Skip to main content


Volume 835: debated on Monday 22 January 2024

Commons Urgent Question

My Lords, I will now repeat the Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place.

“My Lords, this Government are rolling out the single largest expansion in childcare in England’s history. By September 2025, we will be providing working parents with 30 hours of free childcare a week from when their child is nine months old, all the way until they start school. By 2027-28, this Government expect to spend in excess of £8 billion every year on free hours in early education—double the amount we are currently spending.

We are introducing this in phases. From April, eligible working parents can access the first 15 hours of free childcare each week for their two year-olds. In September, they will be able to access the first 15 hours each week for nine month-olds. A year later in September 2025, they will be able to access the full 30 hours for all eligible children aged nine months and upwards.

We want parents to be able to access the new offer as soon as they can. Delivering that ambition includes increasing childcare funding rates, with an additional £204 million in this financial year and an additional £400 million in the coming financial year. We are providing grants to help new childminders enter the sector and making changes to the early years foundation stage that the sector has asked us to make to make it easier for them.

We hear every day from families how significant this policy will be for their finances. Once the rollout is completed, eligible families will save up to £6,500 per year. It will help parents to return to work or increase their hours, and tens of thousands of parents have already successfully applied for their codes, ready to take up their places in April. Parents should visit to see the full range of support they are entitled to.

Regarding tax-free childcare, we will be issuing letters with temporary codes to any parents whose tax-free childcare reconfirmation date falls on or after 15 February and before 1 April. That will ensure that any eligible parent who needs a code to confirm their funded childcare place with their provider will have one, and that no parent should worry that they will lose out.

I welcome this opportunity to correct some misleading stories about the childcare rollout, and to hear from the honourable Lady about whether she supports our childcare policies, and, if not, what her childcare policies would be. I am sure Members on her Benches would like to know as much as we would.”

My Lords, the Prime Minister admitting that there were some practical issues with the Government’s flagship childcare expansion might qualify for the understatement of the year so far. Can the Minister say how the Government intend to address the fact that that there are currently two children for every place, that there are 40,000 too few nursery workers to deliver the scheme and—despite her confidence—that just one in 10 eligible parents is able to access a code to sign up for the 15 funded hours for two year-olds come April, as Pregnant Then Screwed reported last week?

I think the noble Baroness is aware of a number of the measures that we have announced. She raises the issue of too few providers, but she will be aware that last year the number of places rose by 1% and staff numbers rose by 4% to 347,300. We are launching a new recruitment campaign to boost interest in early years careers, and we have already made some changes that will boost capacity, including changing the staff to child ratio from 1:4 to 1:5, which we introduced in September, and changing the requirements on nursery practitioners at level 3, who no longer need to have a maths qualification to fulfil the role.

My Lords, according to Ofsted, the number of early years places fell by almost 18,000 in the 12 months to August 2023. The DfE’s own figures show that there are now over 11,000 fewer childminders operating than five years ago. Meanwhile, the BBC estimates that the demand for places is likely to rise by more than 100,000 additional children before the full 30-hour expansion is in place in September 2025. How will the Minister ensure that there are enough providers and spaces for this funding expansion to have any positive effect?

I addressed some of the noble Lord’s points in my earlier Answer, but he is of course right that the number of childminders declined by 10% last year. However, he will be aware that childminders typically have much smaller numbers of children—hence my remarks about the additional number of places, which rose last year. The Government’s additional actions are to increase the hourly rates paid to local authorities, which are increasing significantly, to £11.22 on average for children under two, but also with increases for other age groups.

My Lords, I very much welcome this generous entitlement of free childcare, but is my noble friend aware of reports of children with special educational needs being turned away by early years providers? Those children need the support more than any other children. So what steps can my noble friend take to ensure that they get the support they need?

I thank my noble friend for his question. I too have seen those reports, although our understanding in the department is that the vast majority of providers behave extremely responsibly and provide places for children with special educational needs and disabilities. But, if my noble friend or anyone in the House has examples of where this is not the case, we would be very grateful to hear those. We are also increasing the rate of funding for the disability access fund, and the early years national funding formula contains an element that addresses the additional costs of working with children with special educational needs.

My Lords, in June last year, the Minister told the House that this investment

“will make sure that parents are able to access the high-quality, affordable childcare that they need”.—[Official Report, 29/6/23; col. 898.]

But can she now tell the House when the Government will start listening to the sector? It is raising concerns, not least that providers of this childcare are not getting their rates confirmed. The risk is that they will not get them confirmed until 31 March, and they are supposed to deliver the service on 1 April. That is a bit of a challenge. How will we address that?

The noble Lord raises an important point, and he will be aware that, at the end of November 2023, we published the local authority-level hourly funding rates. Of course, it is up to local authorities to parse that information and to decide the funding rates for their local providers. We are aware that some local authorities have not yet done that, and we are working closely with them and stressing to them exactly the points that the noble Lord made.

My Lords, we have been talking in general terms and overall figures, but the BBC reported the words of Sarah McCormick, of Little Owl Childcare, which manages three centres in Staffordshire. She says simply that they are full, with no space for more children and not enough staff to offer those places. That seems to reflect what the chief executive of the Early Years Alliance told the Independent; namely, that very many parents are turning up but being turned away and told there is a 12- to 18-month wait at least. That seems to be what the reports all say, so can the Minister comment on them? On one specific point, we are talking about something that is supposed to start in April, and one of the ways the Government say they will get the staff is through a new accelerated apprenticeship route, which will be introduced for staff. Given that this is starting in April, when is the apprenticeship route likely to begin?

I hear the concerns of the noble Baroness about space and staff, although I would point out that we believe the growth in demand for places will be at its greatest towards the introduction in September 2025. So there is quite a lot of time for us to be working with the sector and building capacity. I absolutely reassure the noble Baroness that colleagues in the department and my honourable friend the Minister for Children and Families work very closely with those in the sector and listen carefully to their demands.

Does the Minister accept the comments made by the chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, which represents 14,000 nurseries, childminders and preschools, that it would be “financial suicide” for providers to offer places without knowing the funding level they will receive? He said:

“You cannot run a nursery if you know what your costs are but you have no idea what your revenue is likely to be”.

I addressed this in answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. In November last year, we gave all local authorities their funding rates. It is for them then to communicate with local providers on what the specific rates and the range of rates will be in their area.

To pursue that point a bit further, the noble Baroness said she had given the rates to the local authorities, but some local authorities have not moved on that. What are we doing to ensure that local authorities very quickly get the rates out so that organisations know what rates to charge and parents can have some certainty? It is 22 January now; we are talking about 1 April. There is a bit of urgency here.

I could not agree more, but I stress, again, that the vast majority of local authorities have informed their providers and we are working closely with the remaining ones to urge them to do so as quickly as possible.

My Lords, does this exchange not underline the need to increase capacity in the early years market? What steps is my noble friend taking to launch a recruitment campaign to encourage people to enter this sector?

We will shortly be launching a new national campaign that will be broadcast across a number of different channels to try to boost interest in the early years sector. Having been in a nursery in a school this morning, I can say that it certainly looked to me like the most attractive job.

House adjourned at 7.52 pm.