Childcare

Ellie Reeves Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie (Stroud) (Con)
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I thank the Petitions Committee and everyone who signed the petition to secure this debate today.

The childcare juggle is real. Parental life should come with a military gold command schedule-planner. Instead, it is made up of grandparents—if people are lucky enough to have them about—after-school clubs, childminders, understanding bosses, nurseries and friends doing favours for each other.

This morning, I dictated a weekly article for my local newspaper down the phone to my team, while trying to put my wriggling daughter’s leggings on, in between trying to put my face on, answering messages and making sure that she was fed before I handed her over in order to come here. On top of all that, the cost of childcare is truly painful for many people.

I will make five key points before I move on. No. 1 is that we cannot afford to have the vital talent of the parents of young children being kept out of the workforce; the country and the economy will not thrive without them.

No.2 is that if anyone has ever seen what a working mum fits into an hour of “free” time before legging it back to the school or nursery gates, they will know that mums could singlehandedly fix the economy’s problem with productivity if they were freed up to do so.

No. 3 is that child carers, nursery teams, nannies and early years teachers are all skilled angels who need more career recognition and pathways to higher salaries. This profession deserves respect and everybody found that out when they tried to home-school children over the past year.

No. 4 is that the wellbeing of a child will always come first for parents. We must work harder to ensure that childcare providers improve our system, so that the choice for parents is not one between having a career and having a child.

Finally, No. 5 is that employers are not the enemy and neither are the Government. If there was a single solution, it would have been put in place by now. I am concerned, because if this issue is turned into a political football, as I have read and heard about in some of the coverage today, nothing will get done.

I have long thought that childcare needs a bit of an overhaul, but without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Parents in my constituency tell me that the 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds has been invaluable, and approximately 60% of disadvantaged two-year-olds benefit from 15 hours of free childcare a week.

We have a £1 billion flexible childcare services fund being established and I am part of the early years taskforce with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), so I know well that we are thankfully bringing about some really interesting changes for families at the moment. So, to lambast the Government for not doing anything, or claiming that they are not trying to help, is wrong.

I would also like to see cross-party working on this issue. We saw Labour, when it was in Government, struggling to address rising childcare costs; those costs rose by significantly more than inflation in 2003 and faster than earnings in 2009. Labour knows how difficult this issue is; Labour Members know how difficult it is. Let us work together to try to find new solutions.

Personally, I am open to the petition’s call for an independent review. However, such reviews really cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds and—frankly —if that money is available, I would prefer it to go to the childcare sector. So I am also quite cautious about the request.

However, putting myself into action, I am an advisory board member of the think-tank Onward and I am already in discussions with it about conducting an investigation into childcare. I am also a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, and after hearing from some fabulous young women parents who came to give evidence last week, I have asked the Committee’s Chair to consider reviewing childcare policies under universal credit. I say to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) that that would include considering issues surrounding up-front payment.

The early years of a child’s life are absolutely critical; the relationships in their life, which include those with all the people in the childcare sector who they encounter, will set the scene for them for years to come. I ask the Government to work with us. I know the Minister cares deeply about this, as does the Prime Minister, who has a baby and another one on the way and knows this struggle, but we have to look at all aspects of childcare alongside what we are doing with the early years taskforce, which is critical. The Chancellor is very interested in this area, and I am pleased to hear that Members have spoken to him already.

The issues have got much worse during the pandemic. We owe it to every parent and child and the childcare sector to improve the system. We can show we are working hard for working parents to give every child the best start in life.

Ellie Reeves Portrait Ellie Reeves (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Sir Roger, on a topic very close to my heart. I thank the Petitions Committee and all the petitioners for securing the debate. I want to start by paying tribute to all the early years educators in my constituency: the nurseries, pre-schools and childminders all worked tirelessly during the pandemic to look after some of the youngest in society.

Early years are critical for a child’s development and for determining their life chances, but the childcare sector faces pressures because of Government neglect over the last decade. Chronic underfunding has left nurseries and childminders facing a growing financial crisis. In this year alone, 2,500 providers have closed, and many talented staff have left the profession. Since 2015, 12,000 early education and childcare providers have been lost, with 30,000 more at risk of closure in the next year.

