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Ms Buck: On that point, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to comment on the fact that the principal driver for the closure of playgroups across Britain from 1996 onwards was the introduction of the nursery voucher.

Mr. Goodman: I am extremely concerned, in picking up the hon. Lady's point, to point to the administrative burden that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire mentioned. As the hon. Lady raised the point, I note that it is a weakness of the Committee's report—I blame no one but myself, in retrospect—that it does not concentrate more on precisely those burdens, not all of which by any means came about before 1997.

On the proliferation of the funding streams, I want to quote Anne Longfield of Kids' Clubs Network, who complained to the Committee:

If someone trying to make sense of the system stood back from what the report calls the funding jigsaw, he or she might also find a ministerial jigsaw, because there is, by my count: the Minister; the Minister for Children, who is in charge of the national child care strategy; the Minister for Women, who does not seem to have full confidence in the Government's strategy to date; the Minister for Social Exclusion; and a Minister for tax credits, as well as the Chancellor. All of them presumably have some claim to ownership of the Government's policy on child care for working parents. I will not inquire how often the Minister has bilateral meetings about child care with the Minister for Children, or how often they both have trilateral meetings with the Minister for Women, or how often they all meet with the Minister for Social Exclusion and the Minister for tax credits—

Mr. George Osborne: And the Chancellor.

Mr. Goodman: Not forgetting the Chancellor. I am not sure that we can have complete confidence that this is joined-up government. The key word here is mainstreaming. We need a child care strategy that mainstreams child care for working parents with child care for all, based on choice for all, as the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has said. On the supply side, that involves combining services directly provided by the state or by the state in partnership with the private and voluntary sectors, such as children's centres and Sure Start, with reviewing the administrative

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burdens on playgroups and child minders. On the demand side, it involves a less central role for the CCTC and a more central role for benefits and tax credits that permit choice for parents, such as child benefit and the child tax credit.

I visited France and Denmark with the Select Committee on Work and Pensions last week, and I was struck, as every other member of the Committee will have been, by the thought that one reason why child poverty may be lower in France and Denmark is that families may be stronger there. That may be because for some 50 years those countries have put more money into families than we have. That is why the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) was correct in saying that he wanted to consider all this in the context of child poverty.

In summary, the key word is choice. All parents—including, of course, working parents—must be allowed to make the child care choices that they want for their children, who are our future.

3.35 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) on securing this debate on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions report, "Childcare for Working Parents". I thank him for the kind comments that he made in his opening remarks. It was an honour to serve as a member of the Committee under his chairmanship some years ago, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to the report and the issues raised in the debate. This has been perhaps an unusually good and good-natured debate on an important subject, and the debate has done justice to an important report.

The Select Committee is right in emphasising the importance of child care to the Government's anti-poverty strategy. Ensuring that people of working age who want to work can do so is key to our meeting our targets of reducing child poverty by a quarter by 2004, reducing the number of children in workless households by 2006, and getting 70 per cent. of lone parents into paid work by 2010.

The hon. Members for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) and for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) suggested that the 70 per cent. target for lone parents was established irrespective of whether lone parents wanted to work. The target is based on the aspirations of lone parents themselves, 70 per cent. of whom say that they would like to work if they had the opportunity and support to do so, as well as on the needs of the whole economy.

Andrew Selous: In the inquiry to which the Minister refers, was any reference made to what age children should be when lone parents would like to start work? That could make quite a big difference.

Mr. Pond: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because he makes an important point about choice to which I shall return because it runs throughout the contributions made by a number of hon. Members.

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For the reasons that I have outlined, the Chancellor highlighted in presenting the pre-Budget report yesterday the Government's belief that

That is why he announced the package of measures to provide increased support for children and families to which many hon. Members have referred: the tax and national insurance incentives to employers to provide extra support with employees' child care—I confirm to the hon. Member for Romsey that that is available for all registered child care, including out-of-school child care—and the target of new child care places for 2.2 million children by 2006, as well as free child care for all those on the new deal for lone parents in the week before they start work and for those lone parents who undertake work-search activity in 12 pilot areas. Perhaps most importantly, the extra £3.50 a week for each of 7 million children through increased child tax credits is a major contribution to meeting our targets on child poverty.

