Sharon spoke during the second Report Stage debate on the Children and Families Bill, which was focussed on childcare.
Mrs Hodgson: I rise to speak to new clauses 6 and 7 and amendments 76 and 77 in my name and in the name of my hon. Friends. Notwithstanding the welcome announcement the Minister has just made on behalf of the Government—at last, I might add—we still wish to proceed with the new clauses as their premise and purpose are still valid.
The Government have got themselves into a complete shambles. With every passing week, it becomes more and more apparent that Ministers do not have a credible plan to tackle the child care crisis they have created. Under this Government, parents are facing a triple whammy: costs are rising faster than wages and even general inflation, with the average cost having risen by almost 20% since 2010; support from the Government for those on tax credits has been cut, meaning that some families are up to £1,500 a year worse off; and there is a real struggle to find places in some areas owing to the cuts in supply-side subsidies and direct provision, such as through children’s centres. Since the election, we have lost almost 900 nurseries and more than 1,500 child minders, and there are 500 fewer Sure Start children’s centres.
It is no wonder, therefore, that the Prime Minister panicked and plucked the Children’s Minister from the Back Benches to implement her ideas without even bothering to check whether they were any good. The main idea to come out of “More great childcare”—increasing the number of children each adult can look after—is the worst one, and we are pleased to hear that it has been dropped. The Minister has been told categorically, most notably by advisers commissioned by her own Department, that it was not a good idea from the start, yet still she persisted with it.
If you will allow me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to place on record what those advisers said. Eva Lloyd from the university of East London was commissioned, along with Professor Helen Penn, by the Department to advise on child care practice from around the world, but her report is still being sat on seven months later. She said:
“The ratio relaxation is unlikely to reduce child care costs, but may well drive down child care quality.”
Professor Cathy Nutbrown, whose excellent report on qualifications in the sector was manipulated by the Government to argue for relaxing ratios, said:
“Current proposals will shake the foundation of quality provision for young children. Watering down ratios regardless of the level of qualifications held by staff, is likely to lead to worse, not ‘great’ childcare, and will undermine intentions to provide quality early learning experiences.”
You might be forgiven for thinking, Mr Deputy Speaker, that child care providers, who in purely economic terms could stand to benefit from these plans, would back them. Well, here is what some of the leading representatives of child care providers have to say.
Neil Leitch from the Pre-School Learning Alliance, whose survey of members found that 94% did not believe they could maintain the quality of their current level of provision if staffing levels were reduced, said:
“We are absolutely appalled by this fixation to alter ratios… This is a recipe for disaster.”
In a separate release last week, he said:
“There is no doubt that relaxing ratios would have lowered the overall quality of childcare in this country. Not only would children have received less one-to-one support from childcare workers, but their well-being would also have been put at serious risk.”
Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Moor View) (Lab): My hon. Friend is highlighting all the reasons the proposal should not have gone forward, but it seems that it ended up as an internal argument on the Government Benches, rather than being based on the opinion of experts.
Mrs Hodgson: We would rather the Minister had come to the House sooner with a proper statement. In the time available this afternoon, that will not be possible, and obviously the House is not as well attended as it would have been for a statement. It is disappointing, then, that the announcement was not made in a statement to a full House in the usual way.
Craig Whittaker: I fully understand what the hon. Lady is trying to achieve, but are these professionals and new clauses trying to say that the professionals in the sector are not professional or good enough to decide themselves what ratios they deem to be safe, rather than what she deems to be safe?
Mrs Hodgson: No. I will tell the hon. Gentleman what more of the professionals have said, however, and then perhaps he will think on the strangeness of his intervention.
Purnima Tanuku of the National Day Nurseries Association said:
“At the moment there is an option that nurseries can operate a 1:13 ratio for over threes, if a person with a Level Six (degree level) qualification is working directly with the children. However, few nurseries take up this option, largely because it is not practical for one person to meet the needs of 13 children doing the type of activities most nurseries offer.”
That was echoed by private nurseries and managers I have met across the country. They suggested that it can often be a struggle providing quality care when operating at the current ratios. Finally, I will quote June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation, which runs the nursery in the House of Commons:
“It beggars belief that a junior Minister can wreak havoc on a sector that has explained the negative consequences of her actions.”
