Mr Hunt: I absolutely want to encourage that. I know that the right hon. Lady has campaigned a great deal on the needs of people with dementia, and I share her desire to do much better for them. Salford Royal is one of the best hospitals in the country and we should always learn from what it does, but 25% of people in hospitals now have dementia. The tragedy of what happened at Mid Staffs and of many of the stories of poor care in other hospitals that we read about is that very often they involve people with dementia, because they are the kinds of people who have been deprioritised when hospital managements have decided, for example,

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that they want to cut nursing inappropriately. We absolutely have to change that culture. There is now a very good system at several hospitals. People with dementia, in particular, must be helped to eat and drink at meal times. Many of us have been shocked by the stories of full trays of food being taken away because someone is unable to eat unaided. That, in particular, we need to stamp right out.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): The Cavendish review found too many instances of health care assistants being badly treated and managed by nurses. Health care assistants, now to be called nursing assistants, are on the front line of very many patient experiences. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that other measures, in addition to the very welcome new certificate for nursing assistants, will provide the extra support to those staff that is obviously needed?

Mr Hunt: It is really important that we value the work of some of the lowest-paid people in hospitals who are carrying out some of the most important personal care for patients. They need to be managed properly, fairly and decently, given how important that work is. We need to ensure that nurses have the right attitude to the health care assistants who are working for them—as, most of the time, they absolutely do. That is why earlier in the year we proposed changes that we are piloting, so that before getting funding for a nursing degree, people had to spend time, potentially up to a year, on the front line as health care assistants. That will allow them to experience just how important that work is and then perhaps appreciate it a bit more.

Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): The Secretary of State has spoken about staffing levels, which will be of the greatest interest to patients and their families. He said that the situation will vary across wards and that there would be local discretion, with failings being exposed. When those failings are exposed, how will corrective treatment occur? Who will be responsible for ensuring that the corrections and changes are actually made?

Mr Hunt: We have set up a new inspection regime with a new chief inspector of hospitals under the Care Quality Commission. The CQC will look at the figures that are published every month on a trust-by-trust basis, alongside other safety data such as MRSA rates, bedsore rates, numbers of complaints, and other information that is crucial to its decisions. It is then its absolute duty and responsibility to swoop quickly if it thinks there is any cause for concern.

Mr Aidan Burley (Cannock Chase) (Con): We now know that poor care was allowed to continue at Mid Staffs because staff were simply too afraid to speak out and, if they did, they were ignored or, worse, their careers were threatened. The high death rates at Stafford hospital were not taken seriously enough at the time and were merely explained away rather than used as an alarm signal that should have triggered further investigations. There was clearly a culture of fear among NHS staff, many of whom witnessed the appalling care of my constituents. Will my right hon. Friend make it

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his legacy to instil a culture of candour and openness in the NHS whereby concerns are acted on and high standardised mortality ratios are no longer brushed under the carpet to protect the NHS’s reputation but are instead properly investigated so that patient safety finally comes first?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. These problems of high mortality rates date back very many years, and nothing, or too little, was done to sort them out. We must therefore make sure that we have a system where that cannot happen. Concealing poor care does not protect the reputation of the NHS, because in the end it gets out and destroys public confidence. I hope his constituents will feel that today’s announcements will create a new culture of openness and transparency that gives them confidence, so that if these awful things were ever to happen again—we hope they do not—we would find out quickly and action would be taken.

Mr Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): Having spent nine years as a lay member of the General Medical Council and five years chairing the Health Committee, I have heard little this afternoon that is likely to change the culture inside the national health service. May I refer the Secretary of State to the report on patient safety that the Committee produced in the previous Parliament? We considered the idea of having a statutory ombudsman to whom people could complain and who would have the power to investigate, even anonymously, instead of this situation in which doctors, particularly young doctors working in hospitals, dare not complain about what senior doctors are doing because of the attack on their career structure. We really must get some independence into this. We can have good words, we can talk about candour, and we can wish a lot of things, but changing the culture of the NHS is not done by statements or by legislation in this House; it is done by working inside the NHS. I am afraid that at the moment the system works against changing the culture owing to career structures and everything else. We need some independence in all this so that people can really learn how to change. New Zealand would be a good example to look at.

Mr Hunt: All I can say to the right hon. Gentleman is that Robert Francis himself stated this morning that we have announced a comprehensive collection of measures that

“will contribute greatly towards a new culture”

in the NHS. He is persuaded that this will make a very big difference.

Independence is a vital part of this change, so what are we doing to create it? For the first time, we will have an independent chief inspector of hospitals who goes anywhere he likes in the system to try to root out poor care. That person will be the nation’s whistleblower-in-chief, and their job will be to find out about these things inside hospitals. We are creating a culture in which it is in the interests of hospitals and doctors to be open and transparent, and that is another significant change. I do not want to underestimate the scale of the challenge we face, but I think most people would say that in the past 12 months we have seen one of the most fundamental attempts to change the culture of the NHS in its 65-year history.

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Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): An essential part of being a medical professional is to exhibit a compassionate and caring approach whatever one’s circumstances, as indeed most NHS staff do. What new measures will offer patients assurances that this will be a priority in future?

Mr Hunt: The biggest assurance that patients will have is that the definition of success as regards how the system views a hospital will be the same as patients’ definition of success. They want to go somewhere that treats them promptly and safely and with decent, compassionate care. That has not been how the system has judged the success of a hospital or its chief executive or board. That is why it is such a profound change to have a new chief inspector and Ofsted-style ratings. I think this will make a big difference, but I do not want to underestimate how big a challenge it is and how long a process it will be fully to make the transformation we need.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware of people’s disappointment that there is still no proper system of regulation for health care assistants. Does he understand that many members of the public feel that one of the problems with general standards of care in the health service may have been the push—under a Labour Government—for an all-graduate nursing profession? There is a strongly held view among members of the public that that has led to elevating taking exams and inputting data on a computer over providing basic levels of care, which is what they really value in a nurse.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr Hunt: Never has the hon. Lady spoken with so much support from this side of the House—I do not wish to destroy her credibility with her own party! She points to something that the public feel very strongly about and that is an issue in some parts of the nursing profession. We looked carefully at whether we should remove the requirement for graduate qualifications and decided that nurses are now asked to do a great deal more than they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago in, for example, giving people medication and the clinical procedures they are asked to be involved in. We need to make sure that there is the right culture in nursing. That is why I proposed—it was very controversial at the time, although I think it has been quite broadly accepted now—that before becoming a nurse people should spend some time, potentially up to a year, on the front line as a health care assistant to make sure that those going into nursing had the right values and recognised that giving this personal care is a fundamental part of what being a nurse should always be about.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Will the package of reforms and the greater accountability put into effect as a result of the Mid Staffs tragedy have any bearing on other areas such as the all-too-prevalent cases of people being injured or even dying as a result of hospital-acquired infections?

