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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.

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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.

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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

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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 be 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.

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