Examination of Witnesses (Questions 84
WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001
HODGE, MBE AND
84. Could I, after a little local difficulty,
apologise, Minister, for the delay in starting this session. Can
I welcome you again to the Committee, and also Alan Cranston.
We are very pleased you could come because, as a former Chairman
of the Committee, you will know that this is a very experimental
session. When you were Chair you had deliberations and away-days
to decide just how we would make the Select Committee more effective,
and here you are now as part of that more effective process.We
did what we thought was a fairly good reportmany of us
thought it was a very good reporton the Early Years. We
wanted to follow that through. We did not just want to do the
report, put it on the shelf, and say, "Didn't we do a good
job?" and walk away from it. We wanted to follow through
our recommendations. So we have had a process of going back to
many of the people that we consulted (and some we did not) to
say, "What do you think of the report?". That was the
session we had last week. This is the ultimate session in a sense,
so now we have got even more ammunition to ask you even more difficult
questions as the responsible Minister. We see this as pushing
the boundaries a bit in the Select Committee process. Certainly
in terms of Early Years this Committee does not intend to walk
away from it even after this session. Can I open the questioning
and say that what came out of last week's session in terms of
an overview was that here is the Government in this first four
years, a Labour Government, doing a great deal of good work, putting
a large amount of resource into Early Years, but if there was
one discordant voice it was the voice of a professor known to
you who at the end said (and reiterated in a sense by David Walker
in the article in The Guardian yesterday), have we not
really missed the opportunity of providing a holistic child care
service in this country? It is still very patchy. You may say
it has improved and yes, it has improved from a low base. I will
just quote what he says: "Some 70 per cent of working women
with dependant children make `informal arrangements' for all or
part of their childcare. Childcare outside the home is used by
13 per cent of parents all the time and by a further 8 per cent
in combination with friends and family." The picture it paints
is of a pretty under-developed child care service, not quite joined
up and certainly not with the resources that makes it a holistic
service. I know that is a big question to start with but it is
the biggy that we got from our session last week.
(Ms Hodge) It is a big question and it
is quite a difficult one really. We inherited a legacy of huge
diversity which had grown up in response to parental and children's
demands and needs. We could have destroyed that legacy or we could,
as we chose to do, build on it. The diversity is, unlike, let
us say, Sweden who invested massively in the whole early years
of child care in the seventies, that a lot of people choose to
have their children looked after in the informal sector. Child
minding is a big sector in the United Kingdom, not so big elsewhere.
We have private, voluntary and statutory providers. We have tried
to build a strength out of that diversity to provide more choice
and flexibility and I think we are being quite successful on that.
I also think that we have just got to work from where we are at;
that is the first thing to say. The second is that we have not
yet caught up with our European partners, there is no doubt about
that. I remember sitting in your chair and questioning the then
Permanent Secretary, I think it was, saying, "How on earth
can you justify in the United Kingdom only spending two per cent
of our education spending on early years and child care in comparison
to other countries?"the next one up in the OECD figure
was nine or ten per cent. We started from an incredibly low base
and we have had a massive investment. It is difficult to pull
out key figures but if you look at nursery education, for example,
under us the investment will have doubled from one billion to
two billion. By the end of this year we will have got 200,000
new free nursery education places. On the child care my budget
has tripled, we have got the new New Opportunities Fund, we have
got the Neighbourhood Nurseries, there is a terrific cash investment.
What I always say when I am asked about this is, I do not think
we can grow any faster. Child care and early years is now the
second fastest growing sector in the labour market and that reflects
our investment. If we were to grow faster than we are doing we
would sacrifice quality at the altar of quantity and I am not
prepared to do that.
85. Does that mean there will not be any ambitious
targets in the new Labour Party manifesto on child care?
(Ms Hodge) There will be lots of ambition in the Labour
Party manifesto, and indeed the ambitious targets that we have
set ourselves until 2004 are very challenging. We have said we
will have a million child care places for 1.6 million children.
We have said we will have universal nursery education for all
three-year olds by September 2004. We have said we are going to
have at least 900 Neighbourhood Nurseries in the most disadvantaged
areas to try and close the child care gap and 500 Sure Start programmes,
that is doubling, a hundred Early Excellence centres, 145,000
new child minder places. We have pretty ambitious targets already
but the ambition will not stop there and I think if a lot of those
programmes are successful we will carry on expanding. Can I just
say that one of the really great things, if you compare this investment
and this Government programme with lots of others, is the dedication
of the partnerships and I think the partnerships are a fantastic
success story in community capacity building and really developing
services around the needs of parents and children in their locality.
We are exceeding targets all the time. In nine months of this
year we created as many new childcare places as we expected to
do next year. Over the coming days I will be announcing the targets
for next year and they are in excess of the ones we expect the
partnerships to achieve. We have no difficulty spending our money,
which is something that has been laid at the door of other programmes.