The Government's commitment to do everything that we can to improve the quality and quantity of child care for working parents was underlined forcefully in the statements by my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions yesterday, which was generously acknowledged by the hon. Member for Wycombe, who has spoken in two roles this afternoon. He has spoken from the Front Bench—if I have not already congratulated him on that position, I do so happily now—and as a member of the Select Committee. I noted from the body language of his colleagues on the Front Bench, many of whom have now left him, that the Opposition Whips may speak to him later about that generous acknowledgement of our commitment, and we trust that his shaky voice in his presentation was no indication of a previous attempt to stop him saying such things.

The Government considered the 21 recommendations in the Select Committee's report carefully, and responded to them on 12 September. I am pleased that the report acknowledged the substantial growth in child care provision since we introduced the national child care strategy in 1998, and that the report welcomed our commitment to further child care expansion even before yesterday's announcements. It is also encouraging that the Committee agreed that the Government were heading in the right direction with children's centres. Members have this afternoon welcomed the commitment to 1,000 children's centres by 2008 announced by the Chancellor yesterday, with the long-term aim of a children's centre in every community. I confirm to the hon. Member for Wycombe that that figure has not been announced previously—it is a new figure.

We readily accept, as many Members rightly pointed out, that we have not yet reached the position that we want: accessible, affordable, good-quality child care in every locality. We understand fully the Committee's desire, and that of Members who have contributed to this afternoon's debate, to see us go further and more quickly. Our response to the report sets out some of the steps that we are taking towards making a reality of our

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vision. It is worth spending a few moments reviewing how far we have come in the past five years.

By April next year, every three and four-year-old child will have access to a free part-time place in an early years setting, thanks to our investment of £2.6 billion a year in free universal nursery education. By 2004, we will have created new child care places for 1.6 million children. By 2006, that will have risen to 2.2 million children. When we came into government, there was one child care place for every nine children. Now we have one place for every five children. All but two of our 524 Sure Start local programmes are up and running, including, I am pleased to say, one in my community in Gravesham. I know from working with that programme the impact that it can have on children and families, in my constituency as around the country. That new Sure Start service is now touching the lives of 400,000 children under the age of four, and reaching about a third of the children under four living in poverty. By the end of this spending review period we will be investing around £1.5 billion a year in the services that we provide under the Sure Start umbrella.

From April 2004, we will also introduce an extended school child care pilot in Bradford and the London boroughs of Haringey and Lewisham. The pilot is designed to maximise the use of existing local child care vacancies to identify quickly any areas where child care supply does not meet demand, and to create new school-based child care where that is necessary. The object is to ensure that lack of appropriate child care is not a barrier to the return to work of those within workless households. That will entail close working in particular between local authorities and Jobcentre Plus, which will be facilitated by the recently introduced Jobcentre Plus child care partnership managers.

The Government have taken a number of steps to help working parents with their child care. My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), who has long been an energetic campaigner on child care issues, reminded us that the costs of child care can be a barrier to work for lower and middle-income parents. That is why we have provided substantial financial help towards the costs of approved child care through tax credits. She will be pleased that yesterday the Chancellor announced extra help with child care costs for those parents receiving both housing benefit and working tax credit. She will also be pleased with the announcement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that acknowledged the additional costs that parents in London face for such things as child care and gave a commitment to try to address the issue.

More than 286,000 families receive help with child care costs through the working tax credit, and we are spending 90 per cent. more on child care through tax credits than before—almost £2 million a day. Since April, we have extended the tax credit to cover approved child care in the home, which is intended especially to help parents with child care needs who work unsocial hours or shifts and those with disabled children. The credit is now paid to the main carer. I can tell the hon. Member for Romsey that we are consulting on the proposed extension of such care early in 2004, and we would welcome her comments and those of other hon.