Mr Hunt: Absolutely, because this is a package designed to deal with all avoidable harm, and hospital-acquired infections are an avoidable harm. It is designed not only

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to have much more transparency on the levels of harm in our hospitals, but to make sure that there is a culture of openness so that when people spot things that are going wrong, it is in their interests and in those of their hospital that they speak out. The changes are likely to result in—my hon. Friend will be the first to notice this—an increase in the amount of reported harm over the next few months. That will not be a bad thing, because it will mean that hospitals will be reporting harm that up until now they have not reported. We should welcome the fact that that will then mean that this harm will be addressed.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): Although health is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the culture and its consequences identified by the Francis report can nevertheless occur in the health service anywhere in the United Kingdom. What plans does the Secretary of State have to share the lessons learned and actions taken with the Health Minister in Northern Ireland and, indeed, with all the other devolved Administrations?

Mr Hunt: I am very happy to share any of the lessons we have learned, but I do so from a position of humility, because we still have to address very serious challenges in our NHS in England. It will take us time to sort them out. I am happy to work with any devolved Administrations. Indeed, I would like to work with other countries across the world, because the challenge of how to deliver high-quality, compassionate health care when resources are tight and with an ageing population is one that all countries face.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): The Government’s position on the publication at ward level of safe registered nurse staffing levels is a welcome step in the right direction. My right hon. Friend will be aware that I have consistently argued for safe registered nurse-to-patient ratios at ward level, and no manner of enhancements of culture and leadership can ever be used to mask the risk to patients if there are not enough nurses on the ward. Is he aware that some trusts are conflating trained care assistants with registered nurses, and will he reassure me that, in enumerating the number of registered nurses on wards, trusts cannot conflate trained care assistants, welcome though they are, with registered nurses?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, because in an era of transparency we depend on honesty from the people supplying the information being used. It is not always possible independently to audit every single piece of information. What we have said today is that deliberately supplying false or misleading information will be a criminal offence, which is a much tougher sanction than anything else we are saying today. We think that the most important thing is to establish a culture in which people tell the truth and speak out if there is a problem, because then something can be done about it.

Jenny Chapman (Darlington) (Lab): There is a great deal to welcome in the Secretary of State’s statement, not least with regard to transparency and complaints. I welcome in particular the comments on staffing, although, obviously, we used to have more nurses than we have now. Will the Secretary of State look at the vetting and

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barring service, because my understanding is that use of the service and referrals to it have been declining over the past couple of years?

Mr Hunt: I have concerns about how much that service is used. My particular concern is not so much whether employers are checking before they employ someone, but whether they are informing the service that an employee should be referred to it for delivering inappropriate care. That is something that we will look at.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I remind my right hon. Friend that the Public Administration Committee is conducting an inquiry into complaint-handling across the public service and that Essex recently had an instance of failure at our local hospital, where complaints were not properly handled. How does my right hon. Friend intend to deliver on his statement that “all patients will be able to access independent help in making their complaint”? May I suggest to him that, rather than setting up a new structure or body, perhaps the ombudsman is the right body to help facilitate those complaints, because it would create a one-stop shop for them?

Mr Hunt: We have avoided setting up a new structure or body in our response to the recommendations made by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley. As for how we will make sure that this happens, I agree with my hon. Friend that the ombudsman is the final port of call if someone is not satisfied with the way in which their complaint has been treated. That is incredibly important, and the ombudsman has herself agreed that she will handle vastly more complaints and go into detail a lot more than she does at present, which is welcome. Prior to that stage, however, lots of people feel that complaining directly to the trust, which has to be the first step, is a very daunting and difficult process and that they want independent help. That is why we have said that it will be an absolute requirement for trusts to show people how they can access that independent help and, indeed, to be prepared to make the finance available so that they get that help. There will also have to be signs on every ward telling people exactly how to do that.

Mr George Mudie (Leeds East) (Lab): The Secretary of State will agree that the ethos and culture of any organisation start at the top. Over the past three decades, the boards have moved towards being composed more of practitioners and businesses than of consumers and patients. Will he consider putting an independent voice, or independent voices, on the boards so that the complaints go to a board that will listen to and debate them? Will he also consider advising trust boards to set up a formal structure up to board level so that complaints can arrive there, be seen and discussed?

Mr Hunt: The hon. Gentleman is right that reporting back about complaints to board level is a fundamental thing that should happen at every trust. We also need to make sure that all trusts are putting patients first; they will not be able to get a good inspection result from the chief inspector of hospitals unless they do so. The hon. Gentleman will know that the new structure of foundation trusts is designed to make sure that FTs are run for the

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benefit of their patients by the large number of members who are effectively the governing body of FTs. The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that this is not happening everywhere, and that is why today’s changes will, I hope, make a big difference.

Mr Brian Binley (Northampton South) (Con): My A and E department has seen a massive 30% increase in patient throughput in recent years and a concerning 16% in recent months. Furthermore, 100 people who do not need medical care are taking up beds. I have recently organised meetings between local government leaders and the chief executive officers of our hospitals to explore other ways of dealing with these problems. Will the Secretary of State accept that more can be done in this respect, and will he tell us what he can do to further that approach?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on those pressures. We have been thinking about this very hard. Over the summer we announced £250 million to be distributed to the 53 A and E economies where the most difficulty is being experienced in meeting high standards for the public, and we are doing more. We are talking to the College of Emergency Medicine. Anything that my hon. Friend can do at a local level will be greatly appreciated. This is going to be a difficult winter and we need to stand full square behind our front-line staff.

Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab): The Secretary of State just said that Salford Royal hospital is one of the best hospitals in the country and we should learn from what it does. What it does is support minimum safe staffing levels for patients and then publish the actual-versus-planned staffing levels on the wards every day. Staffing levels published on websites is a little step forward, but it is not enough. Why do we not learn from what Salford Royal does? I do not think that patients and their families are interested in what the staffing levels were a month ago; they are interested in what they are today.

Mr Hunt: We have based our recommendation today precisely on what Salford Royal does. It uses the kind of model to ensure minimum recommended staffing levels on every ward that we want every hospital to use. We say that we want those data published monthly, but that is a minimum. Salford Royal publishes them every day, which is very impressive. Given that most hospitals are not using tools anything like as sophisticated as that, it will be a big step up for most hospitals to do that. We want to do it. What is significant about our announcement is that we want to assemble those data for every trust in the country so that they can be compared on a monthly basis and so that people can know how many wards and how many shifts are being safely staffed at their local hospital compared with neighbouring hospitals.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): The Secretary of State will know that Medway Maritime hospital in my constituency had the seventh worst mortality rate in 2005 and 2006, yet nothing was done until he put the hospital into special measures. It is now linked with the outstanding Frimley Park hospital, sharing good practice and turning things around, so that my constituents can get good care, while inspections are also on their

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way. He said that if hospitals do not turn things around in the short term, they will be put into administration, but what does “short term” mean—is it a year or six months?

Mr Hunt: Our intention is that the maximum period when a hospital is put into special measures should never be longer than a year. After that, if it is not making significant progress, there is the possibility of it being put into administration. The reason for that, precisely as my hon. Friend said, is that we cannot let poor standards and poor care persist over a long period. I am pleased about the progress made at Medway Maritime in recent months; Frimley Park, which is my local hospital, delivers truly outstanding care. He is absolutely right to say that it should never have taken so long to get to the heart of the problem.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): The Secretary of State said that it is impossible to deliver safe care without a safe staffing level, which of course depends on resources. Under the coalition’s new funding formula, Hull NHS is due to lose £28 million, and it will not get any money for the A and E winter pressures that are bound to happen. How does he think that that will help safe staffing levels in Hull?

Mr Hunt: The funding formula is decided independently, and no final decision has been made. The decision will be made by NHS England, which I know is looking at that at the moment. It has to decide equitably across the whole country, based on need, population, social deprivation and other factors. Like the hon. Lady, I am waiting to see what it decides.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): Some 14% of the entire NHS budget goes on complaints relating to injury compensation. Of that, a third or £4 billion per year goes to lawyers. That diversion of cash away from the front line to lawyers makes it much harder to get the staffing levels that Francis envisaged. Will the Secretary of State address that as part of the wider issue?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend is right that it is absolutely shocking that we spend more than £1 billion a year on litigation claims in the NHS. The only long-term way of reducing that bill is to improve the safety record of the NHS, so that we do not have the terrible incidents that lead to high claims. The only way to do that is through openness and transparency, which is why today’s measures will make a big difference.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): I welcome the proposal on legal sanctions for those found guilty of wilful neglect. In south Wales, police Operation Jasmine has looked at the alleged abuse of elders in care homes. I understand the difficulties, but will today’s announcement help us to hold to account those responsible for corporate neglect in private sector care homes?

Mr Hunt: Absolutely. The Minister of State, Department of Health, who has responsibility for care services, has been very focused on making sure that there is proper corporate accountability. Today, we have announced the new fit and proper persons test that will apply to all organisations delivering care to make sure that directors of companies responsible for care homes and domiciliary

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services in which poor care happens are properly held to account. That is vital, because there should be no hiding place for people who send signals to their staff that lead to our reading the horror stories that, sadly, we have read.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): To my mind, the issue is about patients having confidence in their local hospital. What can we do to ensure that patients in my constituency have a better understanding of how Derriford hospital is performing and whether it is improving?

Mr Hunt: This is the heart of the change that we are making this year. My hon. Friend and I know exactly how well all the schools in our constituencies are doing, because there are transparent, independent Ofsted ratings, but we do not know how well our local hospitals are doing. We need an expert to go in and look at hospitals and then tell us, in language that non-clinicians can understand, just how well they are doing, as well as what needs to change when they are not doing well. We will get that with the new chief inspector of hospitals.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): I was struck by the Secretary of State saying that cruelty became normal in the NHS. I do not agree with him and I do not think that the public believe that cruelty has become the norm in the NHS. Most people join the NHS as a calling or a public duty: they believe in kindness and the importance of care.

It seems to me that one of the reasons for cruelty—and it does happen—is the stress of under-staffing. I understand that, as a result of the report, the Secretary of State will publish safe staffing levels ward by ward, but that he will not enforce them. The question that the public want answered is why. How can he, as Secretary of State, be happy to know that wards up and down the country are under-staffed and unsafe, and that he is not doing anything about it?

Mr Hunt: We have had a very bipartisan discussion this afternoon, so I am slightly disappointed that the hon. Lady is twisting my words. I did not say that cruelty became the norm everywhere in the NHS; I said that in places such as Mid Staffs cruelty became normal. If she reads the Francis report, she will find that that is the case.

Trying to duck or run away from that fact is what got us into a great deal of trouble, because we did not deal with the issues in Mid Staffs nearly as quickly as we should have done. On staffing levels, we are doing something that did not happen before. When her Government were in power, we did not know where staffing was unsafe, but now we will know and can do something about it.

Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that never again will Ministers duck their responsibility to be open and transparent in the reporting of failures, as they perhaps were in relation to Mid Staffs and potentially were in relation to Basildon hospital before 2010?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is incredibly important that Ministers never, whether deliberately or inadvertently, give a signal to the system that they do not want poor care to be highlighted as quickly as possible. I am afraid that there is evidence

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that, whether or not former Ministers intended this, it was interpreted that the emergence of bad news stories would be met with a great deal of ministerial disapproval, and that did enormous damage.

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): Out of Francis has come Keogh, which is leading to seven-day working and more doctors and nurses on the wards at George Eliot hospital. Increasing staffing numbers is important in our NHS, but does my right hon. Friend agree that having the right ratio of staff to suit the needs of individual patients is equally if not more important?

