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Child Care

7. Meg Hillier (Hackney, South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): What plans she has to provide more affordable child care places. [41068]

The Minister for Children and Families (Beverley Hughes): Since 1997, as a result of the Government's policies there has been a net increase in child care places nationally of some 90 per cent. In December 2004, we published the 10-year child care strategy to ensure a sustained supply of child care places to give parents choice, flexibility, quality, availability and affordability. The Childcare Bill before the House will give statutory force to those commitments by placing local authorities under a duty to ensure as far as possible sufficient child care, with particular regard to working parents on low incomes.

Meg Hillier: It is welcome news that money is being invested in young people. My right hon. Friend will be aware, however, of the challenges in London. In my constituency, where there is a higher than average population under the age of 16, it particularly bites. Low wages and high premises costs make the cost of child care especially high. Even with Government support, it is difficult for many parents to access child care. Will my
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right hon. Friend visit Sure Start projects in my area to hear from parents about the difficulties, so that we can move together further to tackle access to child care for parents on low incomes in London?

Beverley Hughes: I thank my hon. Friend for her interest in the subject, to which she pays close attention in her constituency. I have talked to parents and Sure Start project providers in London and realise that affordability is an issue in some London boroughs, although child care places in Hackney have increased by 406 per cent. The London Development Agency and my Department are jointly funding pilot schemes to establish the best way to subsidise the additional costs in London that result in higher charges for parents. I am pleased to say that Hackney is among the 26 London boroughs participating in the first round of pilots, which will run until 2008, and I expect all other eligible London boroughs to be included in the next round.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Given that the duty on local authorities in the Childcare Bill to provide child care places does not specify that any of those places must be free and that non-working parents are by definition ineligible for the working tax credit, what plans does the Minister have to ensure that non-working parents can obtain ready access to free child care, so that they can attend job interviews or undertake training?

Beverley Hughes: The hon. Gentleman takes a welcome interest in the subject. The duty on local authorities in the Bill is not directly to provide child care, but to sustain a market in their area. It will include not only working parents, but those who are in education or training and who are seeking jobs, so the duty on local authorities and the definition of sufficiency will encompass non-working parents. In addition, substantial resources—£2.7 billion, which does not include the additional resources for the free education offer for three and four-year-olds—have been allocated to local authorities for the period from 2006 to 2008 as part of the general Sure Start grant. Local authorities will be able to make their own strategic decisions on subsidies to non-working parents who fall outside the category of education and training.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend knows that the Education and Skills Committee takes a great interest in early years, into which it has conducted a major inquiry. It welcomed the expansion in child care places, but what has been done about increasing the pay and qualifications of the people who look after our precious children?

Beverley Hughes: In addition to increasing the supply of child care places, the Government consider it important to maintain and increase provision across the board, because we know that high quality provision makes the difference for young children. The initial qualifications held by the work force and the opportunities for continuing professional development are critical, which is why we have set up the Children's Workforce Development Council and are putting £250 million into the transformation fund over the next two years to enable private sector providers in particular to employ more highly trained people. Our ambition is
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to see a graduate leader in all day care and child care centres by 2015 and to train up people at lower levels. The issue is very important for us.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon) (PC): The Minister knows that the particular difficulties in providing child care places in rural areas has created a shortage. What plans do the Government have to address that particular rural economic disadvantage?

Beverley Hughes: The issue is important, which is why we have given local authorities the strategic lead. As I have said, they will not directly provide services, but they will sustain a market in relation to local conditions. Under that duty, they must assess the market with providers and parents and work out the best way to ensure the supply of places given local circumstances such as rurality, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. There is great potential for providers to collaborate in the development of networks of child minders. As a result of the duty, local authorities will be able to do a great deal more in rural areas.

Mrs. Joan Humble (Blackpool, North and Fleetwood) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend develops more child care places, will she especially consider the needs of families with disabled children? I am sure she knows that they often pay a premium for their places, which causes them genuine financial hardship. They, too, need affordable child care on an equal basis with other families.

Beverley Hughes: My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I share her concern about that. That is why the duties on local authorities include having especial regard not only to working parents on low incomes, whom I mentioned earlier, but families with disabled children. I am happy to say that there are some welcome recent innovations, especially among child minders who specialise in the care of disabled children and develop relationships with families and expertise in different sorts of disabilities. Local authorities will want to build on that type of development.

Mrs. Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con): Sure Start remains a core component of the Minister's child care plans. Does she share my concern that it fails some of the children who are most in need? The Opposition support the principles of Sure Start but, as the Minister knows, Government research shows that, in practice, the adverse effects for some children could be greater than the beneficial effects for others. Surely simply changing practice guidelines does not measure up to the sort of reform that Sure Start needs today.

Beverley Hughes: I am glad that the Conservative party has at least taken one step and said publicly that it supports the principle of Sure Start because before the general election, which is not that long ago, Conservative Members claimed that they would dismantle it and spend the money on something else. We have therefore progressed slightly. However, Conservative Members have yet to make it clear that they would continue that important programme, which is vital for disadvantaged children, to the same extent as the Government.
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If the hon. Lady has considered the evaluation, she knows that the issue is whether enough was done in some—not all—programmes to reach genuinely disadvantaged people and those who do not easily access public services. We have taken that finding on board and all the children's centres that we roll out now, wherever they are sited and whether the area is disadvantaged or not, will have to ensure that they have strong outreach services so that lone parents and those who are very disadvantaged, on very low incomes and often suspicious of publicly provided services are brought into contact with them and—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the Minister should drop a note to the hon. Lady.

Science Research Funding

9. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): What recent assessment she has made of funding for science research in higher education in the south-west of England. [41070]

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): The Department's spending on research and knowledge transfer in English universities is rising by £383 million between 2004–05 and 2007–08. In the current year, universities in the south-west are receiving £77.3 million in recurrent research funding, which is up from £50 million in 2002. In addition, they have received £83 million in capital funding from the science research investment fund since 2002.

Linda Gilroy: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and the welcome increase in funding. However, he knows about the concerns that Plymouth university and others have expressed about the change in the formula that is used to allocate the money from the higher education innovation fund and the potential impact on knowledge partnerships and small and medium-sized enterprises. Will my hon. Friend meet me and some people from Plymouth university who have been working on those important matters to discuss a way forward?

Bill Rammell: I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend and her colleagues. However, I reassure her that the higher education innovation fund—HEIF—has not been cut. It has increased from £77 million to £187 million and now to £238 million. The allocation method has changed in that we have moved from an exclusively competitive bidding round in response to concerns from universities. Now the method is 75 per cent. formula driven with 25 per cent. based on competitive bidding. I do not believe that the position is dire for Plymouth university. Under HEIF 2, it received £2.5 million and under HEIF 3, it received £1.9 million. However, that takes no account of the fact that it is open to Plymouth university to bid for the £54 million that is available from competitive bidding and has yet to be allocated.

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