Jim Shannon Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
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.

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.

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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.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The shadow Minister is making some very important points. Does she agree that it is not fair for the burden of childcare to fall upon the shoulders of grandparents, who do not have the physical ability to look after children in the way they probably did at one time? I believe that the onus is on the Government and the Minister to come back with a response that helps people.

Tulip Siddiq Portrait Tulip Siddiq
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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.