HC Deb 20 January 2000 vol 342 cc963-5
6. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South)

If he will make a statement on progress made by child care partnerships in meeting targets set for them under the national child care strategy. [103680]

The Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. David Blunkett)

The early years partnerships and child care partnerships at local level were given a target in the current financial year of creating 82,000 places. By the mid-year point at the end of September, they had tripled that half-year target by creating 76,000 of the 82,000 places. That is more than the number of child care places that were created over the last four years of the Conservative Government.

Mr. Cunningham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the child care strategy is another example of the Government delivering on their election promises, and that it will go a long way towards helping families?

Mr. Blunkett

That strategy will have the role of providing developmental care for young children, including an additional 48,000 free places for three-year-olds in nursery school that would not have been available but for the Labour Government. It will also free families to make choices about returning to work and about their arrangements to support family learning.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Pre-School Learning Alliance—I am sure that he, like me, has great respect for that organisation—reports this year that 1,500 playgroups have closed and 1,700 more are likely to close as a direct result of Government policy? Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that that is a helpful contribution to policy?

Mr. Blunkett

I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows that, over the past two years, we have provided £500,000 to help to protect playgroups and other providers when the market changes locally and parents consequently make different choices. Eighty per cent. of the funding that we are making available will go into the private and voluntary sector to provide new places when parents want them. Parents also have the choice of a nursery place rather than a pre-school place.

We want people to work together so that seamless care and nursery education can be provided throughout the day and the week. We are pleased that the Pre-School Learning Alliance has agreed to meet that challenge and work to ensure that we can provide comprehensive care.

Mr. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

At a recent meeting in Scotland of single-parent organisations, there was unanimous welcome for the money that the Government have provided for pre-school care and care out of school hours. However, the organisations asked what steps had been taken to help parents who need full-time care, or those who work unusual hours—for example, nurses who work shifts and find it impossible to find care for their children.

Mr. Blunkett

There are some interesting experiments in care during working hours to offer family-friendly, flexible working provision, including in the national health service. I will write to my hon. Friend with some examples that can be passed on to the trust and health board in her area, so that parents can use not only formal provision, but excellent child-minding provision, which plays a key part in creating flexibility and ensuring that children receive decent, high-quality care during unsocial working hours.

Mr. Theresa May (Maidenhead)

Whatever the Secretary of State claims in his answers about the number of child care places that are made available, the Department's figures show that the number of places in playgroups and with child minders fell last year. In March last year, the Government said that they would spend £8 billion on child care. In his recent speech on social exclusion and the politics of opportunity, the Secretary of State confirmed that £470 million would be invested in child care in England during this Parliament. Is the difference between the two figures the first sign of the pain that education will suffer as the Government try to fulfil the Prime Minister's pledge on NHS spending—or was the figure of £8 billion simply an aspiration?

Mr. Blunkett

The difference is accounted for by the fact that the £470 million constitutes the direct investment in ensuring that the infrastructure is in place. The total sum for the period to which the hon. Lady refers includes: the working families tax credit disregard, which will invest directly in the parent's choice of provision; investment in nursery education; and the sure start programme, which will play a key part in meeting the needs of children and families and enhancing their capacity to develop informal as well as formal care in the community.

It is not the job of Government alone to provide child care and early-years places. That provision should be made through a partnership between families and the broader community to ensure that there is a range and diversity of care, and that we all fulfil that responsibility.

7. Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

In what ways his Department is helping parents to find out about the child care places in their area. [103681]

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

All partnerships are developing information services based on minimum service standards. ChildcareLink, a freephone national child care information line, and child care website was launched in December. A separate project to provide local information points in outlets such as supermarkets and doctors' surgeries was piloted in the autumn.

Mr. Rapson

Does the Minister agree that it is essential that mothers and fathers, especially in Portsmouth, North are able to gain not just access to child care, but information on education and employment—in other words, joined-up information? Does she agree not only that access to child care is important but that confidence that child care facilities are of high quality is equally so?

Ms Hodge

I agree entirely that joined-up information is what parents and families require. The pilots that we have run in supermarkets provided information not just about child care places, but about jobs available locally, training opportunities, benefits and community health services. I also agree that parents will take advantage of the new child care places only if they are assured that those are of a high quality.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

It is not going to be easy for parents to find out about child care places if playgroups are closing. Can we have a straight answer to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)? [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] Why have 1,500 playgroups closed, and why does the Pre-School Learning Alliance suggest that 1,700 will close this year? In a rural area such as mine, playgroups are vital.

Ms Hodge

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has left the Chamber. He seems to have gone for an early, and probably a long, lunch.

On the subject of playgroups, it has often been put on the record, and I am happy to put it on record again today, that the real damage to playgroups has been done not by the present Government but by the previous Government, who introduced the ill-conceived nursery voucher system, which was based on competition, not co-operation. Under our system, co-operation through partnerships will ensure a strong role for playgroups in future.