Childcare

Angela Crawley Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
Alex Davies-Jones Portrait Alex Davies-Jones (Pontypridd) (Lab)
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Having listened to contributions from colleagues across the House, it is clear that we must open up the language we use when speaking about childcare. It is all too common for the debate and, often, the responsibility for practical and logistical arrangements to fall solely on the mother. In doing so, we are at real risk of alienating hundreds of thousands of fantastic fathers from the wider debate. This is particularly evident when we consider the paltry paternity leave allowances on offer from the UK Government.

I know from first-hand experience that when someone has a newborn in hospital, the ticking clock of a return to work is truly the last thing on their mind. I recognise that my husband and I were luckier than most, because he was able to pool his annual leave to secure more paid time off work, but it really should not have to be that way. I pay tribute to the fantastic work of charities such as Bliss, which has fought for more paternity leave in the case of neonatal care for years. The campaign is working: I was pleased to see the Government recently announce plans to introduce neonatal leave that will cover up to 12 weeks when a baby is receiving neonatal care. Frustratingly, the policy is unlikely to come into force until 2023 at the earliest; even then, it is unclear whether these rights will be extended to fathers. For the 300,000 babies who will spend time in neonatal care over the next three years, that is simply not good enough.

It is a dreadful, sorry state of affairs when the UK Government, which, in their 2019 manifesto—although we know how they feel about manifesto claims—claimed that they have a vision for the labour market that includes being able to

“balance work and family life”

but they are unable to support parents with a robust and fit for purpose childcare system. Thankfully, in Wales the situation is in the hands of the brilliant Welsh Labour Government, which have shown their commitment to supporting parents with childcare costs for many years. This includes the brilliant Flying Start programme, which is a targeted early years programme for families with children under four living in some of the most disadvantaged areas of Wales. The Welsh Labour Government also offer everyone 33 hours of childcare per week for children aged three to four with no conditions.

It is clear that a huge number of our childcare providers are still struggling financially, as has already been mentioned. Thankfully, in Pontypridd and Taff Ely, we have fantastic childcare providers, including Little Inspirations, who have branches in Llantrisant and Tonyrefail. However, in the last year nursery closures have increased by 35% compared with the previous year, and the highest numbers of closures were in the most deprived communities. In addition, Ofsted data has shown that over the last 12 months we have lost 442 nurseries from the childcare register. Childcare is one of the very few female-dominated industries, and low-paid workers in this industry are being hit the hardest.

Yet the care providers working in our childcare settings are not the only ones losing out financially. The motherhood pay penalty refers to the pay gap between working mothers and similar women without dependent children, and it has been well documented over the years. The realities of the gap are genuinely shocking and are impacting people every day. The TUC’s recent report into the pay penalty shows that by the age of 42 mothers in full-time work earn 11% less than women in full-time work without children.

To combat this disparity, a number of steps must be taken. We need to enable more equal parenting roles, so that women are not held back at work. We need to see flexible working—and not just in the form of working from home. I am sure that colleagues will be well aware of the recently reported employment tribunal involving estate agent Alice Thompson. Ms Thompson won a pay-out of more than £180,000 after her boss refused to let her leave to pick up her daughter from nursery. I know that her situation will be familiar to so many. Alice simply wanted to work four days a week and finish at 5 pm, when her childcare finished, rather than at 6 o’clock, and her boss rejected her request, claiming that the business could not afford for her to go part time. That is just one example that reflects the extremely difficult situation that so many parents find themselves in. The Government simply must do better.

To conclude, Sir Roger, I sincerely hope that in her remarks today the Minister reflects on the real need for systemic change in our approach to both the funding and availability of childcare across the UK. The system is failing so many groups of people across society: from our childcare workers in unstable employment to single-parent families, mums who are earning less than their counterparts and dads who want to do more but cannot take the time off work. Parenthood is, of course, a privilege, but it is one that should not come with unnecessary and excessive financial burdens. I urge the Minister to work with her colleagues across Government Departments and the devolved nations to take bold action to support future generations and tomorrow’s parents.

