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Helen Goodman: Opposition Members, including the hon. Gentleman, have repeatedly said that they do not want targeting or the early-years foundation stages, and that they are unhappy with the criteria set out in clause 41. They have also said that they want to know how effective Sure Start and other provision is. Can the hon. Gentleman square that circle for us?

Tim Loughton: I do not think that there is a circle to square. My point is that we are in danger of treating all children under five the same, but basic attachment theory shows that children are very different in the first two years, which are all about the connections that the child makes with the parent or child care provider with whom it comes into close contact. Trying to educationalise or schoolify, as people have put it, those crucial early years threatens to upset the social development of that child. That is why we need to be assured that the early education plans are not as prescriptive as many people fear.

The explanatory notes for clause 41 mention

That is educational language, not the language of social development. That is why we are so concerned about the prospect of prescriptive schoolification of provision for very young children, when what they need is the chance to interact socially and form attachments. They need to be observed, encouraged and stimulated, not tested and not taught.

As the NUT has warned, the proposal to extend the national literacy and numeracy frameworks downwards to age three will result in formalised learning too soon. We want to scrutinise that closely and, in particular, table amendments to ensure different treatment for children at that early age.

We support the principles behind the Bill, but we want to scrutinise it closely. There is a lot at stake and we cannot risk an approach that puts quantity ahead of quality outcomes. We must not apply to this area the Government's obsession—as shown in so much other legislation—with testing and ticking the boxes, instead of letting children grow up and learn to interact socially with their carers and peers. We need to encourage a child to develop its own sense of self. Subject to the criteria that I have set out, the Bill will have our support where it genuinely extends more choice and flexibility to more parents and their children; where it improves quality; where it complements and builds on what is already there rather than duplicates and undermines it; where it
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creates a genuine partnership between local authorities and all other interested parties; where it recognises that a child does best when allowed to be brought up by a loving family and parents, where possible; and, above all, if it allows children to grow up as well rounded individuals, given the best start in life that they all deserve.

8.32 pm

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): We have had an interesting debate, with some knowledgeable contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House who clearly care about young children, early education and child care. I welcome the fact that Opposition Members support the Bill in principle.

Since 1997, the Government have introduced a new and unprecedented commitment to our youngest children and their families. I can tell the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) that we have invested more than £17 billion in early years and child care; guaranteed every three and four-year-old a free nursery education place; started to integrate education with care in every setting; committed to provide a children's centre in every community; extended services in schools; introduced the working tax credit, which is likely to be worth some £800 million this year, to enable low-income families to access child care; and established more than 500,000 new child care places.

We have done all that for two reasons. First, we know that good quality, regular pre-school provision has a markedly positive impact on young children and their subsequent development. Even after one takes into account the characteristics of the child, the family and the home, the evidence shows significant links between quality child care and better child outcomes. The research to which several hon. Members referred, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), suggests that the difference in child development between having pre-school education and not having it can be of the order of four to six months. For the highest quality integrated centres, the difference can be as much as nine months. That substantial difference is achieved in only a two-year period of a child's life, which is remarkable. Good quality, integrated child care is good for young children and it helps the most disadvantaged children the most. Committed as we are to ensuring that poorer children get every chance to reach their potential and to rise beyond the circumstances of their birth, giving them the best and earliest start is essential.

The second reason is, of course, that today's parents combine family and work—many choose to, but many have to—and need the reassurance of high-quality, reliable child care in which they can have confidence. Such child care is not only safe, but provides stimulation and the kind of developmental opportunities that every good parent provides at home.

The Bill brings child care into the mainstream of the local services that parents can expect to be available. It ensures that parents will get the information and help that they need to gain access to those services. It gives outcomes for our youngest children the recognition and status that they deserve for the first time, and it puts
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statutory force behind the drive to reduce inequalities among young children. My hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Edward Miliband) was right to set the Bill in the context of the drive for equality in the interests of children, their families, our economy and, indeed, our social fabric.

A number of important themes have been touched on by many hon. Members during the debate. The first theme is choice, which was raised by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) in her opening speech. I was somewhat perplexed to understand her contention—I paraphrase, but this is more or less it—that there is less choice under Labour and that private, voluntary and independent providers are going out of business. The facts do not stack up with that analysis.

In 1997, 56 per cent. of three and four-year-olds were in some form of free nursery provision. The figure is 98 per cent. now. In 1997, there were just over 600,000 registered child care places; there are 1.2 million now—an increase of 95 per cent. In 1997, there was a registered place for one in eight children. There is now a registered place for one in four children. There were 6,000 day nurseries then; there are 13,000 day nurseries now. There were 3,500 out-of-school clubs in 1997; there are more than 10,000 now. Given the expansion in all kinds of provision, we can see that the choice available for people is much better now.

A number of hon. Members expressed concern about the position of private, voluntary and independent providers. Today, 75 per cent. of full day care is provided by the private sector; only 3 per cent. is provided by local authorities. Some 63 per cent. of sessional day care—playgroups—is provided by the voluntary sector; only 4 per cent. is provided by local authorities. Far from causing a diminution in the sector's diversity, we have been increasing its diversity, and we want to continue to do so.

None of the Opposition spokespersons picked up the point that, at least for England, the Bill says that local authorities can attempt to fulfil the sufficiency duty and fill identified gaps in child care themselves only as a last resort and when that is clearly the only acceptable thing to do. In other words, they must work with parents and providers to ensure that the gaps are filled outside the local authority sector.

