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Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. Christopher Chope, Mrs. Joan Humble
Blackman, Liz (Erewash) (Lab)
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Butler, Ms Dawn (Brent, South) (Lab)
Creagh, Mary (Wakefield) (Lab)
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab)
Gibb, Mr. Nick (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)
Hayes, Mr. John (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)
Knight, Jim (Minister for Schools and Learners)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Miller, Mrs. Maria (Basingstoke) (Con)
Seabeck, Alison (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab)
Sharma, Mr. Virendra (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
Simon, Mr. Siôn (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills)
Stuart, Mr. Graham (Beverley and Holderness) (Con)
Thornberry, Emily (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Williams, Stephen (Bristol, West) (LD)
Chris Shaw, James Davies, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 26 March 2009


(Part II)

[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill

[Continuation from column 756]
10.30 pm
On resuming—
Mrs. Miller: I beg to move amendment 407, in clause 187, page 106, line 9, after ‘the’, insert ‘health and’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 408, in clause 187, page 106, line 9, at end insert—
‘(d) raising the achievements of disadvantaged children as defined in the relevant Children’s Trust Board’s Children and Young People’s Plan.’.
Mrs. Miller: These are the final amendments to clause 187. They address two of the most important issues facing Sure Start children’s centres: having health as a true partner, and focusing on giving children from the most disadvantaged families the best possible opportunity to achieve their potential. On health being the elephant in the room, amendment 407 clearly places health on the inspection report that Ofsted will produce. I am sure that the Minister will argue that health is a subset of well-being, but if our language were a little more direct in legislation we might achieve better outcomes for children.
The final amendment would ensure that children’s centres have a pivotal role in helping the most disadvantaged children, and any Ofsted report regime would have to have the outcomes for disadvantaged children at the heart of what they are doing. This is an important opportunity to send clear signals about the outcomes that we expect from Sure Start children’s centres. The purpose of these two amendments is to probe the Government’s intentions, because the information about how the new Ofsted inspection regime will work is patchy.
Sarah McCarthy-Fry: The hon. Lady has anticipated some of my comments. I certainly agree that it is important that Ofsted inspections and reports cover health outcomes, and they are already covered by new section 98B(2)(c), which requires Ofsted reports on children's centres to assess the contribution they make to improving the well-being of young children. Under the Childcare Act 2006, which the clause amends, “well-being” is defined explicitly as including
“the physical and mental health and emotional well-being"
of children.
We are well aware of the greater gain to be had from effective support for the most disadvantaged families, and I agree that Sure Start children’s centres have a particular role to play in raising the achievements of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We have been very clear from the beginning that local authorities must improve the well-being of young children in their area while reducing the inequalities that exist between them. It follows, therefore, that in asking Ofsted to inspect children's centres, we want to understand the impact that they are having on the outcomes for the poorest children. I expect Ofsted to draw on a variety of sources of information and evidence when coming to their opinion of how effectively a centre is performing.
Officials and Ofsted are currently working to design an inspection regime for Sure Start children’s centres that will work within the current inspections frameworks. The finer details will be settled following a range of pilot inspections that Ofsted plans to conduct shortly. We will certainly consider whether any specific provision for disadvantaged children should be made within the regulations governing the inspection framework. I hope that the hon. Lady will be satisfied with that.
Mrs. Miller: I thank the Minister for her comments. I am reassured that she will bring the matter to Ofsted’s attention. It is important to establish ways of ensuring that the most disadvantaged children receive the support that they need and deserve. At the moment, the system is not doing what it could to support them, and raising the matter with Ofsted and perhaps addressing it in regulations with a specific requirement to examine the work of children’s centres in supporting disadvantaged children will achieve a better result for them. I await further information on how Ofsted intends to take the matter forward. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave withdrawn.
Clause 187 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 188 and 189 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 190