Mr Hunt: That is absolutely vital. I have been to the A and E department in George Eliot hospital, and reports I have heard say that morale is really turning a corner. I want to back the staff: it is incredibly difficult to work in a hospital that has been put into special measures, knowing that everything is not as it should be. They now have a sense that a corner is being turned and that the problems that they have long worried about are finally being addressed, particularly because of the link with University Hospitals Birmingham, which is one of the best in the country.

I agree with my hon. Friend that safe staffing is one of the measures that matters. George Eliot hospital has some pretty antiquated IT systems that mean staff spend much longer than they should filling out forms, rather than spending time with patients.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend give more details about how we can stop bad leaders and bad providers from working in the NHS? Will he confirm that that change will extend to ambulance trusts as well as to hospitals?

Mr Hunt: The change will absolutely extend to ambulance trusts. I know that my hon. Friend has had experience of poor leadership of ambulance trusts in her area. It will apply to all organisations registered with the Care Quality Commission. There will be a fit and proper persons test, because where people are responsible for poor care, we do not want them to pop up somewhere else in the system.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): There has always been a professional duty on medical professionals to advise patients when errors occur; yet we know that that has not always happened. Although all hon. Members welcome the greater candour, transparency and protection in relation to whistleblowers that this Government are proposing through the fit and proper persons test, does the Secretary of State agree that true culture change will not happen unless the views of junior doctors, the staff generally in all hospitals and everyone in the NHS are made as important as the views of those at the very top?

Mr Hunt: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. True culture change is incredibly difficult to achieve unless we get behind the people on the front line and get them to want to change the culture. That is the insight in the report that Professor Berwick delivered in August. That is why today’s response is about backing front-line staff

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to deliver the care that they want to deliver and to be open when they are worried, and about supporting them in what is a very challenging period for the NHS. If we do not back them to do the right thing, then no matter what happens at the top, we will not see change on the front line.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I am sure that my constituents will welcome what the Secretary of State has said about transparency and openness, especially with respect to Kettering general hospital. When somebody goes into hospital, they want to have confidence that they will be treated efficiently and with a great deal of care. They get that confidence not just from statistics on the number of nurses or clinicians on a ward, but from the experiences that they hear about from friends and relatives who have been treated at the same hospital. They also get confidence from hearing examples of where things have gone wrong—some things will always go wrong—and that the complaints have been handled quickly and efficiently, and have not been dragged out. Does my right hon. Friend agree that hospitals should provide examples of good care that has gone right to give local people the confidence that their local hospital is doing the very best for them and that, when things do go wrong, people will put their hands up, admit it and deal with it quickly and efficiently?

Mr Hunt: Absolutely. It is a sign of great confidence when a hospital is open about things that have gone wrong. When I meet the top chief executives who are running the best hospitals in the country, I am always struck by how willing they are to be open about the problems that they have had. It is often in the less well-performing hospitals that the management feel less confident and willing to talk about the problems. That culture is really important. I hope that today is a step in the right direction.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House and making such a detailed statement. I served under the previous Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron), during the inquiry into patient safety. The Secretary of State has a point. The problem at the moment is that people make a complaint after something goes terribly wrong, but the complaints system is deliberately long, drawn-out and delayed. One never actually reaches the ombudsman. If we are to have a change in culture, we have to stop the managements of hospitals delaying the complaints system deliberately.

Mr Hunt: I totally agree with my hon. Friend. That is why I hope that what we have announced today will bring about a transformation in the way in which hospitals manage complaints. Some excellent work has been done to help us do that. The heart of the matter is that hospitals should be really interested in the complaints that they receive, because that will enable them to understand where they are not delivering good care and what they can do to put it right. That does not happen everywhere. Too often, the complaints system is treated as a process, in effect, to fob people off, rather than to get to the heart of what people are talking about. We absolutely need to change that.

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Public Interest Disclosure (Amendment)

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

2.12 pm

Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Employment Rights Act 1996 to provide that disclosures of information about malpractice to a Member of Parliament where the disclosure is in the public interest be included as protected disclosures; and for connected purposes.

In the last decade of the last century, one of the most important Bills that was passed by this House was introduced not by the Government, but by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Sir Richard Shepherd), with all-party support. His Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 followed a series of accidents that were fatal and entirely preventable, including the capsized car ferry at Zeebrugge, the explosion of the Piper Alpha oil rig and the Clapham junction rail crash, which between them cost 395 lives.

In the 15 years since the Act was passed, British society has benefited hugely from the bravery of whistleblowers. Those public-spirited men and women have shamed corrupt officials, identified heartless and hopeless hospitals, and exposed the deliberate or reckless misuse of public money. In the past five years alone, whistleblowers have exposed pharmaceutical companies that have overcharged the NHS for drugs; alerted the National Audit Office to the tax authorities agreeing sweetheart deals, which let multinational companies reduce their tax bills by billions; filmed the abuse and neglect of elderly people in care homes; and exposed a litany of failings in our health service—some of which we have just heard about—such as the appalling standards of care at Mid Staffordshire, the failing maternity unit at Morecambe Bay and fiddled waiting time figures at Colchester.

Thanks to the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, whistleblowers have some protection. Employment tribunals have made 3,000 judgments in cases brought under that legislation. However, those cases are just the tip of the iceberg. For every whistleblower who goes public with their concerns, many more never come to light. The decision to expose wrongdoing is a life-changing choice. Whistleblowers find themselves shunned by colleagues, bullied by bosses and hauled before tribunals on trumped-up charges. Ugly rumours are started and careers finished. Whistleblowers’ health, wealth, friendships and marriages are tested to destruction—all casualties of their acting in the public interest.

Let me take one example to illustrate the point. The story of Edwin Jesudason is typical. As a paediatric surgeon with more than 20 years’ experience, he raised concerns that children had died unnecessarily at Alder Hey children’s hospital. As a result, colleagues refused to work with him. Trust bosses tried to force him out. When that failed, they tried to gag him by offering him a six-figure sum if he left his job, kept his mouth shut and destroyed incriminating documents. He refused to take the money. Last year, he sought an injunction to stop trust bosses sacking him. Halfway through the hearing, the British Medical Association suddenly withdrew its support. Near bankrupt, he had to drop the case.

