HC Deb 17 July 2002 vol 389 cc389-96

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Angela Smith.]

10.1 pm

Caroline Flint (Don Valley)

I begin by declaring an interest, as I am chair of the all-party childcare group. Before I entered Parliament, I was chair of the national campaign Working for Childcare, which used to he known as the workplace nurseries campaign. I was involved in that for 10 years.

I have been trying to secure this Adjournment debate for some months. and I wondered whether my pitch had been spoiled by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor's wonderful statement this week on the comprehensive spending review. My scream of delight was apparently audible to a number of people when my right hon. Friend spoke of a radical extension of the national child care strategy in England.

Why is child care important? It has a key role to play in the delivery of wider Government policy ends. The child care issue is about giving children a good start in life, helping to tackle child poverty, raising educational attainment and promoting better health. It is about helping parents into work, study and training. It is about meeting our welfare-to-work targets and helping with the family-friendly issue of work-life balance, which will increasingly become crucial to this country's economy and social life. The issue is also about raising qualifications and—importantly—raising family income.

The question of child care goes wider than the family unit, however that unit is comprised. Whether two parents are involved or one, the child care issue is about supporting neighbourhood renewal and community development. It is also about tackling crime and creating healthy communities. Without child care, policies in those areas will not succeed.

The national child care strategy was launched in 1998. It is the first such strategy ever to be undertaken by any Government, and I am proud, as a Labour MP, that it was a Labour Government who delivered on that. The aim was to create more affordable, quality child care, backed by significant new investment.

There is no doubt that investment was put in, but some of the progress has been mixed. In terms of accessibility, there are now part-time nursery education places for all four-year-olds and, by 2004, there will be such places for all three-year-olds. However, they are part time, whereas working parents need the help provided by wrap-around care.

The neighbourhood child care initiative aims to create 900 new nurseries in the most disadvantaged areas by 2004, along with more child minding and out-of-school places. However, progress in developing new nurseries that will be sustainable once funding runs out has been slow. There has been a growth in private day nurseries in response to a growing demand—58 per cent. of women with children under five now work—and out-of-school clubs, funded by the new opportunities fund, but there has been a fall in the number of child minders and pre-school playgroups. There are still significant gaps for parents with children under three.

In terms of affordability, the child care tax credit is providing help with the cost of child care to 160,000 families. The average award is about £39 a week, and eligible families must find at least 30 per cent. of child care costs. Childcare fees went up by 10 per cent. in the last year, and a typical nursery place costs £6,200 a year. Some families, particularly lone parents who work less than 16 hours a week or use informal child care such as a grandmother or other family member, are not eligible.

Ofsted took over the regulation of child care in September 2001 to provide consistent national standards. I do not think that anyone would disagree with that. However, the transition has held up registration and inspection of new providers at a time of growth.

The inter-departmental review of the national child care strategy that the Government started at Christmas was both wise and warranted. We have seen some of the results this week. The review recognised that although so much has been achieved, it is sensible of any Government to review their policies to see where the gaps are and how they could be filled.

The child care market is failing families and society. The market alone will not deliver affordable services to the majority of families without significant new investment on the supply side. Demand-side measures have not succeeded in creating new child care services. Funding and delivery mechanisms have often been criticised as too complex. There are too many unco-ordinated programmes with too many different short-term funding streams and, despite all the wonderful work that they do, expectations of what can be delivered by early-years development and child care partnerships are often unrealistic. Some 150,000 new staff are needed to expand services by 2004. but recruitment and retention are hampered by low pay, poor training and limited opportunities.

The review of child care has been addressing some of these problems. I have included some of them in the review, as have other organisations. I am sure that Ministers involved in these issues have raised these problems as well. I am pleased and proud to say that the Chancellor's statement this week—much of which I am sure was linked to that review—was another step forward in the nation's child care and family agenda. This Government are the first ever to have a national child care strategy. It was particularly welcome after 18 barren years of Tory rule.

This week the Chancellor announced the doubling of the child care budget to £1.5 billion by 2006, guaranteeing a nursery place for every three and four-year-old; 400,000 new sure start places: 250,000 new child care places; greater support for voluntary partnerships, which often underpin much of the growth at a local level; and a £200 million children's fund. In addition. 300,000 children will have access to children's centres. I congratulate the Daycare Trust, which has been pushing forward the agenda of children's centres.

