Theresa Villiers Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
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.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to have this debate. I am grateful that you gave me an opportunity to put my jacket on because, like any parent of an under-two-year-old, I have snot and Weetabix on the back of my clothes. I have accepted that having two children means that I will be permanently sticky for the next 18 years. Because I have two children under the age of two in London, I also accept that I will probably never be able to go out because the cost of childcare is so prohibitive.

We have one of the most expensive systems in the world, but high cost does not necessarily mean high impact. The TUC found that, for parents with a one-year-old child, the cost of their child’s nursery provision has grown four times faster than their wages, and more than seven times faster in London. In communities such as mine, which has the 10th-highest level of child poverty, families are already choosing between eating and keeping a roof above their heads. Affordable childcare, like affordable housing, is an illusion. I thank Pregnant Then Screwed, the Early Years Alliance, the Women’s Budget Group, the Fawcett Society, the National Day Nurseries Association and the all-party parliamentary group on childcare and early education for their refusal to let this be the new normal. Childcare is something that everybody needed during the pandemic and nobody got.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) pointed out, during the pandemic the Government found time to make the case for infrastructure investment. They found £27 billion for roads and for 50 million potholes, money for new railways and stations, and even £5 billion for broadband. What did our children get? Well, the Chancellor did say that mums everywhere were owed a debt of thanks for juggling childcare and work. That pat on the back shone a light on how this Government think about working parents. This is an infrastructure issue, and as a result of failing to see it that way, we are losing tax revenue, losing women from our workforce and hampering equality in our society.

We have already talked about the lack of childcare provision prior to the pandemic—30% of local authorities accept that they did not have enough places, and only one in five said they had enough places for children with special educational needs—but it has become a lot worse during the pandemic. The consequences for families are clear: 75% of children in this country living in poverty are in working households, and childcare accounts for 56% of the overall costs of children for working couples.

Nothing about this system makes any sense. I am a parent of two children under two, but why on earth do we think that when children hit two or three, they are special? What am I supposed to do with these children until then, when it comes to childcare? Frankly, the people who will leave the workforce because they cannot afford childcare will already have done so by the time a child is two, and those of us who can afford childcare will be able to afford it after the age of two.

The Minister will no doubt point to the universal credit system, but it does not make sense in the real world either, because it expects parents to pay for childcare up front and then recoup the cost, as if parents on universal credit have spare cash to begin with. The Minister might say that the flexible support system is there, but only a few have used it on childcare. Anyone who has tried to get childcare in London knows that universal credit, which has been frozen since 2016, means that for most parents it is not a runner.

Failing to invest in childcare is baking inequality into our system for parents and children alike. We know that the vast majority of people using the 30 hours of funded childcare are from the top income earners. We know that the parents of 240,000 children aged two to four could potentially access childcare, but do not because of the cost of it.

We know that this issue is hitting gender inequality, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North is right to point out that the burden of childcare too often falls on women. Only 2% of new fathers take any parental leave: that is because we ask them to pay for it, rather than recognise it as the investment in the child’s development and in the family that it represents. Almost 870,000 stay-at-home mums who want to work cannot do so because of the cost and availability of childcare, and those problems have got a lot worse during the pandemic. Some 46% of mothers who have been made redundant said that a lack of childcare was a factor in their selection for redundancy. When furloughing ends, many more will not be able to go back to work because the childcare will still not be available: the loss of places during the pandemic means that many more will be out of work. That means that we will not get the tax revenue from those mums’ work, and it means that their families and their careers will suffer.

The crazy thing about this is that investment in universal childcare from the age of six months pays for itself. When we provide that, not only do we get an income from the sector—and, by God, we should be paying these people a lot more to look after our children—but we get the income from the higher number of women who can be in work. There is an army of mums out there who are mad as hell that they are being ignored and expected to take on childcare at short notice, and I tell the Minister that mums can multitask too, and they can vote. We have to get this right, because we owe it to every child and every mum in this country to see them right.