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That case is shocking, but it is not remotely unique. In April, a poll showed that, of more than 5,000 nurses who had reported substandard care, a quarter were warned against taking the matter further. Half of all whistleblowers face negative treatment of that sort, with a third of those being sacked. Faced with such treatment or the threat of it, many whistleblowers admit defeat. Hundreds have been pressured into signing compromise agreements, complete with gagging clauses that buy their silence. In the last four years, 77 NHS trusts have used gagging orders to silence 133 staff at a cost of almost £4 million.

The culture of secrecy clearly comes at a financial cost, but more objectionable is the unquantifiable impact on our society and public services: the lives needlessly lost or irreversibly damaged; the unsuitable managers and staff allowed to continue in their posts; the missed opportunities to learn from mistakes—that is the real cost of using public money against the public interest. Every time a whistleblower is dismissed, ignored or bullied into submission, a cover-up is allowed to continue.

That is why I welcome the Government’s decision to use the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 to strengthen the legal protection for whistleblowers. However, I believe that we should go even further. In February, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published a 22-page document called “Blowing the whistle to a prescribed person—List of prescribed people and bodies”, which lists the bodies that a whistleblower can contact if they do not feel that they can go to their employer. The list includes Revenue and Customs, the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Care Quality Commission, but not the whistleblower’s Member of Parliament.

That means that whistleblowers who report wrongdoing to their MP will not automatically be protected by law. Those conversations will be protected only if the whistleblower meets a series of conditions set out in section 43G of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which includes notifying a potentially hostile employer, showing that the wrongdoing is exceptionally serious and demonstrating a reasonable belief that their employer will destroy vital evidence. If they cannot meet those conditions, whistleblowers who contact their MP place themselves at the mercy of employers who may want them to be victimised, sidelined or even sacked. I believe that that is wrong. Whistleblowers should not have to consult a solicitor in order to talk freely to their Member of Parliament.

The Bill therefore seeks to do three things. First, it will ensure that a whistleblower’s disclosures to their Member of Parliament will be unconditionally protected for the purposes of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. Secondly, it would make it a criminal offence for an employer to try to prevent a worker from blowing the whistle to their MP. There will be some narrowly defined exceptions, particularly over the Official Secrets Act, but even those could be overridden if the disclosure was clearly in the public interest. Third, it would empower Members of Parliament to refer allegations made by a whistleblowing constituent to a prescribed body, and it would enable that Member of Parliament to require from any one of those prescribed bodies a confidential response. In that way, the Bill would extend legal protection to whistleblowers’ disclosures to their MP, but also ensure that any allegations are investigated by a body with relevant knowledge and experience.

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Whistleblowers often demonstrate great courage, but they should not have to be heroes. Acting in the public interest should not require such huge personal sacrifice, and employers who jeopardise public safety simply to save their reputations should have to explain that choice in court. By shielding these courageous men and women from legal hurdles and vindictive bosses, this proposal would allow Members of this House to protect everyone from waste, corruption and incompetence in business, health care, and more generally in public life.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr David Davis, Sir Richard Shepherd, Sir Menzies Campbell, Margaret Hodge, Mr Stephen Dorrell, Ann Clwyd, Mr Dominic Raab, Mr Tom Watson, Dr Sarah Wollaston, and Stephen Barclay present the Bill.

Mr David Davis accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 17 January 2014, and to be printed (Bill 130).

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Opposition Day

[12th allotted day]

Child Care

2.22 pm

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): I beg to move,

That this House recognises that families are facing rising childcare costs; notes the reduction in the availability of early years childcare; and calls on the Government to help work pay by extending from 15 to 25 hours the provision of free childcare for working parents of 3 and 4 year olds funded by an increase in the Bank Levy.

I welcome Ministers to the Front Bench. Today, once again, the Labour party is highlighting the cost of living crisis that is affecting communities up and down the country, because under this Government the historic link between growth and living standards is being split apart as never before. Growth without national prosperity is not economic success, and the first and last test of economic policy is whether living standards for ordinary families are rising. Official figures state that, on average, working people are £1,500 a year worse off than they were at the general election. The Labour party is determined to shine a light on that quiet scandal of collapsing opportunity and stretched family budgets.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): While the hon. Gentleman is explaining that collapse, he might want to say why between 1996 and 2010 there was a collapse in the number of childminders from more than 100,000 to 57,000.

Tristram Hunt: I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Conservative Members may think they can get away with their appalling record in office by worrying about the classification system for previous childminders, but that is a dead end to go down. As I will explain, the Labour Government have a hugely proud record on provision for the under-fives.

Mr Jim Cunningham (Coventry South) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware that since this Government came to power the cost of child care has gone up by 30% while wages have been cut by 5%?

Tristram Hunt: That is exactly the crisis we will be highlighting today because it is affecting so many families in our constituencies. After energy prices, pension costs, the living wage, rail fares and payday loans, today we will put to the vote the child care crunch facing parents. We will also set out Labour’s plans to ease the child care burden, to deliver the kind of universal, affordable and high-quality child care that secures a strong future for some of the most disadvantaged young people in our country, and to build an economy that allows women to return to work if they want to. [Interruption.] I am delighted that we are already seeing Government Members coming to our side and making it clear that we are building a progressive politics of change.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): The shadow Secretary of State talks about appalling records, but will he clarify why, when Labour was in government, the cost of child care in the United Kingdom

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was the second highest among OECD countries, behind Switzerland? If he is talking about appalling records, surely he should refer to his own party’s record in government.

Tristram Hunt: Today we are concerned with highlighting the record of this Government, and, as I have said before, Labour is the party of Sure Start and of increasing fourfold the provision for under-fives. The values of this party are to ensure that young people have the best start in life, and today we are considering the total disconnect between living standards and the cost of child care.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Should we not be frankly appalled that although the Prime Minister pledged at the last election not to close Sure Start centres, since the election an average of three Sure Start centres a week have closed? There are now 35,000 fewer child care places at a time when there are 125,000 more under-fours.

