Childcare

Roger Gale Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education

[Relevant documents: First Report of the Petitions Committee, Session 2019-21, The impact of Covid-19 on maternity and parental leave, HC 526, and the Government response, HC 770; oral evidence taken before the Petitions Committee on 14 July 2021, on Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on, HC 479; and summary of public engagement by the Petitions Committee on Impact of Covid-19 on new parents: one year on, reported to the House on 5 July 2021, HC 479.]

Roger Gale Portrait Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair)
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Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen—welcome back. Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when not speaking, if possible, in line with Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I apologise to Members for the fact that, having given you that advice, I may not be able to adhere to it myself because my glasses steam up and I might not be able to see anybody. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.

Please send speaking notes by email to hansardnotes@ parliament.uk. If in any doubt, come and ask and we will repeat that for you. Similarly, officials should communicate with Ministers electronically, where possible.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 586700, relating to funding and affordability of childcare.

The petition is about the need for an independent review of childcare funding so that we can really think through what we want our childcare and early education sector to be, and what we hope it can do for the families who need it and for us as a society. So many economic and social benefits flow from the sector that it is difficult to summarise in the time we have, but I think most of us would agree on three key reasons why it is so important to support high quality early education.

First, we know from international evidence that so many important life outcomes—from health to wealth and wellbeing—have their origins in the early years. Quality early education can benefit children’s academic and social development, and evidence shows that those benefits are often stronger for children from disadvantaged families, as it starts them off on a more equal footing with their peers when they go to school.

Secondly, access to childcare is crucial for working parents. Closures during the pandemic have served as a real reminder of just how important it is. The pre-school years are a particularly significant time for new mothers: regrettably, decisions around their childcare in that short period can have a huge impact on their lifetime earnings and, consequently, on the gender pay gap.

Finally, helping with the cost of childcare and early education is one of the best ways for the Government to ensure that families with young children—particularly those on low incomes—are not financially crippled by high costs. As the petitioners point out, childcare in the UK is expensive. Statistics from the OECD show that, however we look at it, we are close to the top of the list of developed countries for childcare costs.

I think that most of us would agree on what we want our early years sector to deliver and on those broad criteria, but some may place different emphasis on them. Analysing whether we are meeting those objectives, and how we can improve on them, is a huge task that touches on many complex areas, such as funding, training, accountability and outcomes. I do not think this House has the expertise or the time to cover those in depth, which is why we need an independent review.

During the debate, I want to look specifically at funding, which is the focus of the petition. In that key area, there is strong evidence that we are letting down children, parents and providers, and I will make the case to support the petitioners’ call for an independent review. Determining the right level of funding for the early years is of course the subject of long-running disputes between the Government and sector representatives, but it goes to the heart of what early years really means to us as a country.

Childcare is as necessary for parents to get to work as the roads and the rail network, so why do we not approach and fund it as the vital infrastructure investment that it clearly is? I am sure the Minister will point out that spending on free entitlements—the 15 and 30-hour entitlements for three and four-year-olds, and disadvantaged two-year-olds—has more than doubled to around £3.4 billion since 2010, but it is important to look at what has driven that increase. Most of it has come from successive expansions of eligibility, which are of course hugely welcome. However, what providers are concerned about is a discrepancy between the cost per hour of delivering the free entitlements and the funding per hour that they receive.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ latest annual report on education spending shows that funding per hour of childcare is now only about 13% higher in real terms than in 2004, despite an increase of about 150% in total spending. In recent years, funding per hour has declined from its 2017-18 peak, showing that even the modest increase introduced alongside the 30-hour entitlement in 2017 has not been maintained.

Even more importantly, we know that it is not enough just to provide for the costs of delivering childcare. The Department for Education’s publication in June of a much-delayed freedom of information response to the Early Years Alliance showed that the Government were aware of the consequences of introducing the 30 hours policy with an insufficient level of investment. Ministers knew that the investment would meet only around two thirds of costs—meaning higher costs for parents—and force early years staff to look after the maximum legal ratio of children, with significant impacts on quality. With a lack of proper investment in the free entitlement, providers are forced to cover their costs by charging more for the non-funded hours. That means spiralling costs for parents and carers, whose fees have risen three times faster than earnings since 2008—and that is just the average. For the parents of two-year-olds in some parts of the country, childcare costs have risen seven times faster than their wages.

As a working mother both before and since becoming an MP, I have my own experiences of the heart-wrenching stress and pressure of getting the right childcare and support, and of the enormous costs. Our childcare costs are now the highest of almost any developed country. In a Petitions Committee survey earlier this year, 77% of parents agreed or strongly agreed that cost had prevented them from getting the kind of childcare they really needed. One respondent said:

“I do not have the option to have family or friends look after my child when I return to work and I can’t afford to not be in work, but childcare costs more than my mortgage for full time hours.”

Another commented:

“My wages will just about cover our childcare costs, therefore I am basically working only to ‘hold my place’ until my baby is old enough not to need childcare i.e., once she starts school.”

That has a huge impact on the gender pay gap. Clearly, it is still by and large women who take on most of the responsibility for childcare. Research by Pregnant Then Screwed found that 62% of women who returned to work worked fewer hours, changed jobs or stopped working because of childcare costs. Sadly, we know that the resulting loss of wages has a long-term impact on far too many women.