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Members on the appropriate form for that. Her point about au pairs is principally a matter for the Home Office, but I am sure that my colleagues in the Home Office are listening to the debate—[Laughter.] As, indeed, is much of the rest of the nation. I am sure that my colleagues in the Home Office will respond to the hon. Lady's point.

I must emphasise that working tax credit is a targeted work-incentive measure that is intended to help to make work pay for low and middle-income parents. The child care element is designed to help to remove the child care barrier that often prevents people from taking up, or returning to, work. It is not designed to be a universal child care subsidy for all families. However, some universal support is provided by means of free nursery education and Government funding for child care places. In addition to the undoubted direct benefit to children of free nursery education, its provision has the effect of substantially reducing the cost of full-time day care for the parents of three and four-year-olds. Since August, young parents aged 16 to 19 have been able to receive free child care up to the value of £5,000 per child per year so that they may continue their education or take part in work-based learning through our care to learn scheme.

Since April, we have provided a network of child care partnership managers in Jobcentre Plus districts to help advisers to assist parents seeking work. We have introduced support child-minding pathfinders in six key inner-city areas where child care is most needed to enable unemployed people to work. The aim is to engage existing child minders to attract new people into the profession and help them to set up in business. Funding will be provided to all local authorities for similar schemes from next April.

The hon. Members for Wycombe and for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) referred to the decline in the number of child minders, which shows the importance of the scheme. I reassure them that we have managed to stem that decline and I am advised that since last April the number has increased by 9,000, so we are going in the right direction. We need to ensure that we continue to encourage more people to enter child care as a professional and, hopefully, well rewarded form of employment. I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire about the need to ensure that such people are properly rewarded. He might remember that when I was at the Low Pay Unit, it published a report entitled "Who Minds About the Minders?", which pointed out that child minders need to be properly rewarded.

As was announced in the 2003 Budget, pilots of child care taster sessions will be available in specific locations for up to one week to help people on the new deal for lone parents to find out whether formal child care suits their needs. I know that the Select Committee was especially anxious for that to happen, so I hope that it welcomes the fact that we are moving forward with the scheme. Our intention is to establish the feasibility of the mechanism of taster sessions and to get a qualitative sense of their impact on parents' movement into work. The pilots will operate in the six metropolitan areas of London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester until March 2006 and will start in the first areas by April next year.

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We have also taken account of the needs of parents who are already in work through new laws that were introduced in April to provide them with more choice about how to balance child care with work. Those include the new duty on employers to consider seriously requests to work flexibly from parents of young and disabled children. The Government believe that there is more that employers can do to help people to balance their home and work responsibilities. Not only is that the right thing for employers to do; it also makes business sense, bringing benefits through improved recruitment and retention, staff morale and organisational performance.

We consulted earlier in the year on proposals to encourage more employers to help their staff with the cost of good, safe child care. Yesterday, as hon. Members know, the Chancellor announced proposals to widen the tax and national insurance contribution exemptions for employer-supported child care.

My hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North expressed her anxiety about whether we were doing enough about the supply of child care. She will acknowledge, I think, that we are doing a considerable amount, particularly on children's centres and on the support, which I mentioned, to encourage more people to enter the child-minding profession. We have also made a substantial investment in the creation of new child care places.

We provide start-up funding for a wide range of child care settings: day-care nurseries, child minders and out-of-school child care clubs. In areas of disadvantage, that support can extend to up to three years, acknowledging that businesses can take longer to establish themselves at viable levels in such areas. We also plan next year to introduce short-term sustainability funding to protect good child care in disadvantaged areas, where those child care businesses are experiencing temporary viability problems.