Tristram Hunt: On the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg address, my hon. Friend delivers an intervention of such succinct clarity that Lincoln himself would be proud.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend also agree that Labour is the party in government in Wales, where Flying Start shows the changes that can be brought to children’s lives if we invest in joined-up child care provision, and quality that parents can trust?

Tristram Hunt: I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention because that takes me to the next stage of my speech, which is to lay out the importance of early years provision. Labour is the party of Sure Start, and we increased expenditure on the under-fives nearly fourfold between 1997 and 2009-10. We know the value of early years provision.

Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I am interested in the to and fro between the two contending sides, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, this is a serious topic that should cut across party politics. When we look at the situation in Wales, as in other regions, we find that 16% of Welsh local authorities cannot provide sufficient holiday child care for working families. That is an indictment on any Government, and we must address it across the whole United Kingdom.

Tristram Hunt: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, which is why I will draw on the work of the Government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. It is clear that high-quality child care can improve child development for the most disadvantaged children, yet nearly half of low-income parents say that cost, rather than quality, was the main factor in choosing child care. As the chair of Ofsted, Baroness Morgan, recently pointed out, getting children school ready by reception year is fundamental to their life chances. We also know that access to universal and affordable child care can lift employment rates. Having both parents in work for long enough is the best guarantee of a life free from poverty.

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Mr Mark Spencer (Sherwood) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that only 1% of child care provision is provided by those child care centres?

Tristram Hunt: I am so glad that the hon. Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer) has finally found a customer, having scurried round the green Benches for 10 minutes seeking out a pliant Member. I will come to the point about the 1%.

Employment among women with children is lower in the UK compared with our OECD competitors and is much more likely to be part-time. If we want a successful economy and school-ready children, we need decent and affordable child care.

Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making an important point. The principle behind Sure Start was not just about child care provision. He talks about the importance of social mobility and other factors, and Sure Start was also about opening up training, employment and volunteering opportunities to parents so that they could participate in the workplace. It can be very isolating, especially for single parents, and having a child in nursery can make a big difference to those families’ lives.

Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The provisions offered by Sure Start centres were part of a socialisation process, including parenting and getting children school-ready, that was vital to those families’ prospects. We know that children who do well at school also have parents invested in them doing well at school, and the Sure Start provision was part of that.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): We have to be careful because many people in the press misinterpreted Baroness Morgan’s statement as meaning kids sitting in rows learning at two. It is early years stimulation we want, and we get that—it is affordable on the Danish model—if we employ people who are well trained to do it, like the social pedagogues in Denmark.

Tristram Hunt: As ever my hon. Friend makes the point for a broader understanding of education, for play, for creativity and, above all, a high quality of provision. That is about making sure that we have high-quality childminders, those involved in nurturing, education and play for young people.

Sadly, what we have had from the Government is a sustained assault on early years provision. The coalition’s child care crunch means that since the last election the cost of nursery places has risen by 30%. There are 578 fewer Sure Start centres, with three being lost on average every week. The cost of a nursery place is now the highest in history, at more than £100 a week to cover part-time hours, and parents working part time on average wages would need to work from Monday to Thursday before they paid off their weekly childcare costs.

Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): The shadow Secretary of State makes some dire claims. How does he explain that in the past year more than 1 million families and children used children’s centres and that the numbers are higher than they have ever been?

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Tristram Hunt: Part of that is the result of a markedly increased birth rate, so we are seeing greater demand on these centres—[Interruption.] I know that those on the Government Front Bench do not believe in demographics or planning for the future, which is why we have a primary school place crisis. It is because of their inability to understand the consequences of people giving birth for provision and for schools.

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman accuses those on our Front Bench of creating a primary places crisis when it was the Labour Government who failed to invest in new primary school buildings and places, and who predicated all the capital budget for education towards the secondary sector.

Tristram Hunt: It was called Building Schools for the Future, and what the Labour Government were involved in was building schools for the future. We were investing in future school provision. The hon. Gentleman has to get a grip on this: the Government have been in power for three and a half years, and they have to start taking responsibility for the dire situations that we are seeing.

The position is equally tough for families with kids at school. Under the last Labour Government, 99% of schools provided access to breakfast clubs and after-school clubs, but more than a third of local authorities have reported that this has been scaled back in their area under this Government. That is what we get from the coalition. We get tax cuts for millionaires, but cuts in child care places for millions of families; billions of pounds wasted on botched NHS reorganisations, while parents struggle to pay for nursery places; and a hapless Royal Mail flotation filling the coffers of Lazard, rather than wraparound child care for hard-pressed parents. Those are the wrong priorities for working people—financial incompetence while families struggle.

As ever with this Government, it has been a case of say one thing and then do another. It was a great Conservative, a real Conservative, a true Conservative, Edmund Burke, who once said that

“those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”

But how could he know of today’s Tory attempt to obliterate the past? Whereas once they revered the wisdom of their elders, now they try to wipe the truth off the internet. For what did the Prime Minister say on the eve of the last general election? He said:

“Sure Start will stay, and we’ll improve it. We will keep flexible working, and extend it.”

He also accused my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), the former Prime Minister, of scaremongering, saying:

“Yes, we back Sure Start, It’s a disgrace that Gordon Brown has been trying to frighten people about this.”

Well, with 35,000 fewer child care places under this Government, three Sure Start centres lost a week, and not enough provision for disadvantaged two-year-olds, my right hon. Friend was right to warn the British public of the dangers of voting Conservative or Liberal Democrat.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Is not that litany of horrors the hon. Gentleman has outlined from the Government in Westminster the

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very reason many in Scotland will take the opportunity to vote for independence on 18 September next year, so we can have child care standards like any good Nordic country? Would he applaud such a step by Scotland?

Tristram Hunt: Part of Labour’s programme for schools includes creativity and innovation, and that was an extraordinarily creative way of moving from child care to separatism. I will not follow the hon. Gentleman down that route because we are looking at the Conservative party’s past on this issue.

What did the Education Secretary say while grubbing around for votes before the last general election? He said:

“I personally believe we need to do more to provide affordable childcare”—

by which, of course, he meant less. On a Mumsnet webchat, he told “Singalong mum and others”,

“gotta go in a second but on surestart we won’t cut funding”.