As a Member of Parliament, a child care campaigner and a parent, I believe that one problem is how we make the services that we provide visible and obvious to those who want to access them. If there has been a problem with the growth of services so far, it is how parents find the services they need. Parents do not fall into nice neat categories, all with children under five. They can have a baby, a toddler, an eight-year-old and a teenager. Anything that the Government can do to make it easier for them to know where to go for their child care, advice and health needs is to be welcomed. The children's centres will operate as a catalyst to bring these services together so that parents have greater access.

The Government have listened to the problems faced in driving forward an agenda that has a role in different Departments. That is why I welcome the integrated budget, which will bring together child care, early-years learning and sure start. As a member of the Denaby and Conisbrough sure start, one of the trailblazers, it was obvious to me from the outset that sure start was not merely about health issues. I am proud that my local sure start scheme sees child care as part of the whole shape of its provision. More schemes are coming on-stream in Doncaster. We have a full-time day nursery as well as creche facilities and a pre-school toddlers group.

I know that sure start is meant to cater for pre-school children, but some of the parents have older kids. Furthermore, in our community, unless we can engage some of the older children in what we are doing, they may take against us. They may make the building to which they cannot have access a target for petty vandalism. Our primary aim is to serve families with pre-school children, but we also want to engage with older children and with other young people in the community. I am pleased that those initiatives have come together. That is a sign that the Government are listening.

I am also pleased that a new unit will be established in the civil service to drive forward child care policy. Such a unit is crucial to give advice to Ministers and to give an overview so that it can drive the agenda forward. It is definitely needed.

I am a member of the local Doncaster early-years development and child care partnership which does much good work. During the past few years, I have been happy to speak to partnership groups at conferences organised by the Department for Education and Skills and the Daycare Trust.

I was also glad to hear from the announcement that local authorities will be expected to have a greater role in delivering the targets that we need. That is right. Although there may be local authority representatives in the partnerships, authorities sometimes do not seem to know how to proceed and may leave things to the partnership. They have a key role in the community, not only as one of the largest employers but as an important agent for local change and delivery.

The child care review clearly had some influence on the comprehensive spending review statement this week. I understand that the review will be published in the autumn. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions confirm that? Will we have an opportunity to discuss the review in the House?

I want to raise a few points that we should consider when drawing up future strategy and development. We need to flag up the fact that child care is as much an economic agent as a social provision. For some time, I have been putting questions about the role of regional development agencies and other bodies that have a remit to deliver economic regeneration and employment.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry agrees that those agencies should realise that child care is as important a part of the infrastructure for a newly growing economy as the transport that gets people to work. Childcare is as much a part of the supply chain as the providers of materials to factories or businesses or the catering firms who supply the restaurant facilities. It is an important part of the whole picture.

If we want to reinvent ourselves in my region of Yorkshire and Humberside—certainly, in respect of objective 1 in South Yorkshire—what better way is there than to say, "Come to South Yorkshire where you will find one of the best environments to raise your children, with the right services and the right jobs to support your work-life balance"?

I offer two local examples. Finningley is an RAF base in my constituency which we hope will become a regional airport in the future. My hon. Friend the Minister is nodding because Peel Holdings also runs Speke airport, which she knows well. Despite the fact that we do not yet have the go-ahead for the airport, almost 70 companies are working on the brownfield site. I am pleased to say that we also have a full-time day nursery.

However, I am not pleased to say that when the developers of the site sought help from several agencies for start-up for the nursery provider and for refurbishment costs, they were fobbed off and told, "You don't fit into this priority because you are not creating employment".

I do not quite see how providing childcare jobs is not creating employment, or how sustaining people in employment through providing child care cannot count.

Another problem was that because the brownfield site was not in a deprived community—as defined under the heading "deprived communities" in terms of funding—those involved were told that they could not access the funding. That was the case despite the fact that, just down the road, is a defined "deprived community", which would be the obvious source of much of the employment for the brownfield site. That issue must be looked at; brownfield sites sometimes are in deprived communities, but sometimes they are not. However, if jobs can be provided for people from such communities, I do not see why child care cannot be funded.

The problems are not insurmountable. The problem is the mindset of those who work in economic regeneration, who see child care as a rather soft issue, rather than a crucial plank—as I see it—in our regeneration policies.

Another example is the transport interchange for Doncaster, for which we were pleased to get Government support. I have been working for a number of years to get an understanding from the developers and others that if we are bringing together the train and bus stations in Doncaster, it would be a wonderful opportunity to create nursery provision near the site for those parents who might be commuting into Doncaster. That would be just like the facilities at Brighton and at Victoria, and a shoppers' creche could be provided for consumers. I am pleased to say that, only last week, the developers said that they were committed to making that happen.