When you talk about the holistic approach, let me just tackle
that one and then move on. There has been quite a lot of discussion
about is the structure appropriate, is this the best way of delivering
the Early Years and child care services for children? Again, we
would not necessarily have started from where we are at but within
the Department we have now created a unified unit, an Early Years
and Child Care Unit. When I first arrived it was under two separate
Ministers and they then both came under me. Now we have one unit.
I think we have got some really exciting cross-governmental work
here. I think Sure Start is a model that we ought to emulate elsewhere,
where you have got David Blunkett in charge, Yvette Cooper in
another department chairing the working party, me with ministerial
responsibility within the DfEE, and that is a good structure with
clear accountability for delivering cross-government services.
If you went beyond that, because we do think about it, how would
you deal with children's health if you had even greater integration?
It is an integral part of the Health Service. Although we want
the Health Service to be a player in children's services, both
for care and education, bringing them in and divorcing them from
the rest of the National Health Service would also be very difficult
to do and probably would create new tensions and anomalies. We
are, I think, grappling with it in a holistic way but it may be
a little untidier than some of the academics like to think we
can deal with.
Chairman: Pragmatic but holistic.
86. Can we return to the Early Years partnerships
because we said in our report that the quality needs to be closely
monitored and it is certainly my feeling that while some of them
work extremely well others do not. Have you had any examples of
problems encountered by the partnership advisers and can you tell
us what steps the Department is taking to make sure that the people
on the ground who have to deliver the Neighbourhood Nurseries,
the Sure Start and so on are actually clear about what we are
trying to achieve with these programmes? In my experience they
are not always clear, neither the partnerships themselves nor,
I have to say, some of the local authority officers who deal with
(Ms Hodge) The partnerships are still young. We set
them up in 1997 and they took on child care in 1998 so they have
only been running now for two years. We have now got the partnership
advisers in place. They have just finished their first visit to
all the partnerships and what they report is a mixed bag. Some
are doing extremely well, some are all right, some need further
support. That is why we have the partnership advisers in place.
They will work particularly with those partnerships that are probably
not doing as well as others. We have also put in place a training
programme for partnerships, spending about half a million pounds
on that. I think that will support it. We are trying to do mentoring
and it is much more networking between partnerships to try and
grow their capacity. I think they are an incredible success story.
I think the fact that we have over-achieved on every target is
great. It does not mean they always do what we want but we have
deliberately gone down the road with this policy of ensuring this
is a bottom-up response to local needs. I get frustrated every
now and then when a particular authority does not grasp a particular
initiative in the way we would like. For example, there have been
some issues around how we have expanded the three-year old places
where some authorities may not have totally met the needs of the
disadvantaged children first, all those sorts of things, but that
is local democracy.
87. Let me take you up on that because it is
not local democracy, is it? Who are the partnerships accountable
to at the end of the day?
(Ms Hodge) The partnerships themselves are a pretty
representative body. Whenever I go and talk to them I meet 150,
200 local people with all sorts of interests, from all sorts of
backgrounds, with all sorts of qualifications and experience coming
together and talking about child care. I think they are pretty
representative. What we have tried is a steer, not row, philosophy
that we have with them. We have set them pretty tough targets.
Just to give you an example on quality, they have pretty clear
targets about training days for people working on foundation stage
Early Learning goals, they have got pretty clear targets about
special educational needs, they have got pretty clear targets
around expansion. I vet every plan. I am in the middle of doing
it now. We send quite a lot back for further information before
we agree them. I think they are pretty good and accountable bodies.
88. Sorry; there is a difference between being
representative and being accountable, is there not? Who is accountable
for the decision making? If, for example, you have a partnership
that is not necessarily putting enough nursery places in the most
deprived areas, who is accountable for that decision at the end
of the day?
(Ms Hodge) In those circumstances we may give a conditional
approval to their plan, which means that it is not full approval
and that gives us a lever with which to try and support them,
or we may actually turn down their plan. When we have finished
this year's assessment there will probably be a number of conditional
approvals at the end of it. We are raising our expectations every
year and I think they are responding.
89. How do you stop them being dominated by
the local education authority? Also, as you know (I have raised
this with you before), there is the issue of them meeting in private
rather than meeting in public so that parents, local schools,
nurseries and so on can attend. What are you doing about that
and have you set them targets in terms of meeting in public and
therefore at least being a little bit more accountable to the
(Ms Hodge) Our expectation is that they should meet
in public. I do not think we have got a target around it. We do
on the other hand in their strategic plans ask them about who
their Chair is. We like to see a non-LEA Chair as one way to ensure
that they are not dominated by the LEA, and we do ask a series
of questions around how representative they are. I think it is
a difficult one because, to be absolutely honest, in areas where
there tends to be LEA domination there also very often tends to
be a less developed and less vocal voluntary sector and private
sector, so the two tend to go together.
90. What about strategy?
(Ms Hodge) The whole of the strategy has I think unleashed
massive interest from the private and voluntary sector. It is
amazing when you go to these partnership meetings. They are sitting
there talking about an issue that they would not have talked about
five years ago and worrying about what to do, how to do it and
where to do it, all those sorts of things.