The theme of choice ran through other hon. Members' speeches. The hon. Members for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) and for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) seemed to suggest that, somehow, the Government extending provision and choice is tantamount to pushing parents out to work. I want to say categorically that that is not so. We believe that parents can choose whether they wish to work and, if they wish to work, what child care they want to use. It is not for the Government to regulate the use of relatives or grandparents and subject them to Ofsted inspections. I am sure that the hon. Member for Reading, East did not intend to imply that, but that is what bringing them within the Bill's scope would mean.

Mothers and fathers are free to organise their lives and child care as they think best. I am glad that, in the end, a Conservative Member—the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett)—mentioned fathers. Of course, we know that many fathers—albeit
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perhaps not Conservative Members—increasingly want to take an active part in the upbringing and care of their young children, so we want to support that. My hon. Friends the Members for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon), for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) and for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) recognised the importance of choice to parents and the economy, and the fact that employers are increasingly recognising the business case for child care.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was right to say that the issue now is not quantity, but quality. That is of paramount importance, so I share that concern with every hon. Member who raised it, including my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) and for Stockport (Ann Coffey) and the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who made an intelligent and detailed speech about the importance of quality. I welcome the support of the hon. Lady and my hon. Friends for the Bill and our drive for quality.

I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport that clause 7 provides the legal underpinning for free entitlement for all three and four-year-olds, including children in need. That is why we introduced the outcome duty, under which local authorities must pursue outcomes for children though integrated education and care. We know that such integration will drive up quality.

That is also the drive behind the early years foundation stage and the integrated regulation and inspection framework. Much of what has been said about the foundation stage has not been helpful. It will not involve formal education and there will be no tests or rigid timetables. It will cover the sort of things that good parents do with their children—I suspect that they are things that hon. Members did automatically with their young children—so people would expect such activities to form part of a good child care setting. The foundation stage will be play-based. Children will be provided with the experiences and activities that they need to grow, learn and develop.

We are building on existing frameworks. Although I do not want to detain the House, I recommend the "Birth to Three Matters" framework to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham—I thought for a moment he had lifted sections of it and incorporated them into his speech. Practitioners will plan for each child. They will adopt a structured approach, but the experience of the child will be spontaneous and free-flowing. Practitioners will assess children by observation and discuss progress with parents.

Bringing together the existing "Birth to Three Matters" framework and the foundation stage will give providers a much more coherent framework to apply and follow. They are applying and following a framework now, but it is in two separate bits and it does not include the care standard. Our aim is to bring forward a coherent rationalisation of what exists at the moment.

Quality and affordability are also important. Quality depends on a qualified, trained work force, and developing the work force can have an impact on costs. As hon. Members have rightly recognised, it is difficult for us to square that circle. We have introduced the
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children's work force strategy and the development council that is now helping us with it. Local authorities will have to develop their own work force strategies because different situations will exist in different areas. We will be giving £52 million a year to local authorities from next April to develop their work forces. The money will be additional to that from the transformation fund to which several hon. Members referred, through which we will try to support the development of better qualifications among the work force.

On the demand side, the working tax credit is helping more than 330,000 families to afford child care. Of course, the free part-time education offer for all three and four-year-olds is also helping parents. The situation is complex, but with the strategy and the work force development council, and along with local authorities, we have put in place a mechanism by which we can try to ensure that we make progress. Indeed, the duty on child care is framed towards people claiming the working tax credit so that we can ensure that the child care provided is affordable.

A number of hon. Members mentioned the role of local authorities. I was pleased that the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) recognised that they are the appropriate lead body to develop sufficient child care and to be accountable for children's outcomes in their areas. Child care has to have a local dimension. Rural areas will be different from urban areas, and it will be different for different groups of parents. That is why it is important, in terms of pursuing the flexibility to which some hon. Members referred, that local authorities take the lead.

I do not accept that the burdens are unfunded. All the duties, in part, are already local authority duties under either the Children Acts or other regulations. Local authorities have received significant amounts in the general Sure Start grant for children's centres, extended schools and work force development. By 2007–08, they will receive £1.8 billion, which is double the figure for 2004–05. That is a substantial resource and is in addition to the £3 billion to fund the under-fives early education offer, which is going to all settings that meet the standards.

Disabled children were mentioned. I assure hon. Members that the focus on disabled children is a result of our determination to ensure that we improve the situation for them and their families. The duty on outcomes will focus on disabled children. The child care duty highlights the needs of disabled children. The early years foundation stage will contain explicit references to children with disabilities and those with special educational needs. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood was right. The findings of a recent Ofsted study show that in a majority of cases a positive attitude and a well trained team of staff make the difference between a disabled child being welcomed and included or not.

This is a landmark Bill. It is the first Bill devoted specifically to early years and child care. It reflects our commitment to give every child the best possible start in life, with enriching experiences that will enhance their development and learning throughout their childhood and the rest of their education. It is a major public service reform, bringing integrated early years education and child care into the mainstream of a modern welfare state. It establishes once and for all that
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the services will be available to parents, part and parcel of the locally based family services that parents rightly expect in today's society. It is a major commitment to disadvantaged children, with a statutory duty to improve outcomes for all young children and reduce inequalities between the most disadvantaged and the rest. It puts children and parents at the heart of the legislation, and it confirms the role of local authorities as champions of those children and parents. It will give fathers and mothers genuine choices on how best to balance work and family life, and the assurance that whatever choice they make, the system is working to ensure high quality and consistency.

I hope every hon. Member will join us in supporting these radical measures. We have the opportunity to transform permanently the shape, quality and availability of early years services for the youngest children and their parents. I hope that we can do so with consensus. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

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