Properly funded childcare also means ensuring that providers have the money to pay and train their staff appropriately. I want to thank early years staff and management for their efforts over the last 18 months. Most staff have worked through the entire pandemic, and many settings have kept their doors open the entire time, looking after the children of key workers and others and keeping our country moving through this international crisis. Early years staff and management deserve our thanks and appreciation, and our commitment to tackle the serious issues raised by the petitioners.

According to research by Nursery World, one in 10 childcare workers relies on foodbanks, and 45% claim some form of benefit. One in eight earns less than £5 an hour, meaning that staff turnover is high, which can impact on the quality of care, the quality of education and the stability provided for children. We also know that in the past decade, there has been a long-term decrease in the number of people who want to work in the early years sector. One nursery manager told me just how difficult it is to retain staff, particularly in a setting with a disadvantaged intake and a high incidence of special educational needs.

Employees feel that they are sacrificing any semblance of work-life balance for minimum wage, leading to higher absence rates and higher staff turnover. That means that a child’s key worker might change to someone both they and their parents are unfamiliar with multiple times in a year, affecting the quality of education that they receive. It also means that settings are regularly thrown into chaos because they cannot recruit fast enough to fill the gaps. I was told that, at least once a month, staffing issues mean that nurseries hope that not every parent will bring their child to nursery, because if every child attended there would be no way to maintain the required legal ratios. It is shocking that this is what some settings face, and it shows how badly off track we have got.

It cannot be right that while staff are poorly paid and parents pay high costs, the sector’s biggest customer, the Government, get away with paying what they know is insufficient funding. Deciding on the right level of funding and the best way to provide it is, of course, not an easy task, and I think that speaks to the need for a comprehensive, independent expert review to consider the matter in detail. Our answer to the crucial funding question speaks to what we want our early years sector to be.

Is it the state’s role to provide the minimum funding to cover, or just about cover, basic costs so that parents can at least return to work? That would mean maxed-out ratios, stressed-out staff, higher costs for parents, and providers that are unwilling to provide childcare as cheaply as possible being driven out of the market. Or are the benefits of a more generous childcare and early years education system worth it? That is what I would argue, as it means that we can unlock greater productivity, put a big dent in the gender pay gap, narrow the attainment gap at school and, in the long run, reduce other social problems such as poor mental health, unemployment and crime.

Unfortunately, in their written response to the petition, the Government said that there are no plans to commission a review of childcare funding, but I do not think that the Minister should be so quick to dismiss the petitioners’ concerns. We need a childcare system that helps not only to make the lives of families and their children better, but to make our economy work. With both parents and providers struggling and with early years staff undervalued and underpaid, childcare is becoming a big political issue, and it is not going away any time soon. I urge the Government to consider the petitioners’ request for an independent review so that we can get this right for everybody who would benefit from it.

Roger Gale Portrait Sir Roger Gale (in the Chair)
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I am just working out who is here behind their masks. I am afraid that I have to impose a five-minute limit from the very beginning, if we are to get everybody in. I call Theresa Villiers.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and I congratulate the Petitions Committee and its Chair on securing today’s debate. I thank everyone who signed the petition.

Investing in early years provision and education is one of the best ways to secure a successful economy and tackle the root cause of many social problems. A stable and supportive environment during the first few years of life has a crucial impact on people’s life chances, so good quality early years education can be an engine of social mobility. I pay the warmest of tributes to people working in early years in my constituency, in settings such as Bright Little Stars Nursery on Leicester Road, Alonim Kindergarten at the North London Reform Synagogue, and the three maintained nursery schools run by the Barnet Early Years Alliance.

As we have heard, the pandemic has highlighted that childcare and nursery providers form a crucial part of our infrastructure. Without these dedicated individuals, our public services and our economy would grind to a halt, because essential workers would be at home minding the kids. I welcome the around £3.6 billion a year that the Government are devoting to childcare and early years, and I believe that that does not include the further support that many parents receive through the universal credit system.

The petitioners, however, have a valid point. At a recent street surgery, a constituent told me that almost the whole of his wife’s salary as a teacher was being spent on childcare. I, too, would welcome the review that the petition asks for, and appeal for a simpler system of Government support that helps parents, family budgets and providers right across the PVI—private, voluntary and independent—and maintained nursery sectors.

The most urgent financial issue that needs to be resolved is funding for maintained nursery schools, such as those run by BEYA in my constituency. They have excellent results, particularly with children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special educational needs or disabilities. As I have highlighted many times in Parliament, and recently in a meeting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, time is running out for those great schools. They lost out when the funding formula was changed in 2017, and ever since much of the sector has been just about kept afloat by £60 million in supplementary funding. If those schools are to continue their vital work, they need a stable, long-term financial settlement, which they were promised in 2016-17. That would see them take on a new role as system leaders and centres of excellence for the local area. Most urgently of all, maintained nursery schools in Barnet need a share of the supplementary funding, which they have been denied up to now. Without it, their future looks bleak and uncertain.

I ask the Minister to take action to save maintained nursery schools and to take action in response to the petition. If the Government are to realise their ambition to level up the country, and if they are to make further progress on gender equality and tackle the health inequalities exposed by the pandemic, it is essential to get childcare and early years provision right and to give the sector the support it needs.

--- Later in debate ---
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.