No wonder the Government wanted to wipe all records off the internet. No wonder the Education Secretary is too frit to come to this Chamber to defend his appalling record.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): When the Education Secretary talked about more child care, did he perhaps just mean more cheaper, lower quality child care, rather than the quality child care that we support?

Tristram Hunt: My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We are not interested in the warehousing of children. We are interested in the growth, the creativity and the education that comes from high-quality child care provision. Unfortunately, with this Government, it is a record of broken promises, misinformation and double speak. Thankfully, the memory of the British people is longer than that of the Tory party’s web server, and they will not forget such a shoddy past.

Mr Spencer: If the hon. Gentleman believes in quality child care, why was it not necessary under the Labour Government for anybody setting up a facility to provide that child care to have a qualification?

Tristram Hunt: We are delighted to work on a cross-party basis to make sure that we have as high-quality of child care provision as possible. All parties understand that those who look after toddlers and young people should have as much experience and training as possible, and we are always delighted to work with Ministers to see how we can go up the value chain.

Mr Sheerman: In the early days of being the Chair of the former Education Committee, I remember visiting settings just after the minimum wage was introduced. Many people were horrified, because up until then they had been paying £1 an hour. That was the desperate situation we were left with in 1997.

Tristram Hunt: What a valuable point, which reminds us that the Conservative party opposed the national minimum wage and proper payment for child care workers.

It is the Labour party that has a response to the cost of living crisis. In government, we will deal with the child care crunch by expanding free child care for three-year-olds and four-year-olds from 15 hours to

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25 hours per week for working parents. The value of that child care is worth £1,500 per child per year. It would be paid for by increasing the bank levy, charged as a proportion of their liabilities, to raise an extra £800 million. In the past financial year, the banks paid a staggering £2.7 billion less in tax overall than they did in 2010. The Government have given the banks an extraordinary tax break and we would reintroduce some fairness into the system to support our child care plans.




I hear laughter from the Government Benches about our plans for the financial services industry, so I will quote from this Saturday’s Financial Times:

“Good times return as City gets in Christmas spirit,”

reported the paper.

“After years of yuletide austerity following the financial crisis, party organisers and venue owners are seeing a resurgence in the market for festive frivolity.”

Well, good luck to them. We on the Labour Benches like to see the return of some animal spirits, but all we are saying is that some of that festive frivolity could be spent on securing affordable child care. That is called progressive politics, and the Government parties should try it.

To give parents of primary age children peace of mind, Labour will set down in law a guarantee that they can access child care through their local school if they want it. Parents of primary age children will benefit most from a new guarantee, as this is when families most require child care support. Of course, parents will have to pay for that, just as they do now, but this is an opportunity to deliver sport, music, healthy eating and after-school clubs alongside child care support.

The truth of the matter is this: high-quality child care and early years services are the foundation stone of a successful approach to tackling child poverty and improving social mobility. The Labour party has a costed and effective plan to deliver both. The coalition has broken promises, has poor priorities and has arrogantly refused to deal with the cost of living crisis. I commend this motion to the House.

2.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Elizabeth Truss): I am afraid that after three years in opposition, Labour Members seem to have learned nothing. First, they have learned nothing about how they got the country into a financial mess, as they seem to think that the answer is more spending and more borrowing; and secondly, they seem to have learned nothing about child care and how nurseries work. Despite the highfalutin’ rhetoric by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), he seems to have failed to grasp the numbers behind child care. I will say more on that in a moment. First, let me remind hon. Members how we got here.

The Labour party left the biggest budget deficit among advanced economies and we were borrowing £1 for every £4 we spent. When we came into office, we were spending £110 million just servicing the interest on Labour’s debt. Despite that terrible inheritance, we have successfully cut the deficit by a third, and prioritised families and children. Total spending on child care and early education is increasing from almost £5 billion to more than £6 billion. We have increased the number of

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hours of free early education for every three-year-old and four-year-old, from 12.5 hours to 15 hours a week. We have extended support to two-year-olds from low-income families, with 92,000 two-year-olds already benefiting. From 2015, tax free child care worth up to £1,200 per child will be available to working parents. We are providing real help for hard-working families in tough times, not empty promises and unfunded spending commitments from Labour. That is what this coalition is delivering.

Meg Hillier: Childminders in my constituency would like to take on more two-year-olds, but the funding provided by the Government does not cover their costs. Does the Minister expect them and other providers to subsidise Government policy?

Elizabeth Truss: We are funding the two-year-old offer at an average of £5.09 an hour, and the average rate paid for that age group is £4.23 an hour. We are therefore funding at considerably above the market rate, and we have been very successful at getting places for two-year-olds. [Interruption] It is an average.

Let me now turn to some of the spurious claims made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Labour claims that more than 500 children’s centres have closed. That is simply not true. Forty-five centres have closed since 2010—just 1% of the total—and some new centres have opened, including one in Ipswich. Centres are joining networks so that they can be run more efficiently, but the same buildings are open to the same parents to use services. We are seeing a record number of parents and children using children’s centres—more than 1 million. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman does not want to celebrate the success of children’s centres, rather than constantly talking them down week after week. Children’s centres are doing a better job than ever under this Government. Let us not confuse children’s centres and child care providers. Children’s centres provide less than 1% of child care places.

Labour claims that costs have risen by 30%. That is based on figures from the Family and Childcare Trust. Despite the impression given by the Opposition, those figures were published before 2010. If the Opposition used the pre-2010 data, they would have found that the previous Labour Government were a catastrophe. Between 2002 and 2010, the cost of a nursery place rose by 46%. That is £1,200 a year more for a part-time nursery place for a child over the age of two, but we did not see the hon. Gentleman jumping around then, did we? Labour has, not for the first time, been cherry-picking statistics and ignoring the research. On 30 September 2013, Laing and Buisson published an in-depth report on the child care nurseries market in the UK. The report said that 2012-13 was the second successive year in which the price of full-day care in nurseries had been flat in real terms. In 2012-13, average nursery fees rose by 2.6%, which was the same as inflation. In 2011-12, average fees rose by 2.7%, compared with 3% inflation. In June 2013, the National Day Nurseries Association published the UK nursery insight report, which said: “58% were freezing fees”.

