Fleur Anderson Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
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.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for leading this debate, speaking so passionately and making the argument for the review so clearly. That is supported by the more than 130,000 people who have signed the petition, so I would like to thank them for taking the time to sign, ensuring that we have this important debate—it is not a debate that we have often enough. I thank the almost 500 people in my constituency of Putney who signed the petition. I thank all the early years staff in my constituency and across the country, as other Members have, for their amazing commitment to educating children before and during the pandemic, when we saw so many changes and challenges. I thank the all-party parliamentary group on childcare and early education, as well as Pregnant Then Screwed, for leading campaigning in this area.

As has been said before—it is shocking—the UK has one of the most expensive childcare systems in the world. We should aim for that not to be the case. Some 75% of children living in poverty are in working households, with childcare costs accounting for 56% of the overall cost of a child for working couples. Childcare costs are 30% higher than average in inner London—in my constituency—and up to 50% higher than in other regions. It is a postcode lottery as to how affordable childcare is.

I started paying childcare costs in 1998, when I had my first child, and I had to carry on until 2017 when my fourth child left primary school. I have experienced many years of struggling to afford childcare costs. The local Sure Start centre in my area was closed—it had been a lifeline for me. For many years, the childcare costs I was paying were equal to my salary; as has been mentioned before, I was literally just paying childcare costs to keep my place in my career. I stepped out of the workforce for many years, because it was just not affordable. I then went back part time. It was a struggle throughout all of those years to afford childcare. The fact that only 389 maintained nursery schools are left in the UK is adding to the crisis, as they are such an important part of our early years provision.

One fantastic state-maintained nursery is Eastwood Nursery School, in my constituency. The headteacher at Eastwood recently said to me:

“The quality of what we can offer is in real jeopardy if our funding is reduced. We are fearful that the much-needed service we provide to the children of a very deprived community is at great risk if we do not have the secure funding to continue our work.”

Funding is only given year-by-year, which is why she talked about secure funding.

“Nurseries will simply not be able to continue at the current rates. Closures of early-years settings across the country will deepen both financial and educational inequalities, while slowing the recovery from the pandemic.”

We need a review; a review has been called for by the all-party parliamentary group on childcare and early education from before the pandemic, but it is even more important now. It needs to look at the pandemic’s impact on nurseries, childminders, pre-school children and jobs. It would be a landmark opportunity for a radical rethink of how we fund and deliver childcare.

I was disappointed that the Government dismissed the call for the review out of hand when so much research has shown the impact of covid-19; 7% of parents have attended an early years setting that has subsequently closed, and single parents were twice as likely to be forced to change jobs—or leave work entirely—as a result of the high childcare costs. The statistics could go on.

We are failing children if affordable childcare is a postcode lottery. We need a review to see what is going on across the country, where the early years sector is failing families, what we need to support the early years workforce better and what the impact has been for children’s development, and to make recommendations that will be implemented and funded. One parent’s comment particularly shocked me:

“I had to cease being self-employed as I could not find or afford childcare. I have secured a new job but this is a massive pay cut and a big demotion…It leaves me with not enough for after school club for my eldest child.”

That is the experience of parents across the country.

I fully support and echo the call of these petitioners. It is time to start treating childcare as the essential infrastructure investment that it is—in our economy, in our families, and in our country. I urge the Minister to go back and look again at this and to urgently launch a comprehensive, expert and independent early years review.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson). I followed her in a debate in Westminster Hall, last week, and today I do the same, again on a subject that we agree on. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for setting the scene, and for giving us a chance to participate.

Childcare and its affordability are of great interest to every Member in this House. I am sure that not one of us has not sat with a young family to tell them that they are above the threshold and cannot get help. That is, unfortunately, something that I have had to address in my own office recently as the extra £50 per month that they get prevents them from accessing four times that in childcare help—and I want to put on record my thanks to all who provide childcare in my constituency of Strangford, who have helped so many people through the pandemic with what they do. These are everyday problems in my constituency. The options for those families are to live with it, or go to their bosses, cap in hand, and ask for a reduction in hours that will be just enough to put them under that threshold. Many will not do this, as it is not as easy a fix for their boss as it may seem at first glance.

A couple contacted me last week; the lady, in particular, is very unwell. She is on employment and support allowance and personal independence payment. Unfortunately, if she was to transfer to universal credit to access working tax credits and child tax credits, she would automatically find that the childcare that she would qualify for would make her financially worse off. There are many complex issues.

For many, grandparents, whether they are fit or not, are left to fill the breach. There are approximately 14 million grandparents in the UK; one in every three people over the age of 50 is a grandparent. In the past two generations, the number of children being cared for by their grandparents has increased substantially— from 33% to 82%. That is massive. Grandparents are the childminders of today. Almost two thirds of all grandparents regularly look after their grandchildren, saving working parents approximately £6.8 billion nationally in childcare costs, but what is the cost to their quality of life?

We have upped the pension age—we all know about the Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign, and how those women are unable to leave work at 60. Many women drop their hours at that time of their life to take care of their grandchildren, so they are not able to answer the call of their body and simply slow down. There must be something better for grandparents—more than just a national insurance stamp for minding their grandchildren. Many parents in the middle income bracket simply cannot afford to pay for childcare themselves.