91. That is why it is so important they should
meet in public.
(Ms Hodge) We would prefer them to meet in public.
92. We had one witness who said they had plans,
strategies, but do they have a vision of where they really want
to be in five or ten years? Some of them really lift their ambition.
Is that something that is missing?
(Ms Hodge) No. I think we have got a very clear vision.
It is one that we share with them and develop with them as
93. But that sounds a bit patronising, Minister,
does it not? Do we not want these Early Years partnerships that
really work to push you?
(Ms Hodge) To have their own visions?
94. Yes, to push you.
(Ms Hodge) I am very happy for them to push us. Interestingly
enough, I think they have reached now probably the stage of development
where, in the same way that you have got the Local Government
Association, there ought probably to be a partnership organisation
representative of the partnerships. I think there are some partnerships
who are trying to establish that. I would welcome that. They will
not agree with us. They will probably cause us some hassle but
that is a good dialogue in which we need to engage.
95. You are suggesting it might be the kiss
of death, Minister.
(Ms Hodge) No, no, I welcome it. I am always keen
on those sorts of things.
Mr St Aubyn
96. Does the Government think that child care
is a learned skill primarily or an intuitive one?
(Ms Hodge) What, working in it?
97. The actual job of caring for children.
(Ms Hodge) If I can say as a mum to start with, I
think there is nothing more terrifying than coming home with your
first bundle of joy. Having had all the endless support during
pregnancy, prodded and told what to do, tested and all sorts of
advisers round you, you then produce this wonderful thing, come
home and you have not a clue and you are petrified. We always
presumed that parenting was something which was completely instinctive
and I think as a mother I could have done with much more support
in the post-natal bit than I got in the ante-natal bit, so I hope
a lot of what we are doing is improving that. I also think, in
terms of working in child care, that we are learning more and
more about how children develop in those early years. We are becoming
more knowledgeable about that, not just intellectually but physically,
socially, emotionally, all those things, and the more we learn
the more we know how you can ensure that a child can be nurtured
and supported in those early years in a way which promotes their
best development. I think the whole child care area was seen as
one in which you did not need a qualification, it did not matter,
it was all instinctive, common sense, but we are now recognising
that effective training and knowledge and experience help provide
a better start in life for kids.
98. Do you recognise that there are people with
intuitive skills in this area as well?
(Ms Hodge) I think there are people with intuitive
skills in all sorts of professions.
99. The reason why I ask that is that what is
worrying about the decline in the number of child minders is that
it may be very much the people who have not had professional qualifications
but who did have an intuitive skill in looking after children
and they may (unintentionally perhaps) be being driven out of
this sector by what they see as the increasing professionalisation
(Ms Hodge) I just do not think that is true. If we
look at the issue of child minders, the report that was published
yesterday referred to a situation that we had already spotted
a year ago; the figures are almost a year out of date. Let us
look first at why was there a decline. Child minding is traditionally
a low paid job and that comes out again in the research that was
published yesterday. As the labour market tightens, and this happens
in cycles, other job opportunities emerge, particularly for child
minders, and they move into them. I think that is why we have
had that decline. We have talked to people like the NCMA and they
say that people have moved in the same and related areas but into
better paid jobs with progression. However, we have taken three
important actions. One, we did the start-up grants where we have
put £21 million into that so that a new child minder can
get up to £300 for anything: buying the equipment, paying
the insurance, paying for the training. In a disadvantaged area
the child minder can get up to £600 to start up. That is
recognising that child minders do have these additional costs.
We have put important money into establishing 450 child minder
networks over the next three years and again, once a child minder
is in a network, they can then access the nursery education grant
for three- and four-year olds. That gives them access to additional
resources. We intend that to create 145,000 new child minder places
that we talked about. We have introduced two or three weeks ago
this new scheme for temporary assistance for child minders so
that if they lose a child off their books they can for five weeks
get up to £100 a week whilst they recruit a new child to
look after so that they do not have this sudden drop in income
which was forcing a lot out of child minding. Now, having taken
those three measures, interestingly enough, what the NCMA now
tell us is that in the last six months their recruitment has literally
gone up 100 per cent in comparison with the same time period last
year. There were some other interesting things in that useful
bit of research yesterday. There is a lack of qualifications in
the sector. Twenty one per cent had a qualification. Only 23 per
cent thought it was important. As we grow a proper child care
infra structure parents will be looking for higher quality child
care and I think we have to do all we can to encourage child minders
to seek more qualifications. The other interesting thing was that
one in four of the child minders who registered as a child minder
was not currently child minding, which was worrying. Fifty per
cent had vacancies, which was worrying. We do want to grow the
child minding cohort because it provides flexibility, particularly
important in rural areas, but on the other hand we have to think
about the sector. I think the steps we have taken are sensible.
What we are doing around training is important and I think we
are on the right road, but we have also got to think a little
bit about how child minding fits in with the longer term.