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Covid-19: Early Years Sector

Volume 809: debated on Wednesday 20 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the wellbeing of children under five affected by the COVID-19 pandemic; and what steps they are taking to support the early years sector affected by the pandemic.

My Lords, the department is monitoring the impact of the pandemic on children and Ofsted has reported on the effects of Covid-19 on the early years sector. Early years are crucial for child development, so the Government are prioritising keeping these settings open. The Chancellor announced a £44 million investment in 2021-22 for local authorities to increase hourly rates paid to childcare providers for the Government’s free childcare entitlement offers.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Answer. The pandemic has deeply impacted the early years of many children’s lives. Given that pre-pandemic work by the Children’s Commissioner identified a need for strong connection across health, education and social care, will Her Majesty’s Government consider a Minister for children and young people at Cabinet level as a matter of urgency as we emerge from this pandemic?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is correct that there is a cross-departmental approach to this. She will be aware of the proposals for family hubs, which should provide families with access to all those services on the ground. I assure her that the Secretary of State for Education is prioritising policy on children at the request of the Prime Minister.

My Lords, given the vulnerability of children, whatever their age, in this rapidly changing world, when family breakdown and its sad consequences have become commonplace, will the Minister use her good offices to stress the huge and undeniable importance of the traditional family structure to children and do all she can to promote it?

My Lords, it is quite clear that with the effects of the pandemic on children and young people, family structure and wider community groups have been essential in providing support, along with our ensuring that children have access to school—when it is possible for them to be in school. As I reiterate, the Secretary of State for Education is prioritising children’s policies.

My Lords, are the Government giving sufficient financial support to CAMHS—child and adolescent mental health services—for young children, many of whom have urgent mental health problems?

My Lords, as a result of the NHS plan, £2.3 billion is being invested in mental health services, and 345,000 individuals should be additionally supported within CAMHS by 2023-24. In relation to schools, mental health issues have been prioritised within guidance. We are still rolling out mental health support teams in secondary schools and have made specific links between mental health issues in the Keeping Children Safe in Education updated guidance, as it can often be a symptom of a safeguarding issue, not just a mental health problem.

My Lords, even before the pandemic, 65% of children in some areas were not receiving the mandated two-and-a-half-year health visitor check because of cuts to the workforce. Will there be any additional resources for the health visitor workforce to help them to catch up with missed visits to vulnerable young families during the pandemic?

My Lords, health visitors do essential work. The Government support the letter written by the chief nurse, which outlines that health visitors and other front-line health professionals should not be moved from those roles in this stage of the pandemic, to ensure that visits can be made to those vulnerable families. Since April 2020, it has been part of GPs’ contracts that they are to have an assessment with a mother six to eight weeks after the child is born.

My Lords, a survey carried out on behalf of the DfE last October into the effects of Covid-19 on childcare and early years providers showed that only 45% of private nurseries and 55% of childminders believed that they would be financially able to continue for another year. It simply cannot be right that the average gap between the hourly cost of delivering a funded two year-old’s place and the funding rate paid to settings for that place is £2 an hour—a 37% funding deficit. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Childcare and Early Education has called for the Government to commission an independent review of the costs of delivering childcare. Surely the Minister cannot deny that such a review is essential to safeguard the long-term viability of the sector.

My Lords, in the autumn and summer terms, the Government paid out the entitlements regardless of the number of children attending these settings. As attendance rose during the autumn, we gave notice to the sector that we were moving back to a per-child-attending basis of funding. Tomorrow is the census, when we will have an up-to-date picture of how many are in attendance in those settings. What is essential at the moment is that the department monitors the market and what is happening in this sector to be able to have the most up-to-date information on the sustainability of those settings, as the noble Lord quite rightly outlines.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister knows that domestic violence during Covid has increased dramatically and scarily. As there are reduced visits from health professionals, can she tell me what work is being done with local community groups to ensure that children—particularly from BAME communities where English is not the first language—are not left without any support? I understand the six-to-eight-week visit after a baby is born, but these children are pre-school age and need to be monitored, particularly in the most vulnerable households.

My Lords, we have specifically requested that, if those children already classified as vulnerable are not attending early years settings, those settings do their best to get in touch with the children. That is why it has also been important to look at the role of the voluntary sector. The department has given £11 million to the Barnardo’s-led See, Hear, Respond initiative, which is a consortium of charities for those children who are not yet known to be vulnerable. We have sadly had around 1,500 referrals through that initiative.

My Lords, health visiting has continued during lockdown, using video contacts with parents instead of face-to-face visits. Can the Minister assure the House that this approach will be rigorously evaluated before widespread adoption? This is particularly important given the recent stark findings from the child safeguarding practice review, which showed that the number of children dying or being seriously harmed after suspected abuse or neglect rose by a quarter, to 285 notifications, during April to September in England. Of these, 102 involved babies under the age of one. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that a properly resourced health visiting service is available to parents and young children, particularly the most vulnerable families, post Covid?

My Lords, there will be much evaluation of the strategies used by various statutory agencies during the pandemic. The Secretary of State has written to directors of children’s services in local authorities to highlight particularly the group that are most vulnerable: babies. They are a key group that we have asked the See, Hear, Respond initiative to focus on. One of the important differences between this lockdown and the first is that we are enabling birth registrations to take place, which, of course, are a key function to make us aware of a child’s birth and therefore be able to follow up if there are any issues.

I welcome the fact that, in recognition of the importance of early learning, the Government have kept nursery schools open. Primary schools are also open for some pupils, although the arrangements seem to vary locally. The success of vaccination gives us all hope. Does my noble friend agree that we should not reverse these arrangements, whatever happens, and that we should move to get all children back into primary school from after the February half-term?

My Lords, I share the noble Baroness’s ambition—it is our ambition—that, as soon as the public health guidance allows, we will get children back into school. Of course, vulnerable children and those of critical care workers are still in school. Indeed, just under 20% of the early years sector is school-based, and those settings should be open in accordance with the guidance that all early years settings should be open. But we very much look forward to the day we can reopen schools fully, as I believe most parents and teachers do.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I understand that we have a Minister for the fourth Oral Question—the hard-working noble Lord, Lord Bethell—so we will go to that. I call the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.