Is there a possibility that when the Government give the green light to very big infrastructure projects involving communities and creating employment, we could ask how they fit in with providing child care or other support to workers or consumers, whether they are public transport passengers or shoppers at a development? The Government can ask the question to see the answers that flow from it.

We must do a lot more in terms of engaging employers. Some employers have done fantastic work; others are not sure how to get involved. That is where the RDAs, the trade unions, employers and chambers of commerce could be encouraged to play more of a role. Only one in 10 employers helps their staff with child care; only 5 per cent. of workplaces offer nursery places; only 5 per cent. of employers help towards child care costs.

I want to raise a problem affecting low-income communities, and lone parents in particular; the use of informal child care. Despite everything, 50 per cent. of child care is informal. It is unregistered and can involve shift parenting, or the use of a family friend or other relative. We should look at the impact of that on the take-up of other services and at whether we should address this by bridging the gap between informal and formal care with some support.

Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary look at the scheme in Northern Ireland that is run under the new deal programme for lone parents there—I know that that is a devolved function—in which lone parents on training or a work placement are allowed vouchers or money to be provided for registered child care and informal child care, if that is provided by a very close relative, usually the grandmother?

Another scheme that I would bring to my hon. Friend's attention is run by Nottinghamshire county council where, again, for a limited period and in specific circumstances—I stress that these are targeted schemes—some financial support is provided for families, some lone-parent, some two-parent, to enable them to engage in training or a work placement. Parents, particularly lone parents, who may be working less than 16 hours week and are not covered by the Government tax credits also receive help. It is worth looking into these schemes because some of our most needy families, through no fault of their own, might be missing a trick in terms of the Government not supporting them. I do not see that as a permanent measure, but we could consider it as part of our new deal for lone parents and support for low-income families.

Finally, we have done an awful lot, and we should be proud of it. Given the different ways that we are delivering in England and how the issue is dealt with in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it should be clear to families throughout Britain that a Labour Government have spearheaded this agenda and made it such an exciting part of our work today in rebuilding our communities. In 10 years, I should like our targeted support to spread out like the ripples when a pebble is thrown into a pond, so that every family can recognise in different ways that Labour has delivered for families, whatever their status, background or needs.

10.20 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Maria Eagle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on securing this debate. She is well known in the House—not only among Labour Members—for being a tenacious and knowledgeable supporter of improvements in child care, and her speech this evening demonstrates that very well. She has secured the debate at an auspicious moment, given the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Monday. Indeed, she made that point in her speech. Of course I agree with her that the debate is very timely.

As my hon. Friend said so eloquently at the beginning of her remarks, child care is an incredibly important part of what the Government are trying to achieve. Quality child care gives parents choice and opportunity. It enables them to work and contribute to the economy confident in the knowledge that their children are in a safe and stimulating environment. So access to affordable child care also helps to reduce poverty and end the cycle of deprivation that we see in too many locations in her constituency and in mine. We know that getting a job is the best route out of poverty, and we need more child care in the most disadvantaged areas to help people to do that. Of course we all know that quality child care also supports children's development, which is equally important.

The Government are therefore making the investment required. Since 1997, we have created nearly 500,000 new child care places, for more than 900,000 children. We have set national standards for the quality of child care provision, and Ofsted is now ensuring that all providers meet those standards. The neighbourhood nurseries programme will create 45,000 new day-care places in up to 900 state of the art nurseries by 2004. That is the biggest single investment in child care provision, and it amounts to £300 million in the three years to 2004.

We have made a good start, but, as my hon. Friend clearly said, we recognise that we are not there yet; more needs to be done. The Government believe quality child care is a basic building block of modern society, so our aim is indeed to create affordable, accessible quality child care for all those who need it.

The Chancellor made it clear in his announcement on Monday that, by 2005–06, the Government will be investing more than £1.5 billion jointly in child care, early-years provision and sure start, so funding for child care alone will more than double in real terms in that period. That will allow at least 250,000 new child care places to be created by 2006, including child care provided directly in new children's centres.

New funding will be directed towards sustaining provision. As my hon. Friend said, provision is all very well, but it needs to be sustained. We want sustained provision in the most disadvantaged areas to support the growth of full day-care and out of school clubs and to provide grants for new child minders.

We are aware that the Government need to make some changes to support this agenda, so we have decided to bring together sure start, child care and early-years provision into a single interdepartmental unit. Linked to that, we will devolve greater responsibility for funding and delivery of child care services to local authorities, and I was glad to hear my hon. Friend welcome that. Together, those steps will greatly improve delivery of that crucial agenda, out there on the ground where it matters.

