Wera Hobhouse Excerpts
Monday 13th September 2021

(1 month ago)

Westminster Hall

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Department for Education
Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine
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The right hon. Gentleman’s point goes to the heart of the issue. I talked about early years educators; these are not well-meaning amateurs at the end of their career who are just providing plasticine. They are educators and they are preparing children for the world of learning when they go into their primary and secondary education. It is a very good point and it is well made.

Nursery settings have remained open and ready to receive children to help their families get back to work. At the same time, their staffing costs have risen on average by 8.6% through the new national living wage and pension contributions. With the reintroduction of business rates looming, the average nursery will face a bill of about £12,500 for those alone. Surely it would be better to see this money going into the pockets of our early years educators and directly invested in the future of children across the UK. That would be a fitting way to recognise the unsung contribution of early years educators over the last year and to help develop our country’s most valuable asset—the next generation.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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Early years staff have worked incredibly hard during the pandemic, sometimes putting their own health at risk to ensure our children are cared for. I thank each and every one of them. However, one of our early years providers in Bath said, “I feel the Government do not value us and do not see our professionalism and dedication to our role.” Too many childcare workers have felt this way throughout the Government’s response to the pandemic. Guidance to them has been ambiguous, and provision of PPE and testing has come far too slow. Recovery funding has focused primarily on school-aged learners.

I secured a debate on early years funding before the summer recess. My message to the Minister is the same now as it was some weeks ago—acknowledge the value of the early years sector and pay what it costs to deliver it. Funding has been a widespread concern long before the pandemic. Research from YMCA suggests that up to 80% of settings cannot deliver childcare at the funding rate provided by their local authority. I take the point that there is underspending in some local authorities, and we need to get to the bottom of that, but the overall funding gap is still too big. Most providers realistically need more than £6 an hour per child just to break even, let alone reinvest in their business. However, the funding rates do not reflect this. In Bath, in north east Somerset, our local council receives £5.59 an hour for two-year-olds, and just £4.48 an hour for children aged three and above. It means providers have to choose between operating at a loss and subsidising the cost of delivery through fee-paying families.

Of the expenses, 70% are staffing costs. If funding continues to increase at a much slower rate than the national living wage, it will become more and more difficult to pay staff properly. In a country where parents pay the second-highest childcare costs in the world, one in 10 childcare workers are officially living in poverty. Affordable childcare is essential to our economic recovery from covid-19, but with childcare costs adding up to about 30% of the average wage, many parents—usually women—will be forced to make difficult decisions about remaining in or returning to work. Should one of the legacies of covid-19 the roll-back of decades of progress on equality for women in the workplace?

This Saturday is International Equal Pay Day. What better time could there be for the Government to commit to a total rethink of childcare funding? And I add my full support to calls for a meaningful review of early years funding, which must include a multi-year funding settlement, simplifying the funding system and making sure that funding follows the child. All allocations of early years funding must consider children with special educational needs and disabilities, across all settings.

Childcare is an investment in our future. It is time that it was treated as such.

Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie (Stroud) (Con)
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I thank the Petitions Committee and everyone who signed the petition to secure this debate today.

The childcare juggle is real. Parental life should come with a military gold command schedule-planner. Instead, it is made up of grandparents—if people are lucky enough to have them about—after-school clubs, childminders, understanding bosses, nurseries and friends doing favours for each other.

This morning, I dictated a weekly article for my local newspaper down the phone to my team, while trying to put my wriggling daughter’s leggings on, in between trying to put my face on, answering messages and making sure that she was fed before I handed her over in order to come here. On top of all that, the cost of childcare is truly painful for many people.

I will make five key points before I move on. No. 1 is that we cannot afford to have the vital talent of the parents of young children being kept out of the workforce; the country and the economy will not thrive without them.

No.2 is that if anyone has ever seen what a working mum fits into an hour of “free” time before legging it back to the school or nursery gates, they will know that mums could singlehandedly fix the economy’s problem with productivity if they were freed up to do so.

No. 3 is that child carers, nursery teams, nannies and early years teachers are all skilled angels who need more career recognition and pathways to higher salaries. This profession deserves respect and everybody found that out when they tried to home-school children over the past year.

No. 4 is that the wellbeing of a child will always come first for parents. We must work harder to ensure that childcare providers improve our system, so that the choice for parents is not one between having a career and having a child.

Finally, No. 5 is that employers are not the enemy and neither are the Government. If there was a single solution, it would have been put in place by now. I am concerned, because if this issue is turned into a political football, as I have read and heard about in some of the coverage today, nothing will get done.

I have long thought that childcare needs a bit of an overhaul, but without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Parents in my constituency tell me that the 30 hours of free childcare for three and four-year-olds has been invaluable, and approximately 60% of disadvantaged two-year-olds benefit from 15 hours of free childcare a week.

We have a £1 billion flexible childcare services fund being established and I am part of the early years taskforce with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), so I know well that we are thankfully bringing about some really interesting changes for families at the moment. So, to lambast the Government for not doing anything, or claiming that they are not trying to help, is wrong.

I would also like to see cross-party working on this issue. We saw Labour, when it was in Government, struggling to address rising childcare costs; those costs rose by significantly more than inflation in 2003 and faster than earnings in 2009. Labour knows how difficult this issue is; Labour Members know how difficult it is. Let us work together to try to find new solutions.

Personally, I am open to the petition’s call for an independent review. However, such reviews really cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds and—frankly —if that money is available, I would prefer it to go to the childcare sector. So I am also quite cautious about the request.

However, putting myself into action, I am an advisory board member of the think-tank Onward and I am already in discussions with it about conducting an investigation into childcare. I am also a member of the Work and Pensions Committee, and after hearing from some fabulous young women parents who came to give evidence last week, I have asked the Committee’s Chair to consider reviewing childcare policies under universal credit. I say to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) that that would include considering issues surrounding up-front payment.

The early years of a child’s life are absolutely critical; the relationships in their life, which include those with all the people in the childcare sector who they encounter, will set the scene for them for years to come. I ask the Government to work with us. I know the Minister cares deeply about this, as does the Prime Minister, who has a baby and another one on the way and knows this struggle, but we have to look at all aspects of childcare alongside what we are doing with the early years taskforce, which is critical. The Chancellor is very interested in this area, and I am pleased to hear that Members have spoken to him already.

The issues have got much worse during the pandemic. We owe it to every parent and child and the childcare sector to improve the system. We can show we are working hard for working parents to give every child the best start in life.

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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.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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We have said here a number of times that one in 10 childcare workers lives in poverty. Does the Minister think that is acceptable?

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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I think it is extremely important that businesses involved in the childcare sector pay the national minimum wage. The 8p and 6p an hour by which, as I said, we have increased the average early years funding, have been more than enough to meet the increases that have been announced in the national minimum wage. That was certainly true in those 8p and 6p increases that we gave last year.

What is really important is the quality of our childcare. Parents not only want childcare, but they want to know that their children are loved, safe and well educated, so high quality childcare is important. We have achieved so much here. The last time we assessed our five-year-olds, nearly three quarters—three out of four—of our country’s youngest children had achieved a good level of development. That is a massive improvement, because back in 2013 it was only one in two of our children.

I know that there are many questions about funding. My officials are in regular discussions with the Treasury as we prepare for the forthcoming spending review. Throughout the pandemic, the early years sector has been a cornerstone of protecting livelihoods and family life, letting our youngest children enjoy their early education with minimal disruption and helping to secure a positive future for each one of those children. I reiterate my deepest thanks to all those who work in early years.