Millions of parents, particularly mothers, rely on childcare in order to work, and analysis by Pregnant Then Screwed shows that 345,000 women will be at risk of losing their jobs if further childcare providers are lost. Despite that, the Government have said that they are not planning a review of the childcare system or early years funding, but it is clear that urgent steps need to be taken to prevent further childcare closures and to rebuild that essential infrastructure. With the greatest respect to the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), I imagine that the experiences of childcare and affordability are very different for the Prime Minister than for the vast majority of my constituents.

The funding model has a huge number of issues. Prior to the pandemic, 11% of childcare providers were running at a significant loss, with the industry as a whole suffering an estimated £662 million shortfall in funding. Meanwhile, public spending on childcare has fallen as a share of GDP since 2010, and remains considerably below the OECD average.

The Sutton Trust and the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently found that some of the poorest children are “locked out” of the 30-hours childcare scheme for three and four-year-olds simply because their parents do not earn enough to qualify, and that contributes to the widening gap between the poorest children and their peers before school even starts. The funds provided for that childcare, even by the Government’s own estimate, are not enough to fund the scheme.

A related issue is affordability. Fees have risen three times faster than wages since 2008, making the UK home to one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world. A survey published today, commissioned by a dozen organisations, found that 97% of respondents thought childcare was too expensive, and one third said that they paid more for their childcare than for their mortgage. We have already heard that in London, where I am an MP, the cost of nursery provision for a one-year-old grew seven times faster than wages between 2008 and 2016. It simply is not good enough for my constituents who rely on affordable childcare to be able to go out to work.

Finally, I want to say something about the conditions for people working in the childcare sector, where the average wage is £7.42 an hour. In 2019, almost half of childcare workers had to claim state benefits and tax credits, with one in 10 workers officially living in poverty. That is awful. How can we expect such an important job educating the youngest in society to be done for such low pay?

More and more evidence has been published on how critical early years are for a child’s development and future attainment. Investing in childcare therefore offers a huge opportunity to give each child a greater and more equal start in life. Investing in the sector should start by giving workers pay that reflects the importance of their work. High quality early education is an investment in the future—not a cost. A decade of neglect has left the sector in crisis. However, despite this, there are now so many opportunities for reform to benefit working families, future generations and our economy. I hope the Government will listen to the more than 100,000 people who signed the petition calling for today’s debate, and will provide good quality, genuinely affordable childcare for all.

Cherilyn Mackrory Portrait Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank the Petitions Committee, and the Chair, for the debate today, and everyone who signed the petition. I also say a huge thank you to all the nursery and early years workers who have done such a sterling job over the last 18 months.

I come at the subject as someone who took full advantage of the Government’s 30 hours scheme. When my daughter was nine months old I had to go back to work, but, as we know, MPs are the most flexible of employers and I was lucky enough to work for one. I took full advantage of grandparental childcare until my daughter was old enough to take advantage of the 30 hours scheme—and I was very grateful for it. Having become an MP, I find myself on the other side of the fence, hearing from those early years providers how difficult it has been, and is. I will not repeat what we have already heard this afternoon.

I, too, sit on the early years taskforce with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), and we hope to make some very exciting new proposals in the coming months and years. We had a meeting with the early years providers and the children and families sector at Cornwall Council, and we were both pleased to hear that Cornwall is already doing a lot of what we want to achieve. I am hopeful, and want to put another call out, that if any pilot schemes or funding schemes are going to be running for early years and early years sectors, then Cornwall with its very clean boundaries and co-operative and fabulous team of MPs, councillors and council workers will put itself forward for them.

When someone has a baby—as many of us will know—they have the mum guilt. Many parents do not actually want to go back to work. That is at the thrust of this debate. The cost of living today, mostly because of housing, means that it is very difficult to pay a mortgage on just one salary. That is different to where we were 30 years ago. It is absolutely important that we get this right, and I would support any review that we can have. I am encouraged by what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has said, and I would support that too.