My hon. Friend referred to the child care review, and she is right that the interdepartmental review of child care, chaired by Baroness Ashton, has been working since last October. That clearly demonstrates the Government's commitment to taking a longer-term view of child care provision, to assessing our current position, and to examining the direction in which we need to move over the next 10 years. We will make sure that provision will be able to meet the changing needs of families over that period.

The findings of that review were used, as intended, to inform the spending review announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on Monday.

My hon. Friend is correct that the findings will be published in the autumn. In relation to her points about whether the House will have an opportunity to discuss them, that is not for me to say. I am sure, however, that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take note of her comments. I am sure, too, that she has many ideas about how she might raise this issue on the Floor of the House and in other ways to give the House an opportunity to discuss it.

One of the key recommendations of the review of child care was that children's centres should be established in all the most disadvantaged areas. Those centres will provide good-quality child care delivered alongside effective early-years education, family support and health services. They will thus be a part of transforming the way in which those services are delivered, to ensure that the needs of children, particularly the most vulnerable and their parents. are better met. They will reflect the early lessons that we have learned from the operation of sure start.

The Government's longer term aim is to establish a children's centre in every one of the 20 per cent. most disadvantaged wards in the country. They will act as hubs within the community for parents and providers of child care services for all ages. The children's centre programme will build, where possible, on sure start facilities that already exist, and on other existing provision such as neighbourhood nurseries, to which I have already referred. By March 2006, we intend that an additional 300,000 children will have this improved access to health, education and other services.

That will complement the greater role that schools will be able to play, following the enactment of the Education Bill, as bases of wider community and family services, including child care for older children. Schools, of course, can make a considerable contribution to child care. That sounds an obvious point, but they have great potential as a community resource, which we want to use more fully. Parents trust schools, and schools are good places to have child care provision. We want to build on the pilots and supported demonstration projects that we have seen in Brighton, Cambridgeshire and Durham.

We want schools to see the contribution that they can make by offering access to services such as child care, family learning programmes and health care and how that can help the school deliver its own education agenda. That is why we are currently amending legislation to give school governors the power to provide those extra services.

The vision is about much more, however, than centres and schools. Parents have a crucial role to play. Working with parents is at the heart of the Government's early-years education and child care policies. We are developing evidence of best practice to help early education and child care providers and their staff work well with parents. We are encouraging, too, the growth of positive links between parents and the professionals to whom they entrust their children.

The Government want to get parents even more actively involved in their children's early education, whether that is volunteering to run after-school clubs, sitting on governing bodies, or attending training at local community centres. We also want to mainstream the acclaimed approach of sure start in actively encouraging parental involvement in all its programmes.

My hon. Friend talked about informal care, and the Government recognise that parents, particularly lone parents, as she said, often have a preference for using informal, family-based child care. The child care review considered whether it might be possible to supplement what can be done within the formal child care sector with measures to support such informal care. I cannot he more specific at the moment, but I can assure my hon. Friend that that is an area that we are considering. Indeed, we have noted with interest the child care voucher scheme in Nottinghamshire, to which she referred, which has been running since 1992, and the support for family-based care provided within the new deal in Northern Ireland. Those provide helpful models when considering policy in this area, but they have not yet provided evidence of the impact of such measures on labour market or child development outcomes.

There is, however, a simple answer to why the Government have not provided funding for informal child care so far. When we introduced the working families tax credit, we decided that assistance would be given for child care that had either been registered under the Children Act 1989 or accredited. That was to safeguard the quality of care.

My hon. Friend made telling points about economic regeneration. We must ensure that child care is firmly on the agenda for all the agencies involved in regeneration. Child care is central to the process. It releases parents to work and to train, benefiting them, their children and their employers.

Many early-years development and child care partnerships are working actively with the regeneration agencies in their areas and regions. There are good examples around the country—in Cambridgeshire, for example, where the local partnerships have been working actively with their regional development agency on the development of neighbourhood nurseries. There is awareness to build on. We are actively spreading good practice and working at a national level to move child care up the agenda.

The Government's vision for child care is one in which every parent can access affordable, good-quality child care. We have made good progress towards that over the past five years. The child care review has allowed us to take stock and to look forward for the next 10 years. I am very pleased, indeed, to be able to confirm to the House that the spending review announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of Exchequer on Monday has secured the resources needed for the next three years to take the process forward. We have charted the way ahead for transforming child care. I know that those hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend, who are interested in the subject will be watching and making suggestions about how we proceed. We are determined to go forward, and we are setting out to implement the plans that she mentioned. I congratulate her again on raising this important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.