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Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. That is why it is so important that we have invested £17 billion in early years provision and child care provision over the past eight years. We intend to put more funding into child care, both through the extended schools, to which I have just referred, and through Sure Start centres, setting up such a centre in every community in Britain. That investment was opposed every step of the way by the Conservatives. Britain's hard-working families need that investment.
As family patterns change, with more women working, families need their Government to support them, not a Government who would tell the 1 million and more women in work since 1997 that it would be better if the social clock were turned back a couple of decades. Our aim is always to support parents as they try to make the right decisions for their children, rather than to pretend that the Government know best. That is why we believe that there is no excuse for the do-nothing policies that faced families in the Tory years. Simply shouting "Nanny state" at any measures to support families will not work in the modern world.
Our achievements since 1997, although substantial, do not go far enough. Sixty years on from the Attlee Government, who did so much to establish the welfare state, we must extend its frontiers to embrace the greater opportunities and to confront the bigger challenges of the modern world.
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Our "Every Child Matters" programme and the Children Act 2004 have put children and their safety and well-being where they should becentre stage. The Bill takes that forward and focuses specifically on the early years of childhood. It places a duty on local authorities to improve outcomes for all young children. Every child should have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Secretary of State has made several references to the duties placed on local authorities, and the Bill shows that those duties will be significant. In a previous answer, she said that no costs would be involved in those duties. There would thus be unfunded liabilities for local authorities, and I am at a loss to understand how no costs can be involved in such a large number of duties. If they are to have the significant impact described by the right hon. Lady, surely they will put many costs on local authorities, which will put up council tax.
Ruth Kelly: The hon. Gentleman does not take into account the fact that, over the next three years, there will be an average real terms increase in investment in child care of 24 per cent. a year. Massive new investment in child care is being directed to local authorities through the Sure Start fund, through extended school provision and through other measures, which will make it possible for them to carry out the duties in the Bill.
The Bill in itself does not impose any new unfunded pressure on local authorities. It formalises the role that they have already been playing. It gives our vision statutory force and sets out clear priorities for the use of the considerable amount of money already flowing into the system.
Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): May I raise with my right hon. Friend the fact that the "Every Child Matters" document did not pay proper attention to the role of housing? Can she say what the Bill will do to increase the protection provided to homeless families with children?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Housing is a key part of the "Every Child Matters" agenda and needs to be taken into account in the inspection regime, ensuring that every child fulfils their potential in the fullest sense. As I was saying, the Bill places a specific duty on local authorities to improve outcomes for all young children.
Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): Clause 6 places a duty on local authorities to secure sufficient child care for working parents. Does the Secretary of State agree that, while not calling for public expenditure, it is a route through which more funds will go into child care, because the working tax credit, which is not cash limited, means that more funds will go to child care when more places are available?
Ruth Kelly: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The generosity of the working tax credit system has been increasing over the years. It has increased again recently. That has opened up child care to ordinary hard-working families, sometimes for the first time.
Because life chances are still too often determined by parental background, we want to see local authorities reduce inequalities between the poorest children and the rest. The local authority role will be to champion the rights of young children and their families. To do that, they will work with partners to develop integrated services focused around the needs of the child, and they will involve parents in the design and delivery of the services to ensure that they meet their needs. Sure Start children's centres, already being established throughout the country, will play a vital role in achieving those aims.
To enable parents to balance more effectively their work and family responsibilities, we are placing a precise duty on local authorities to secure sufficient child care for working parents. Local authorities already play a key role in planning, commissioning and delivering services for young children and their families and the Bill formalises that role.
To achieve that, every local authority will have to take into account what parents say they need, particularly those on low incomes or with disabled children. Every local authority will then have to work with providers in the voluntary, private and state sectors and do all they reasonably can to ensure that there are sufficient places and that those match parents' needs.
Parents need information and guidance to allow them to make informed choices between the services available, so the Bill extends the existing duty on local authorities to provide information about child care so that parents know about the range of services available for their child from birth to the age of 19.
Mr. Hurd: Does the Secretary of State share the concerns of the Daycare Trust, whose judgment is that the Bill will not help non-working families and therefore ignores the needs of vulnerable children from workless households, particularly the disabled? Those children would arguably particularly benefit from high quality early years provision. Does she acknowledge a gap?
Ruth Kelly: I do not. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the duty refers specifically to working families but, as child care provision is increased, that child care provision will also be there for those families where no one is in work. As the supply increases, it will not differentiate between the types of parent who want to avail themselves of child care.
These measures call for an appropriate regulation and inspection framework both to give parents confidence that their child is safe and secure and to give children high quality learning experiences and stimulation. For young children, there is no distinction between care and learning. Care cannot be considered good quality unless it provides opportunities for children to learn. Equally,
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learning must be provided in an environment where children feel safe and secure. However, the current system implies that there is a difference between care and learning. That is why we want to change the legal structure to bring them together in a single coherent system that allows young children to be safe and secure and to learn and develop through purposeful play, just as they would at home with their parents.
To achieve that, the Bill will introduce the early years foundation stagea single phase of development for all young children during which activities appropriate to their age will be provided to support development. That will build on the widely welcomed foundation stage and the "Birth to Three Matters" framework, and help us to ensure that all children are getting a good start in life. Our objective is for all providers to work to and be inspected against the same framework. That will reduce bureaucracy and raise the bar on quality.
Currently, all child care providers for children under the age of eight must register with Ofsted. However, there is no such requirement on those that provide only for children over the age of seven, so parents have no way of knowing that that provision is safe and that their children will be looked after well. The Bill will simplify and extend the current regulatory framework so that for the first time Ofsted registered child care will be available for children over seven. Registration will be voluntary for providers that care only for children aged eight or above. We think that that is right and proportionate to the level of risk.
However, there will be strong levers to register for all those providing child care. For example, only registered provision will be eligible for tax credit support. We will also provide guidance to schools developing extended services that they should work only with registered providers. The inspection regime for child care provision at schools will also be simplified. If a school provides child care for its pupils on the school site, it will be inspected by Ofsted as part of the routine school inspection.
This landmark Bill shows a Government who assess and act, listen and respond, and learn and move forward. We have witnessed fundamental changes in the world of work and in the way in which families want to live their lives and we have taken decisive steps. As a result of the Bill, parents will have the certainty of knowing that, whatever their situation, high quality early years services and child care will be available to support them and their children.
The Bill is an essential part of our drive to ensure that every child has the chance and support that they need to fulfil their potential. It is an essential part of a modern Government, forging a modern welfare state that supports families and helps them in making difficult decisions on balancing work and family life. That is what this Government believe in and what the Bill is all about. I commend it to the House.
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