Obviously the junior Minister has at last come to the House and ditched her plans, which I am sure all the people I have quoted will be pleased to hear. Most important, though, parents will be most pleased to hear today’s announcement.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I too welcome this U-turn by the Government today, but I welcome all the more my hon. Friend’s new clauses. Parents in my constituency are actually worried about the safety of their children under the Government’s proposals and are taking that anxiety to work. Some were even considering giving up work, if it had been introduced, which would not have done our economy any good. Would support for the new clauses in fact do our economy good and remove that anxiety from parents?
Mrs Hodgson: I agree, which is why we are proceeding with the new clauses: we need to ensure that parents will never again face such a threat from a Minister who just brings forward a mad idea out of the blue, against all the evidence and without any support from anyone—whether professional, parent or expert—in the country.
Both Mumsnet and Netmums have officially backed the Rewind on Ratios campaign, following widespread anger among parents—anger that the Minister felt the full force of when she did a web chat on Mumsnet in February. A recent survey of parents by Bounty found that 80% would not back the changes, even if they led to significantly cheaper child care bills. Of course, that is a big if.
The Department has argued—the Minister did so again in her opening remarks—that the measure could cut costs. The modelling information that the Department was forced to reveal said that it could cut costs by up to 28%, but the modelling done to arrive at that figure was branded by providers as a “work of fiction”. The modelling made wildly unrealistic assumptions of 1005 occupancy for 52 weeks of the year, which no nursery ever has—speak to the nurseries and they will say that. It did not account for any breaks, training sickness or holidays for any of the staff. In one model—the one that said that it would save parents up to 28%—staff would not even have been paid any more money, which was supposed to be the whole point of these reforms, as the Minister again said in her opening remarks.
Busy Bees, which had initially supported the plans before saying it would not be changing its ratios, calculated that it could actually cost parents more if these changes were brought in.
Alison Seabeck: I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again but this issue is really important. No consideration seems to have been given to the need to change premises, for example. My granddaughter was in a three-storey property, with babies, largely, at the top. The number of children in care on that floor could not be increased without something significant being done to the building. I do not think that any of those additional costs were considered.
Mrs Hodgson: My hon. Friend makes a very valid point that has been raised with me many times. I know that the Secretary of State is getting a reputation for sloppy research, and I feel that this is another case of policy-based evidence from his Department.
Then, last week, we thought that common sense had prevailed and the plans had been ditched. In fact, the Deputy Prime Minister said as much. In his briefing note to journalists, he set out in black and white the complete lack of support and credible evidence that the Department for Education had for these reforms. This was a cause of great relief for the tens of thousands of parents and childcare professionals who were rightly appalled by the lack of consideration of the needs of young children in these plans. Indeed, given how out of touch with childcare practice in England the Minister appears to be, it is little wonder that, according to her own Department, she has visited just five English nurseries in an official capacity since getting the job, compared with seven settings in France.
I am not sure what those French nurseries were like, but the Minister regularly cites them as exemplars. I am sure she will have seen that the chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, Neil Leitch, commented last week on his visit to France. He highlighted staff not having the time to identify and support children with special educational needs, nursery age children having scheduled toilet breaks and long afternoon naps, and children being made to sit still at desks for so long that tennis balls had to be fixed to their chair legs so that they did not make a noise when they fidgeted. This is not what anyone with an understanding of child development—
He has photographs. They are available on the internet. The Minister is disputing what I am saying. She can look up the pictures, and I am sure that Neil Leitch would be more than happy to meet her to discuss what he saw in France.
This is not what anyone with an understanding of child development would describe as high-quality early education. When we consider how stubbornly the Minister has refused to listen to those experts and child care bodies who repeatedly told her that that is what her plans would mean, it is unsurprising that she has met with the tiny number of organisations who support her many more times than the major sector representatives who disagree.
Craig Whittaker: In view of the fact that the hon. Lady thought my last intervention a little strange, let me put it in a different way. Is she saying that the French system is much more expensive, or does it have higher ratios and so is much more unsafe than our system?
Mrs Hodgson: Yes, the French system is of a lower quality. That comes out in the OECD ratings of its nurseries, which are lower than those of the British system. When people meet French nursery providers, they are often asked about our system. French nursery providers look to emulate our model and cannot understand why we look to emulate their systems.
[Interruption.] That is what we are told, but again, I am more than happy to hear evidence to the contrary.
