Written Ministerial Statement informing the House that the service has been further rolled out to parents of under-fives. Parents whose application is successful receive a 30-hours eligibility code to take to their provider to claim their childcare place. As of today, more than 145,000 codes have been generated from successful applications. This is an increase of almost 5,000 codes since Friday 14 July and an increase of almost 25,000 since Friday 7 July. Increasing numbers of parents are successfully applying. It is great news that so many families will benefit from 30 hours in September because, as we have seen from our early implementer and early rollout areas, this support can make a real positive difference to the lives of hard-working families”.

My Lords, the Government apparently rushed out their revised implementation strategy for the scheme yesterday, less than two months before families are anticipating taking up their additional hours. The pledge that the extra hours would be free seems to be evaporating because it was announced yesterday that providers would be allowed to charge parents for extras on top of those 30 hours. What will happen to those families for whom affording those extras is not possible?

When the then Prime Minister touted the free childcare pledge in the 2015 election campaign, he promised to double the 15 hours available to nearly 1 million children. It was then reduced to 600,000 children, and it has since been admitted that fewer than 400,000 children will be eligible. Will the Minister tell noble Lords the Government’s latest estimate for the figure and how many families are getting the 38 hours that his party originally promised to all?

We know from our newspapers today that there was some kind of IT failure in the system yesterday. Treasury Ministers admitted in response to my colleague in another place Angela Rayner:

“It is not possible to provide a definitive number of applications not completed due to technical issues”.

What is the Minister’s estimate of just how many parents suffered those technical issues? What guarantees can he give to parents that those technical issues will be smoothed out in good time for the system to come into operation as intended?

I think this is good news. There are some very moving stories around the country and a lot of happy parents emerging from our early implementers. There are examples of couples who are both factory workers who were previously working shifts that did not coincide now managing to coincide those shifts. In answer to the specific points made by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, he is quite right that providers can charge parents for meals, consumables, such as nappies and sun cream, and additional activities, such as trips or yoga, but parents must not be required to pay any fee as a condition of taking up a free entitlement place. We have done a great deal since 2010 for disadvantaged families. In additional to the pupil premium we have 15 hours of free childcare for disadvantaged two year-olds, tax-free childcare and many other offers.

I am not the most computer-literate person on this planet, but I had officials take me through the process earlier today and I could not see any step in it that was unnecessary. It takes about 20 minutes, and the steps seem absolutely necessary to make sure that the system is secure and that only those who are truly eligible are qualifying.

My Lords, what advice does the Minister have for the following two parents, who are not isolated examples? One parent applied a month ago and received a message that she would get an email “shortly” as to how to apply, but has since received nothing. The other spent an hour on the phone in May and was told that she would be called back—again, nothing. I stress that these are not isolated examples. Perhaps each of them should be assigned an official to walk through it with them. My interest is already declared as a governor for the wonderful Heathbrook primary school. How do I as a governor, along with senior managers, plan in these circumstances for ratios and decent skill levels, given that the scheme appears to be in the hands of people who, frankly, I would not allow to run a certain event in a brewery?

As I said, the early implementers, which have already been tested with 4,000 parents, seem to be going extremely well. I take the noble Baroness’s point about particular examples and would be very happy for her to share those details with me further so that I can penetrate this to see if there is anything systemic here and if we can help these particular parents.

My Lords, are there any particular obstacles to accessing the free childcare hours for families living in temporary accommodation? Do they have difficulty getting information about what is on offer? As the Minister knows, 100,000 children are currently in temporary accommodation, 40% of whose families are in employment so many of them will be eligible. Will the Minister write to me on this point if he cannot elucidate now?

I cannot see any reason why the fact that they are in temporary accommodation should be a barrier. We have tried very hard to advertise the service and of course they can go to any local provider to talk to them about it, but I will write to the noble Earl about this.

My Lords, could the Minister give us some more information about the availability of the new 15-hour free places from September? Reports from the Pre-school Learning Alliance in April this year suggest that just 44% of providers were planning to use the 30 hours because they could not afford to provide them at the rates that the Government were offering, and around the same time the National Audit Office said of the implementation that there was a risk that the new entitlement would have a negative impact on the further success of the free entitlement.

As the noble Baroness knows, we did a great deal of work in our review on ensuring that the pay for this was adequate. Indeed, that has been borne out by a number of independent parties. Some 145,000 people have now received a code. They then have to go to the provider and the provider has to come back to us to verify; 32% of them have done so already, which is well in advance of the September date—if they start in September. As I say, all the indications are that there will be adequate provision.

My Lords, will the Minister, who often repeats his acclaim for high-quality education, encourage his colleagues in the Government to stop using “childcare” as an alternative expression for “nursery and early childhood education”? It is not the same. The experience is that good-quality nursery education provides a much better start for young children, particularly those from difficult backgrounds. Will he please encourage people not to use the term coterminously? Referring back to an earlier question about teachers, would he please accept that experience in Lancashire shows that employing bilingual young people to work with children as nursery nurses and teachers helps those for whom English is not their first language or mother tongue? It gives children a better start in their lives in education.

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness. The evidence is clear: although we have had a dramatic increase in the quality of early years provision—it has risen from 69% to 93% rated good or outstanding by Ofsted since 2010—those attached to schools are the best. That is why we have been encouraging primary schools to open nurseries, and we will continue to do so through our free school process. She makes a very good point about bilingual nursery staff. Through our recruitment drive for teachers, we are working with the Spanish Government to recruit teachers from Spain. We are looking at whether we can work with France and Germany, and I will certainly take her point back to the teams.

Generally, well. It was only a few rounds ago that we allowed primary free school applications to include nurseries, and a considerable proportion of them have now come with nurseries. As I said, that is something that we are keen to encourage: any opening of primary schools should come with nurseries attached.