HC Deb 29 April 1999 vol 330 cc461-3
4. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)

What progress has been made in increasing the number of out-of-school child care places. [81518]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Ms Margaret Hodge)

The national child care strategy continues to make a major impact locally. I am delighted to say that since April 1998 we have funded the creation of more than 61,000 new child care places, exceeding our target for that year. Indeed, in the first two years of this Labour Government, we have created more new child care places than the previous Government created in their 18 miserable years in office.

Mr. Cunningham

I welcome that statement, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister realises that this is an important matter, both nationally and in Coventry. Will she give the general figures for Coventry, and the particular figures for my constituency of Coventry, South?

Ms Hodge

I shall be delighted to do so. The figures available so far for Coventry in 1998–99 show that 266 new child care places have been created, in clubs such the All Saints club and the Pilgrim club, and in colleges such as Henley college and Coventry city college. Moreover, my Department has just given full approval to Coventry's plans for next year, under which the intention is to create a further 893 new child care places. Funding has also been received for 1,384 new nursery places for three-year-olds, starting in September.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I am most interested in the Minister's reply. I recently visited some pre-schools in my constituency—the Jolly Tots and the St. Paul's pre-schools in Poynton—and I am due to visit one or two more in the near future. Will the Minister say why the Pre-School Learning Alliance is so concerned about the large number of pre-school closures, of which there have been about 1,500 recently? Another 1,700 are scheduled to close over the next year.

I am very interested in this sector of education, as I believe that children's experiences at that early age can dictate what happens in their subsequent educational career. Will the Minister comment, and explain why the Pre-School Learning Alliance is so worried, and why so many pre-schools are closing?

Ms Hodge

I am delighted to be able to do so. The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament for a long time, and will have been here when the previous Government introduced the disastrous nursery voucher scheme. That, more than anything else, was responsible for damaging the pre-school sector, both private and voluntary, in this country.

We are most concerned that the Pre-School Learning Alliance and the pre-school movement in general should play a full part in the expansion of early education and child care places. That is why we have provided £500,000, both this year and last year, to help pre-schools in financial difficulties. We have also established a review to see how we can ensure that the pre-schools play a full part in the expansion of early years education and child care. That review is due to report to me in August.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I am pleased that the Government recognise the importance of, and the need for, pre-school education. Will she say how groups in my constituency that are eager to provide the service should go about receiving Government support for their endeavours? Can she assure me that the Government will continue to support pre-school groups, in my constituency and in the Wakefield area in general, to help them to continue the very important service that they provide to many families?

Ms Hodge

We have established in each education area an early years child care and development partnership. That is the context in which we hope that plans will be developed in every locality to respond to the needs and preferences of parents and children and to implement the expansion that we want. We are anxious that every sector should contribute to the expansion of early years education and child care. We have placed a duty on those partnerships to ensure the health of both the voluntary and private sectors, and therefore to ensure their continued and sustained contribution.

Mr. David Willetts (Havant)

The Minister did not address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). The Pre-School Learning Alliance has specifically identified as part of the problem: Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership arrangements created by the present Government. The Government are driving diversity out of the system, and many parents do not believe that a state primary school is the best form of provision for their four-year-old child. Pre-School Learning Alliance places are closing, and 1,700 of them are in danger this year. Free-standing specialist nursery schools are also in danger of closing. Is it not the case that merely talking about reviews does nothing to address the serious problems that other forms of pre-school provision face?

Ms Hodge

The hon. Gentleman is well known for his views on parental choice. It is, therefore, completely hypocritical of him to stand at the Dispatch Box denying parental choice and blaming parents for choosing one setting as opposed to another for their child.

The previous Government's nursery voucher scheme began the massive threat to and decline of pre-schools. This Government, in both our years in office, have put £500,000 into support for pre-schools, and, with the support of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, have set up a review, not to find out why pre-schools are declining but to see how they can contribute to the expansion of early years education and child care places.