A number of hon. Members have spoken about quality. I have referred to our vision of having good, affordable child care in every area and community. We need to be clear about what we are trying to achieve for the quality of child care provision. We have introduced a new national framework of standards for child care for children under eight, which will be regulated by Ofsted, because we know that children's behaviour, socialisation and later life are crucially influenced by their early experiences. Those standards allow parents to work, train or study, confident that their children are in a safe and stimulating environment.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire expressed concern about quality. The Government are clear that we are not in the business of saying that child care needs to be just "good enough" so that the parent can work. We know from our research that it is the quality of the early years experience that makes the difference to the child's outcomes. We know from much American research that poor child care for parents in low-paid jobs can damage the child's outcomes. That means that although we want to expand child care provision as fast as possible, we will not sacrifice standards to numbers. It means investing in creating a strong and well-qualified work force that is rigorously

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inspected. We are committed to the concept of registration, which is important as a foundation not only for quality but for child safety.

The Select Committee welcomed the fact that we were targeting resources, which are inevitably limited, to achieve the greatest impact. We understand the point made by a number of hon. Members that they would like us to extend provision further, especially, as the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) said, into rural areas. I point out to hon. Members, however, that there is considerable flexibility for local authorities to seek to extend provision in that way. We note the slight scepticism of the Select Committee and its Chairman about whether that goes far enough, and the child care review will consider that and a number of other issues.

The review will consider whether the long-term projection for child care and early years education is sufficient to meet the Government's aim for employment and educational attainment; whether the expansion is proceeding quickly enough; and whether there are areas where more remains to be done. The review will also look in detail at how we can ensure better integration between early years education and child care for pre-school children, because we know that, while working parents welcome the nursery education entitlement, they also need child care that wraps around it.

We also recognise that working parents need to know that their children are safe and cared for during non-school hours, so the review will look at child care provision both before and after normal school hours. We want to see more extended schools providing more services to their local communities. In conclusion, the child care review findings will inform the next spending review settlement for the Sure Start unit, as well as the allocation of resources for child care for the three years from 2005–06. I cannot, of course, anticipate the results, but it is fair to say that child care and children's issues generally are at the centre of the political agenda to an extent that would have seemed impossible 10 years ago. I can reassure the hon. Member for Wycombe that we have a structure in place to ensure that child care initiatives that emanate from different Departments are properly joined up. The child care review is led by a ministerial team representing my own Department—the Department for Work and Pensions—as well as the Department for Education and Skills, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Treasury and the Department of Health. The Sure Start unit, as Members will know, is jointly responsible to the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education and Skills. The Minister with day-to-day responsibility for the work of the unit, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, is a Minister in both Departments. I am sure that she will be pleased to read about the well-deserved recognition of its work in the opening remarks of the Chairman of the Select Committee.

We have had a valuable debate, a theme of which has been the question of choice. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire made a point that was reiterated by the hon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire, for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), for Romsey and for Wycombe: that choice for parents is an essential ingredient of child care. They should have

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choice about the type of child care that they use and the balance between work and family. They should have choice about whether their child is cared for in a voluntary, private or public setting. Some parents, especially those with very young children, may choose to care for them without using other forms of child care provision that are available. To provide that choice, we have given a great deal of extra support for families with children. The amount of support for the first child in child benefit and child tax credit has increased from £27 a week in 1997 to £58 following the Chancellor's announcements yesterday.

We want to give genuine choices to parents who want to work so that they have the opportunity to build on their achievements and fulfil their ambitions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle) made clear, the issue is about not just social justice but economic prosperity. Investment in child care makes good sense—not only do we want to ensure that we give choices to parents and children that enhance children's life chances but we want to make sure that we build on the strong economic foundations that the Chancellor of the Exchequer outlined yesterday. I thank the Committee for its report and hon. Members for their contributions to a good and, indeed, good-natured debate, which I am sure will enhance our determination that parents continue to have choice and that we continue to build a nation based on social justice and economic prosperity.

Debate concluded, pursuant to Resolution [2 December].

Question deferred, pursuant to Standing Order No. 54(4) and (5) and Order [29 October 2002] until 6 pm.

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