Jim ShannonMain Page: Jim Shannon (Democratic Unionist Party - Strangford)
Department Debates - View all Jim Shannon's debates with the Department for Education
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.
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.
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.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I was listening to his speech very closely, because I was reflecting that there is no way I could have got through six years of being an MP without relying on my mother—who, by the way, turns 65 today. She is someone who helped me with my childcare, because my father is in a wheelchair; she was responsible for looking after the children when I did not get proper maternity leave from this place. I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope that the Government will recognise the pressure that is put on grandparents. My mother is 65, but there are lots of grandparents who are a lot older and struggle physically to look after small children. I hope the Minister takes heed of what the hon. Gentleman has to say.
I also want to talk about childcare workers, 93% of whom are women, who are languishing on poverty pay after suffering years of real-terms pay cuts under Conservative Governments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge pointed out, the average wage in the sector is £7.42 per hour, and shamefully, one in 10 staff earn less than £5 an hour. These talented and dedicated workers are unsurprisingly leaving the sector as quickly as they can. It is clear to anyone who has direct experience of the childcare system in this country that there is something seriously wrong with it, and it could get a lot worse if nursery and childcare closures continue as they are at the moment. This petition should be a wake-up call for Ministers and the Government to rethink their approach to child- care funding.
That is why my Labour colleagues and I have been banging on about the need for targeted support to halt the collapse of the childcare sector. We are not being dramatic, and we are not scaremongering: this is the reality of the situation. Our childcare recovery plan also proposes a real, substantial hike in the early years pupil premium, from £302 per person per year to £1,345, as part of a £15 billion package to give every child new opportunities to learn, play and develop. I believe it is time to give childcare the attention and the funding it deserves, so that we can be a country that values children, parents and family and so that childcare becomes a part of the country’s infrastructure, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North so eloquently put it when she opened this important debate.