Angela Crawley Portrait Angela Crawley (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP)
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It is pleasure to follow hon. Members across this House in this debate in particular, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I congratulate the organisers of the petition calling for a review of childcare in England on securing 100,000 signatures. It would be wise of the Government to listen to the collective voice of the signatories.

It might be thought rather strange that I should speak in a debate on childcare in England. However, while childcare is devolved to the Scottish Government and the SNP have chosen in the first instance to take a different path from England, it is concerning that, as the petition points out, many families are being pushed further into poverty as a result of the high costs of childcare. That, of course, will be exacerbated by the pandemic.

According to the Early Years Alliance, the UK Government’s offer of 30 hours of free childcare per week in England is not well funded enough, as we have heard, leaving parents scrabbling around for a provider that will give them the right hours and flexibility. As we have already heard from hon. Members across this House, the benefits of good quality childcare speak for themselves, and the need to fund the facilities providing this vital care is essential. As we have heard, the issue is not just about mothers; it is about parental leave, paternity leave and shared parental leave. Ultimately, all those options prevent a motherhood penalty.

The Sutton Trust found that the UK Government’s childcare policy was compounding inequalities and harming the life chances of children. Sir Roger, there are only a few seconds left for me to say that—if the clock is correct—

Roger Gale Portrait Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair)
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You have plenty of time.

Angela Crawley Portrait Angela Crawley
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Turning, finally, to the Minister, this is her opportunity. I know that she knows only too well the economic consequences and benefits of good quality childcare. Smashing the gender pay gap needs bold, innovative policies, and good quality, affordable childcare is a pretty good place to start.

Tulip Siddiq Portrait Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I would like to thank all my colleagues across the House who took the time to speak in today’s important debate. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), and little Pip, I want to begin by paying tribute to Joeli Brearley and everyone at Pregnant Then Screwed for starting this important petition and for the inspiring work that they have done to support women and parents in this country and to fight against gender inequalities.

On no issue is it more important to have dedicated campaigners like Joeli than on childcare, which is all too often ignored by politicians, despite it being a fundamental building block of our economy and our children’s development, as has been repeated several times in the debate. Its importance is highlighted by the fact that well over 100,000 people signed the petition, including 400 of my constituents in Hampstead and Kilburn.

In the Chamber last week I raised the Government’s own statistics, which show a loss of over 3,000 childcare providers in England in the first half of this year alone. This comes on top of a net loss of over 100,000 providers since 2015. I was very surprised that the Minister responded by claiming that there were no problems with sufficiency in the early years sector, given that a third of English councils do not have enough childcare places for parents working full time. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow raised this in her speech. I was surprised by the Minister’s remarks on childminders, which have now drawn much criticism, including from the chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, who commented:

“To hear the Children and Families Minister so casually dismiss the closure of thousands of childminders—and falsely imply that what they provide is just care, rather than education—is both insulting and infuriating.”

I do not want the outside world to think that that is how politicians in this place think when it comes to early education.

Every year, Coram Family and Childcare publishes a survey of childcare costs and availability, and every year it shows that there is a postcode lottery in childcare provision. All too often, the costs are soaring well above inflation. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) outlined her own experience of living through this postcode lottery and how much misery it has caused so many people in her constituency. A survey published before the debate by Pregnant Then Screwed found that a staggering 19 out of 20 working parents said the Government are not helping enough with childcare, with a third paying more for it than their rent or mortgage—again, a point that has been made over and over in the debate. That is because a full-time childcare place in the UK costs £14,000 a year. As my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow and for Putney constantly said, ours is one of the most expensive childcare systems in the whole world. That should make our heads hang in shame.

