To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the childcare sector.
My Lords, the preschool sector plays a vital role in educating our youngest children. We understand that this is a challenging time for many businesses and we will continue to ensure that early years providers get the best possible support from the Government’s support schemes. We will continue to work closely with local authorities and the early years sector organisations to monitor the impact of the pandemic and on any further support measures required.
I thank the Minister for the Answer, but it will not address the fundamental problem of underfunding in the childcare sector, which was on its knees before Covid. The early years entitlement covers only a fraction of the actual cost. If we want mothers and fathers to play their part in the recovery, we must pay the childcare sector fairly and properly, otherwise the recovery and the development of many children will be damaged. What can the Government do to stop this disaster unfolding?
My Lords, in addition to what I outlined about the early years entitlement continuing to be paid in the autumn term of this year, many of these businesses have been able to take advantage of the various schemes that have been offered, such as the job retention scheme and the business interruption loans. If a furloughed worker in an early years setting is still in employment in January next year, they will of course also be eligible for the £1,000 bonus. Substantial support is going into these businesses, which we recognise are more often than not small businesses.
I was pleased to hear my noble friend refer to the early years entitlement scheme. Are the Government happy that this amount will be sufficient, when many early years providers will have a significantly reduced demand for a period while people come back to attending early years provision? Will this entitlement be sufficient to keep organisations and facilities in deprived areas operating?
My Lords, we have seen a welcome increase in the standard of early years provision over recent years, particularly in disadvantaged areas. Some 96% are good or outstanding. As I outlined in my Answer, we are monitoring the situation closely to look at what support the sector needs, but many grants have been available. If an early years provider was in receipt of small business rate relief or rural rate relief, they were entitled to a £10,000 business grant. We recognise that we need to respond to each part of the education sector differently, but we are monitoring the situation to make sure that we have the latest information on the viability of this sector.
The Minister might possibly be aware of a view given by Caroline Nokes MP, who I think spoke for a lot of people. She said that the Government’s reaction to Covid
“is a recovery designed by men, for men, and it’s not giving the answers families need.”
I feel, as a male of the species, that I am allowed to say that. I point to a recent report by a very distinguished prominent woman, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, and her “Best Beginnings” strategy, which has just been produced. What is the Government’s initial reaction to it? When do they expect to give a comprehensive response to it?
My Lords, I do not recognise the outline of the response that the noble Lord gave. The Government’s response to the pandemic has been comprehensive and they are responding sector by sector to the various needs. The department works closely with the Children’s Commissioner. I am sure that the Secretary of State will respond to her report in due course.
My Lords, given the absolutely critical role of early years education, particularly for the poorest children, why are early years providers being excluded from the Government’s catch-up funding programme?
My Lords, children in reception will be part of that catch-up provision. Every year there is a £60 million supplementary grant to the 389 maintained nursery schools. As I outlined in response to other noble Lords’ questions, the education sector is made up of very different types of providers. Early years providers are one type of provider and are businesses. We have responded to the different sectors appropriately. Schools are funded purely by the taxpayer; higher education is another different type of structure. Unfortunately, the response to education institutions is not one size fits all, so things that are available to one set of institutions might not be appropriate for others.
My Lords, it is quite clear that there has been a greater degree of difficulty in areas of social deprivation when it comes to early years. A higher number of institutions have not opened and a higher percentage expect to close. Do the Government have a coherent strategy about how to get effective early years provision into deprived parts of the country?
My Lords, as I have outlined, the quantity and quality of provision in disadvantaged areas have been improving. Many of the maintained nursery schools that I mentioned are in areas of disadvantage. We have specifically funded £20 million of career development for early years providers in disadvantaged areas. I hope that the Government’s response to make sure that places were open in early years provision and in schools to vulnerable children and those of critical care workers will bear fruit for those children.
My Lords, the Prime Minister has put parents in an impossible position by urging a return to work over the summer while failing to provide adequate support for childcare. [Inaudible] Working mothers will suffer particularly badly from the Government’s inaction. [Inaudible] Notwithstanding the early years entitlement continuation mentioned by the Minister, why have the Government not announced any additional funding targeting childcare providers since the onset of the pandemic?
My Lords, I am grateful for early notification of the noble Lord’s question because I had slight trouble hearing it. As I outlined, numerous support schemes have been available to this sector, which, as I said, is a number of small businesses. As of next month, the early years sector will be eligible for the kickstart fund, which is for paid provision of jobs for young people who might be at risk of being unemployed. The apprenticeship support that I outlined is also available for the early years sector. However, the major schemes that have been available to and taken up by the sector have been the business interruption loans, the job retention scheme, the bonus and other financial support that I outlined. These are businesses, so we have responded appropriately for the sector.
My Lords, can I take my noble friend to the other section of children in care: the group that is, by definition, among the most vulnerable in society? All the indications are that the pandemic means that they will be the hardest hit as they leave care. What special measures and funds will the Government provide to help this group?
My Lords, the Government have a care leavers covenant for those young people, recognising that they are some of the most vulnerable children in our society. We have asked universities that accommodate somebody who has been in care to maintain that accommodation during the pandemic. Care leavers have been eligible to receive remote assistance with learning with a laptop. There is a co-ordinated response. I am grateful to my noble friend for drawing attention to the fact that care leavers can be, and often are, some of the most vulnerable. When they are in the care system, they obviously attract the pupil premium and additional funding.
My Lords, 4 million children already live in poverty in the UK. Another 1.7 million children live in households with debt problems. While the pandemic affects all sectors of the country, it seems that children suffer the most. Does the Minister agree that priority should be given to the children’s sector to provide whatever funds are required for the welfare of children?
My Lords, I outlined to the noble Lord, Lord Bird, some of the additional support that is being given through the Department for Work and Pensions. The Department for Education has also given £3.6 million of early years disadvantage grants to try to support language and other development for those young people. We are aware of children in the poorest households. That is why free school meals have been made available during each of the school holidays during the pandemic.
My Lords, the time allocated for this Question has elapsed.