My parliamentary aide is the youngest of five siblings. Her sister was 20 when she had her first child, in the middle of her nursing degree, and my aide was 32 when she had her first. Their mother, Roberta Armstrong, has been providing childcare for almost 50 years: initially caring for her own children and, for the last 27 years, constantly caring for her working children’s children. She has grandchildren in the workforce, grandchildren in medical college, and grandchildren at the start of their education in P2. Roberta Armstrong had her first child at 18. She is not the same as she was at 39, when her first grandchild was born, and yet the demands are the same. Caring for her children and grandchildren has been her way of life, but she has to do what a childminder could never do, and which the parents cannot afford to pay for.

What respite is available for the grandparent, and for my parliamentary aide? She works flexitime to allow her more time off in the holidays; this works well for me, and ultimately it means she can take time off during recess, but jobs like that are not readily available. My wife, Sandra, and I are grandparents as well. She looks after the grandchildren—there are five at different ages. She says the wee boys are the hardest—I would not know, because we only ever had boys—and the wee girls are not too bad. How do we breach the gap for families like those, who are asking too much of their elderly parents because they have no other option?

Many parents are caught in a Catch-22 situation. They earn too much to get help or subsidised childcare, and yet they do not earn enough to pay someone to do everything that needs to be done. This leads to examples such as the 67-year-old grandmother with a heart condition lifting and laying a five-year-old with a broken leg.

Do we consider longer school days? Would that eat into their childhood? Do we ask employers to do more, when the pressure of paid holidays and sick days is already too much for many to bear? Do we provide additional paid clubs that work like wraparound childcare? Something needs to be done. I ask the Government to decide today to help those who work hard and simply want a little help to enjoy their children, instead of waiting until their children have children to take care of their grandchildren. I believe that now is the time. Let us break the cycle and strengthen the family.

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Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. When it comes to the take-up of the two-year-old offer, which is particularly targeted at disadvantaged backgrounds, there is a huge discrepancy between different parts of the country. For example, there are parts of London where up to 70% of families have taken it up, and other parts where it is far lower. That is why I encourage Members to get in touch with me if they want and I will tell them about the take-up in their area. As I said, there are areas where seven out of 10 families are taking it up and are continuing to do so. I will talk more about disadvantaged families later.

As the hon. Lady is aware, the Government can also help with 85% of childcare costs for universal credit claimants even if they work only a few hours a week. I know it can be challenging to claim, but it is important to recognise that it is there. In my own jobcentre, the job coaches are working closely with parents to help them with making a claim that so that they can get back into work.

Wraparound childcare is also important as it not only supports parents so they can work but can benefit children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, and their educational and social development. I was absolutely delighted to go around the country this summer looking at our holiday activities and food programme, which has ensured that thousands of school-aged children on free school meals have had access to childcare as well as exciting activities and food. I thank all Members who visited their HAF programmes this summer. It is the first time that we have ever had anything like that type of project for our children. Of course, we piloted it for three years, but this year it has been all across the country, and local authorities are already setting out their plans for Christmas.

The Government invest a significant amount in early education and childcare, including £3.5 billion for each of the past three years on funding our entitlements for two, three and four-year-olds. In November 2020, the Chancellor announced another £44 million investment for this financial year to help local authorities increase their hourly rates paid to childcare providers. All local authorities have seen an increase of at least 8p an hour in the two-year-old entitlement. The vast majority of areas have had an increase of 6p an hour for three and four-year-olds. Significant increases were also made for hourly rate entitlements funding in 2019.

Several hon. Members from London constituencies mentioned the cost of childcare in London. It is important to note that we pay a higher funding rate for those entitlements in areas where business costs are higher. The average hourly funding rate for a three or four-year-old across all of England is £4.91, but the equivalent for London is notably higher at £6.11. The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) may be interested to know that in her constituency, the amount we pay to Camden is one of the highest in the entire country at £8.51.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned the spending review. As hon. Members know, we are already working on a multi-year spending review. In the Department for Education, we are absolutely continuing to press the importance of early years care and education right across Government as part of that spending review. Given that we are in the middle of spending review negotiations, it would not be appropriate to launch a separate independent review of childcare at this time because the outcomes of such a review would not be able to feed into the speeding review that is happening right now. We expect the outcome of the spending review to be announced later this year. My hon. Friend also mentioned closures.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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Will the hon. Member give way?

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.

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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.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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On the issues raised by the Minister about sufficiency, are councils’ childcare sufficiency reports used to make an assessment of whether there are sufficient places or not, and of the impact of the sufficiency of places on childcare costs in an area? For example, in my borough of Wandsworth, there may be a sufficient number of places but they are not necessarily in the right areas. We have heard reports of childcare places in the most deprived areas closing more than others, and that may be happening across the country. Does the Minister have a sufficient assessment of sufficiency reports to know this?

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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I thank the hon. Member for her great interest in this subject. We see the number of providers joining and entering the market through the Ofsted register, and we have looked at the providers joining and entering based on areas of deprivation. As I said, those leaving the market are less likely to be providers in disadvantaged areas of the country. Only 12% of those leaving the market were in the most deprived areas.

In the last statistics in March 2021, there were reported to be about 1.3 million places in childcare settings. That has stayed stable over the past five to six years, despite the fact that year on year, for the past few years, we have seen on average a 3% drop in the number of children being born. We have regular contacts with local authorities, and we are not hearing about systemic failures in any local area or about parents not being able to access childcare. They may not be able to get exactly the place or the flexibility they would most like, but there is not a systemic shortage.

High quality childcare, delivered by trained, dedicated staff makes a real difference to children’s outcomes. I include and value childminders when I talk about high quality, dedicated staff.