Free of charge early years provision: budgetary framework: England
Mrs. Miller: I beg to move amendment 526, in clause 190, page 109, line 25, leave out subsection (1) and insert—
‘( ) A local education authority in England must allocate funding for free of charge early years provision for a funding period outside a maintained school out of the authority’s individual schools budget for the period.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 525, in clause 190, page 110, line 18, at end insert—
‘( ) The Code of Practice on the provision of free nursery education places for three- and four-year olds shall cease to apply in a local authority area until that local authority has introduced a single funding formula for free of charge early years provision.’.
An important change in early years funding is tucked away in the Bill. I heard what the Minister said about some sort of thread holding that together, but I am finding it difficult to see that thread. With so little time for debate in Committee, perhaps those who have been battling with the issue for some time could be forgiven for thinking that the Government want to make the changes as inconspicuous as possible.
Ensuring that maintained nurseries are paid in the same way as the PVI sector, based on participation, is a long-overdue change, and the need for clause 190 raises concern about the Government’s previous analysis of the financial pressures on PVI providers over the past decade. Back in 2005, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) highlighted this issue for the Minister who was then responsible for the matter, and is still responsible for it, the Minister for Children, Young People and Families, the right hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Beverley Hughes), and received the response that the facts do not stack up and that her analysis was incorrect. I assert that the facts do stack up and that some nursery funding has shown signs of inequity for years. The Government’s own analysis underlines that point, because the DCSF’s benchmarking data on early years expenditure, which was collected rather late in the day and included in the Library’s excellent briefing note for this Bill, clearly shows a stark funding difference between maintained nurseries and the PVI sector. Indeed, funding for a maintained nursery place is £6.90 an hour versus £3.72 an hour in the PVI sector. In 87 per cent. of local authorities, the funding level for the PVI sector was between £3 and £4. I fail to see how the Government can assert that there was a level playing field.
It should come as little surprise to the Committee that as a result of the problems with finance the number of child care places that have closed has increased by 48 per cent. since 2003. Indeed, in 2007-08, for the first time ever, more child care places closed than opened. More than 190,000 places closed, which is an indictment of the financial situation in the sector.
Amendment 526 would help to ensure a level playing field in future, and would clear some of the Bill’s ambiguity on whether local authorities have a choice to pay PVI providers from the independent schools budget. The amendment would oblige local authorities to do so, and if they are obliged to have a single funding formula, they should be obliged to pay the nursery grant from the ISB. Without doing so, local authorities would not be able to meet their requirement to have a single funding formula, so I hope that the Minister will respond positively to the amendment.
Mr. Laws: Will the hon. Lady clarify whether amendment 525 would allow top-up fees to be charged?
Mrs. Miller: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The intention behind amendment 525 is to allow nurseries to ensure that they cover their costs. If that includes charging a supplementary fee before the new funding regime is in place, we must consider whether that is preferable to allowing nurseries to go out of business, which the figures that I gave suggest would happen. The financial pressure has been increasing over time, and has been made worse by the recession. A report in January from the NDNA showed that 40 per cent. of nurseries have bad debts. The report also highlighted that occupancy is down in one third of nurseries with one in 10 reporting a drop of 11 per cent. or more. Further work by the Federation of Small Businesses shows that about 200 PVI nurseries could close in 2009.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether top-up fees were involved, and no hon. Member wants that, but we must ask whether we want those organisations to go out of business because the Government have ignored the core structure of the financing for far too long, or whether we want parents and children to have the stability that they need in child care and to help nurseries to stay in business. We would all like entitlement to be free, but the evidence is that the money is not going to the providers as intended, and there is a gap between now and when the single funding formula comes into place to fix the problems.
Mr. Laws: Is the hon. Lady not concerned that the consequences of her policy, which seems to be to allow top-up fees, could undermine the universal entitlement for some youngsters in particular parts of the country?
Mrs. Miller: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I believe that that is already the case. The evidence suggests that some organisations already charge incremental costs to try to keep their businesses together. We can either ignore the problem, or try to give them some practical help. I am concerned that the funding stream has not worked as it should have done. The recent research into the true cost of delivering child care in the PVI sector should have been done years ago.
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