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Volume 826: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that parents can access the childcare they need in order to work.

My Lords, helping working families to take up and remain in work is a government priority. The majority of parents can access the childcare they need in order to work, thanks to the over £3.5 billion per year for the past three years that we have provided to support families with the costs of their childcare. We are aware that some government offers get less take-up; hence, the Government have introduced a £1.2 million marketing campaign to help raise awareness among parents.

My Lords, the ONS recently reported the first sustained rise in 30 years in the number of women not in the labour market because they are taking care of family—and no wonder, when it costs £14,000 to put a two year-old into full-time childcare in England, which is two-thirds of median take-home pay. There are allegedly free places for younger children, but the Government do not pay enough to cover the costs, so providers are going out of business. Universal credit gives some help, but only if you can afford to pay up front and then claim back, which, of course, many cannot. So can the Minister see that, in modern Britain, childcare costs are rising twice as fast as wages? Businesses need staff; parents cannot afford to work. What are the Government doing about it?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question; the issue is very important and, as the noble Baroness knows, extremely complicated. We announced in July a number of measures that are under review to try to improve the supply of childcare and bring down the costs. My honourable friend the Minister for Children and Families is considering all of these actively at the moment.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the idea of upping the ratio of children to childcare staff has been removed from the table—and that going up to five three to four year-olds per member of staff, as has been suggested and is happening in Scotland, will not happen here? Lowering the quality of care will not help anyone.

I would say to the noble Lord, first, that nothing is yet off the table. As I just said, my honourable friend the Minister for Children and Families is considering all options. I am not aware of any research or evidence showing that quality is deteriorating; indeed, our childcare ratios are among the lowest in Europe.

My Lords, while the number of children with special educational needs and disabilities is going up, the capacity of childcare settings to support them is going down. According to Coram, only 21% of local authorities have sufficient capacity to meet their needs. Can the Minister say what the Government are doing to ensure that there is sufficient childcare provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities, given that the Government themselves have acknowledged the vital importance of early years inclusion to long-term outcomes?

As the noble Baroness said, the Government are very aware of the importance of this issue. We have made a number of changes, particularly in relation to funding early years provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities, including increasing the disability access fund, which is now worth £800 per eligible child; it was increased from £615 last year.

My Lords, in 2010 there were 3,600 Sure Start centres in the country; by 2020, 1,300 of them were closed. Do the Government plan to reopen any of the Sure Start centres that were closed in the last 10 years?

The Government are absolutely committed to families getting the right, co-ordinated early help. That is why we have announced funding for 75 local authorities to create family hubs; these will co-ordinate all the services, many of which were provided in the Sure Start centres.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, said earlier that this is very important, because businesses need staff, and particularly parents. Is the Minister aware of any incentives across government that are working with businesses to encourage them to provide childcare for their staff?

I am not aware of specific examples to give my noble friend, although I do know that a number of businesses are very innovative in the childcare that they provide to their staff. Obviously, the Government have been very active in creating a basis for flexible working for every employee in the workforce, which is also critical in this area.

My Lords, following the recommendation in a recent report published by the Work and Pensions Committee on universal credit and childcare costs, can the Minister tell us what assessment His Majesty’s Government have made of childcare funding schemes in Scotland and in some Scandinavian countries? Have they investigated whether their costs are offset by other benefits to society, such as increased economic activity, additional tax receipts and personal well-being?

A great deal of work is going on at the moment looking at different options, as I have said, to increase affordability but also to increase flexibility for parents. In addition to the report, which the right reverend Prelate mentioned, I can think of at least half a dozen think tank reports that have been published recently. What struck me in looking at those was that there is very little agreement on the solutions to this issue—hence the time we are taking to get it right.

My Lords, do the Government have a clear view about the maximum acceptable cost per hour of childcare? If the Government do have such a figure in mind, will the Minister explain to the House what it is? Are the Government providing subsidies to childcare to ensure that the cost does not rise above that level?

Obviously, the majority of providers in the childcare market in terms of number of places—whether childminders or nurseries—are effectively private businesses. The Government are well aware that their costs have risen much faster than their constituent parts, namely labour and rent. The Government are concerned about that, and we hear the impact on working families.

My Lords, despite the Minister saying earlier that the Disability Access Fund had increased, Contact a Family, the disabled children’s charity, in its most recent survey of parents, found that 87% of mothers with disabled children said that they could not work as much as they wanted to because the childcare was neither safe nor met their child’s specific needs. What are the Government trying to do to ensure that appropriate childcare is available for disabled and seriously ill children?

This is one of the areas that we are exploring at the moment and it is a particularly complex and challenging one. As the noble Baroness rightly says, every individual disabled child will need a bespoke package of support. Our aim is to make childcare flexible and affordable for parents.

My Lords, many hospitals now have a creche available for their working mothers, but the problem now is that many of these close at 5.30 pm or 6 pm and nurses often have to carry on. What can we do about that?

The noble Lord makes a good point, which really goes to the issue of the affordability of what in the jargon is known as “wraparound care”—outside conventional hours. One of the initiatives the Government have taken is to introduce what is known as tax-free childcare, which subsidises the cost of childcare for children between the ages of nought and 12. That programme historically had relatively low take-up, but I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the number of families using that tax-free childcare has more than doubled in the last four years.

My Lords, the Minister seems to have given an inadequate answer to my noble friend about Sure Start. The research shows very clearly that Sure Start changed and improved the quality of collaboration between children, their sociability and indeed their intellectual development when they started at primary school. Why have the Government left this in the way that they have?

I am sorry if the noble Lord thinks I gave an inadequate answer; that was certainly not my intention. What I was trying to say was that the Government absolutely recognise the importance of support for families, both in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life but also in the longer term—since, in my experience, families do not work in a straight line—as children grow up in the family hubs. All I was trying to say was that there is more than one way of achieving the same objective.