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Volume 798: debated on Thursday 6 June 2019


Asked by

My Lords, this Government are committed to ensuring that as many families as possible can access high-quality, affordable childcare. That is why we are investing around £3.5 billion in our early education entitlements this year alone—more than any previous Government. We monitor the provider market constantly through a range of regular and one-off research projects, which are ongoing or have already been published.

First, my Lords, I apologise: the Question did not appear on the Order Paper in the manner I thought in my head I had asked it. I am not sure what happened but I did not look at the actual Question until last night. I actually wanted to ask about children in care rather than just childcare, so I apologise to the House and to the Minister.

The number of children in care is higher than ever before and rising every year. The money going to local government to look after them is reducing, which means that local government is now spending a very high proportion of its money allocated to children in the care system, and not on early prevention and so on. This is now a crisis. We continue to see the most vulnerable children ending up more likely to be in the criminal justice system than in university on leaving care. The system is broken and the state is not proving a good parent. Will the Government take hold of this and make sure that they have a proper look at the whole system, which is broken and not working? The Government need to change the way in which they look after the most vulnerable children.

Let me focus on the subject of social care, which the noble Baroness raised. When children cannot live at home, it is one of the state’s most important responsibilities to ensure that they are kept safe and that they flourish. That is why we have set out a far-reaching programme of reform in children’s social care, improving practice in local authorities, strengthening the social care workforce and supporting care leavers through staying put. Since 2010, 44 councils have been lifted out of failure and have not returned. So, rather than establishing a new review, our priority is to embed these reforms as they stand.

One of the most natural results of ordinary parenthood is a bond between parent and child, which is of immense importance. I have tried on a number of occasions to secure something of the kind in the children’s care system that the noble Baroness meant to talk about, because it is vitally important. I understand that it is difficult for management, but the aim should still be to secure that, because it would make a terrific difference to the outcomes for most of those in the system.

My noble and learned friend is right; the Government believe that good early years education is the cornerstone of social mobility and that children should be allowed to bond with their parents. Equally, we believe that parents should be allowed to work. That is why we have the entitlement to 15 hours of free childcare, and to 30 hours for those in work. But it is still the case that 28% of children finish their reception year without the early communication and reading skills they need to thrive, so there is more work to do.

My Lords, some years ago, I was on a Select Committee for affordable childcare. We had many excellent witnesses, including from parents’ organisations, and we reached some interesting conclusions. One of them was that the system was so complex that parents found it difficult to understand their rights, and therefore that some parents were not using the system as they might. Could the noble Lord say what is being done to simplify the childcare system so that everyone understands it, and children and parents alike can benefit from it?

We do not believe that the system is too complicated. However, I should point out that parents can find information about all the Government’s childcare offers on the website; I can give the noble Baroness some details on that. We also have a childcare calculator that parents can use to check their eligibility for support. But perhaps the proof is in the pudding, as it were, because there is near universal take-up of the 15 hours for all three and four year-olds—92% of three year-olds and 95% of four year-olds—and the parents of 72% of eligible two year-olds are taking up their entitlement. So there is something that does work.

Is my noble friend able to update the House on the progress of the scheme supported by the Government through which children in care can secure places in state and independent boarding schools, where the child is suited to such an education?

I can, to the extent of saying that the onus of this is on local authorities. Our position is that local authorities are best placed to target spending and set their budgets, and also to work out where their children in care might best be placed.

My Lords, let me try to blend the two questions. Nine years ago this month, the coalition Government, in the first round of austerity measures, dealt a mortal blow to the Sure Start programme. Although Sure Start is more than childcare and healthcare, the recently issued IFS report unequivocally demonstrates its value in terms of health outcomes. Surely reinvesting in the original local Sure Start programmes will ensure that children are properly nurtured and that parents are engaged in parenting programmes that will stop children being taken into care in the first place.

I know that the party opposite feels very strongly about the Sure Start programme. I very much note the recent report that came out from the IFS, and in particular the focus on the health effects of Sure Start—but it also demonstrates that children in disadvantaged areas benefit most from the services, and the policy framework we have in place reflects this evidence. Also, there are more children’s centres now than prior to 2008, and during the period when Tony Blair was PM.