The sad truth about the eye-watering costs of childcare in this country is that it was a predictable result of the decision that the Government took to underfund the free childcare policy by a third in the last financial year alone. We know that because the Department for Education itself predicted it. Secret Government documents from 2015, uncovered by the Early Years Alliance, warned over and over again that failing to fully fund this policy would drive up costs for parents. Ministers pushed ahead regardless, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) said, left the sector with a £662-million annual funding gap even before covid hit.

As if that was not bad enough, there was almost no targeted support either for early years or for wraparound childcare providers during a pandemic that has seen their attendance levels and income plummet to the ground. Then came what early years analyst Ceeda calculated as a quarter of a billion pounds’ funding cut this spring term, due to the premature withdrawal of pre-covid funding levels. It is no wonder that 85% of childcare businesses expect to make a loss or break even this year, as research by the National Day Nurseries Association shows.

It is not just about statistics. There is a very real impact on families, who are struggling to make ends meet. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) talked passionately about equal parenting, the pay penalty, proper flexible working, and how children are being priced out of education at the most important stage of their development. Not only are private fees for early years childcare well out of reach for many families, including those in Hampstead and Kilburn, but a recent Sutton Trust report confirmed that the eligibility for the 30 hours free childcare scheme excludes the poorest. Are these the policies we want to have in our country, where we exclude the poorest from accessing high quality childcare?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) pointed out, parents are being forced to cut hours and quit jobs because they cannot find or afford childcare. Of course, this affects women disproportionately. Three quarters of working mums were forced to cut working hours in the first lockdown due to a lack of childcare. In 2018, there were over 800,000 mothers who wanted to work, but could not for financial reasons.

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Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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Hang on, this is important. We do not recognise the description of a 35% increase in closures. Between August 2020 and March 2021, approximately 2,000 settings joined the early years register while around 4,000 left. However, the overall number of childcare places has stayed broadly the same, suggesting that some of these closures were mergers, and in parallel some providers are increasing the number of places they offer.

The hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) mentioned access to childcare for vulnerable children. It is important to remember that our early years pupil premium provides up to £302 per eligible child per year, specifically to improve outcomes for disadvantaged three and four-year-olds. She also suggested that three and four-year-olds not having access to the full 30 hours of childcare could have a negative impact on their educational development. In fact, the Sutton Trust admits that its research does not conclude that more formal childcare results in better educational outcomes. The evidence for the positive impact on educational outcomes of attending more than 15 to 20 hours of childcare per week is limited. Over that number of hours, it is helpful for childcare, but less so for educational outcomes. There is evidence that those exiting the market are less likely to be providers in disadvantaged areas of the country.

Angela Crawley Portrait Angela Crawley
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Will the Minister give way?

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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I really want to get some of this on the record because it is important to providers. Between June and December last year, a lower proportion of childcare providers leaving the early years register were from the most deprived quintile in comparison to other areas, with 12% of providers that left the market located in the most deprived areas.

What is important is ensuring that there is sufficient childcare and the Government’s priority is to track whether there are enough childcare places locally for parents. It is encouraging to see that the proportion of parents using formal childcare appears to be similar to before the pandemic. Every six weeks, the Department calls local authorities across the country to discuss childcare provision at the local level. At no time since June 2020, when provision reopened more widely after the first lockdown, has any local authority reported a significant lack of sufficient childcare places for parents who need them. The number of places has stayed broadly stable over the past five to six years, despite an average 3% decline in the number of births each year since 2017.

Throughout the pandemic, settings have continued to access a range of business support packages, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme, if they experienced a drop in their income or if parents were unable to attend their usual place. We are also supporting the early years sector by ensuring expert training and development is available to the workforce. That includes an investment of £20 million in high quality, evidence-based professional development for practitioners in targeted disadvantaged areas, which will give early years settings in those areas the skills to help the disadvantaged children who will benefit most from this assistance.

In June, we announced another investment of £153 million over the next three years, including funding for training of early years staff to support the very youngest children’s learning and development, especially in areas such as special educational needs and disabilities.