Within 24 hours of the Deputy Prime Minister saying that the policy was dead in the water, both the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister’s spokesperson denied that a decision had been taken. The Department for Education said absolutely nothing for six days. We had to wait six days for a Minister to come to the House and make a formal announcement confirming that the plans are indeed dead in the water. We were grateful to hear that at long last, even though we will not have time to discuss it in detail this afternoon.
Even though the Minister has said today that the plans have been shelved, I do not have confidence that we have seen the last of them. After all, the Government are struggling to meet their target to provide free child care for the 20% most disadvantaged two-year-olds. With just three months before the policy is due to be introduced, a freedom of information survey that I have conducted shows that only 60% of councils have the capacity to provide the places, probably for some of the reasons cited a moment ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), who is no longer in her place. The temptation for the Government just to click their fingers and increase the number of two-year-olds that each worker can care for must be great. We should be clear: all they would have to do is change statutory guidance, meaning that Parliament would have no say.
In proposing the new clauses in this group, the Opposition are giving this House a say. We have an opportunity to nip any such future reforms in the bud. We have an opportunity to send the strongest possible message to Ministers that this House has listened to the tens of thousands of parents and professionals who have been campaigning against these changes, not to mention the Department’s own experts, and to say that we will not risk the safety of children in child care settings or the quality of the early learning and development they receive by allowing any such plans to go through unchallenged.
Elizabeth Truss: Does that mean that the hon. Lady thinks it was wrong for the previous Government to increase ratios for three and four-year-olds in 2008?
Mrs Hodgson: I was not in the Department or in position in 2008, but if we raised ratios, I am sure it was done after full consultation and with the support and backing of child care professionals, which is the exact opposite to now. That is the key difference, and I am sure that people out there listening to this debate will know whether that is true and whether that case is a fair comparison.
I sincerely hope that today the Deputy Prime Minister will put his MPs where his mouth is and lead his Liberal Democrat Members into the Aye Lobby with Labour when we seek the opinion of the House on these new clauses shortly, to ensure that in future no Secretary of State can force through, against the will of the House, changes such as those that the Minister has now dropped.
Amendment 76 would require the Government to take the novel step of consulting on the formation of childminder agencies before they legislate to create them. I hope that Ministers will learn the lessons from the furore over ratios. I should say from the outset that I do not have a dogmatic objection to childminder agencies, particularly if they are voluntary. What the Government say they want to achieve through such agencies is all very sensible: greater co-operation and peer support for childminders, as well as access to training and help with gaining bursaries. Childminder agencies will also be a single point of contact for parents who might need a mix of child care solutions. These are all good things that make for a vibrant childminder sector, and are all things that local authority childminder networks and family information services should be providing at the moment. That some of them are not is perhaps down to the devastating cuts to the grant that local authorities previously received from the Department for Education to pay for them.
Since the publication of this Bill, the Department has been consulting on removing many of those duties from local authorities—such as providing training and quality improvement support—and this on top of the attempt in clause 75 to remove the duty to publish child care sufficiency reports, which our amendment 77 would block. All this seems to be a clear sign that the Government want local authorities almost completely removed from the child care equation and that agencies are therefore the preferred configuration for childminders.
Given that the Minister has said that there will be no direct funding from the Government for agencies to provide those services, the implication is that there will be a cost to the childminder. That cost will in turn have to be passed on to the parents, because most childminders do not earn the sort of money that would allow them to soak up the kind of membership fee or commission that we might expect an agency to demand. The most recent childcare costs survey from the Daycare Trust found that childminder fees were already increasing by an average of more than 5%, year on year.
Of course, as all the parent surveys tell us, cost is a secondary issue to quality, and it is the end of individual inspections by Ofsted that is the most worrying reform. Parents really value the fact that their childminder has proved their effectiveness to Ofsted. A National Childminding Association survey last year found that 80% of parents thought that individual inspections were important, and that 75% might not choose a childminder without the reassurance of an individual inspection. Childminders value the inspections too: 80% felt that moving to an agency model of inspection would have a detrimental effect on their professionalism, and they are obviously concerned that this would put parents off using them as well.
Of course we want more childminders to set up—as I said earlier, we have seen the number drop by more than 1,500 since the election—but we should not be trying to achieve that by passing legislation that has the potential fundamentally to change the market, without first consulting on it and establishing consensus. I would therefore welcome assurances from the Minister that the Government will set up such a consultation before the Bill completes its passage through the other place.