There we have it: the figures Labour cite actually show how the previous Government drove up costs with their confused funding and complex regulation, while independent research shows that costs have stabilised under this Government.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The Minister referred to the child care survey on increasing costs and pointed out that between 2002 and 2010 there had been an increase of 46% in a period when wages were rising. The same survey shows that the present increase from the baseline is 77%, at a time when wages have fallen. Should she not take some responsibility for taking a bigger bite out of the family budget?

Elizabeth Truss: That 77% starts in 2003, and I believe that the Labour party was in government then.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central claims that we are not supporting school-based child care. On the contrary, the most recent data show a 5% increase in the number of after-school clubs. The difference between our view and his is that we think that school-based child care actually takes place in a school. The Labour party alleges that more than 90% of schools were offering an extended day in 2010, but I do not think that any parents with schoolchildren at that time would recognise that number. A school did not have to provide child care onsite, but could fulfil the requirement by linking to a child care provider on its website. That is what the Labour party meant by “extended day”.

It turns out that the Opposition’s new offer is no different. The shadow child care Minister, the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), wrote recently that

“if a school chooses not to stay open longer hours because they do not need to offer this provision on site – they will not be forced to stay open. Schools can…facilitate out of hours childcare elsewhere for pupils”.

The shadow Secretary of State has a vision of children playing sport after school, but this after-school provision would not have to be on the school site and would be paid for by parents. How is that different from the current situation, where people pay a childminder after school? I am not sure how Labour’s so-called primary school guarantee, which need not take place in school, which schools would simply facilitate and which parents would pay for, would be any different from the current situation. It is a child care mirage: the closer one walks to it, the less certain it seems.

Several hon. Members rose

Elizabeth Truss: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman).

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me and not to honorable colleagues on the Opposition Benches.

On the expansion of provision, does my hon. Friend welcome the fact that 73% of the children’s centres in the north-east are rated as either good or outstanding? More importantly, what opportunities will they have to expand that provision in the future?

Elizabeth Truss: I thank my hon. Friend for his point about children’s centres, which have been a massive success under this Government. Record numbers of parents are using them, we have improved them by focusing them on outcomes and they are really achieving.

Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op): You’re having a laugh.

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Elizabeth Truss: I think the hon. Lady is having a laugh about her child care guarantee. It would not mean that schools have to offer extended hours; they would need only link to a child care provider on a website. That is not what parents mean by extended hours.

I note that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central did not repeat his leader’s claim about the number of child care places. Could that be because his leader claimed there were only 1.3 million child care places in the country, when in fact there were more than 2 million, because they missed out the 800,000 places—30% of the market—available in schools? The number of settings is going up. It is strange, given that he has talked about his colleague Baroness Morgan advocating child care for two-year-olds in schools, that he does not know that schools provide child care and that his leader did not include those 800,000 places in his statistics. He also seems completely unaware that Building Schools for the Future was not for primary schools, but for secondary schools. Under his Government, funding for primary school places was cut by one quarter.

Mr Sheerman: Within the limits of this sort of debate, the hon. Lady is not making a bad speech, but many ordinary people and parents outside desperately want even better child care and are hanging on her words. What will the Government do to move to the next stage?

Elizabeth Truss: I will come to that point later, but first I need to correct some factual inaccuracies that the leader—sorry, I mean the shadow Education Secretary; I am promoting him already—made.

The Labour party claims it will fund extra child care places for three and four-year-olds through the bank levy. I think we have heard that somewhere before. To be precise, we have heard it 11 times before, because it is to be spent on: the youth jobs guarantee, which will cost £1.04 billion; reversing the VAT increase, £12.75 billion; more capital spending, £5.8 billion; reversing the child benefit savings, £3.1 billion; more regional growth fund spending, £200 million; reversing tax credit savings, £5.8 billion; cutting the deficit, no amount is specified; turning empty shops into community centres, £5 million; spending on public services, question mark; more housing, £1.2 billion; and now child care, £800 million.

Tristram Hunt rose—

Elizabeth Truss: The hon. Gentleman had plenty of opportunity to make his point and I am keen to answer the question from the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) about what the Government are doing.

Let us not forget what Labour said about the bank levy when we introduced it. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) said:

“This is an industry though that employs over a million in this country and it is taking a hell of a risk, the Tory approach, in saying well actually they seem to be slightly indifferent to that… I think, frankly, the Tory approach is pretty misguided, it’s not thought out”.

So Labour has gone from being against the bank levy to spending it 11 times. How do those numbers make sense?

Several hon. Members rose

Elizabeth Truss: I am sorry, but I want to talk about child care.

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As well as complete economic ineptitude, Labour seems to have learnt nothing from its time in office about child care or nurseries. It still thinks the answer is spending more money, rather than reform. Baroness Hughes, children’s Minister under the previous Government, admitted that their approach was “probably wrong.” She said:

“We were so keen to stimulate demand from parents but in retrospect that was such a mammoth task. We ought to have focused on the supply side, supporting providers, then we could have done more and quicker.”

I could not agree more, yet Labour has nothing to say about supply; it talks only about spending more money. Let us remember what happened last time it did that. We ended up with some of the highest child care costs in the OECD, parents were paying out 27% of their income on child care, staff had some of the lowest salaries in Europe, contrary to what the shadow Secretary of State said, and under Labour’s preferred measure, prices increased by 50% during the Labour years.

Andrew Gwynne: Reports suggest that the Government will not meet their own target of supplying child care places to the 40% most deprived two-year-olds in the country, so will the Minister be open and transparent with the House? Will she meet that target—yes or no?

Elizabeth Truss: We have more than 200,000 full-time places available in our system, and we have said that all those eligible children will have places if their parents want to take them up.

Andrew Gwynne: What about the target?

Elizabeth Truss: I have just answered the hon. Gentleman’s question.

I was talking about why Labour made such a mess of child care. It piled red tape on schools and nurseries, making it harder for them to expand. Furthermore, even though parents like flexible, affordable, home-based care, the number of childminders halved under Labour, because of the level of regulation, the difficulty of becoming a childminder and the fact that the funding system was skewed towards nurseries and away from childminders.

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I often challenged the previous Government on the collapse in the number of childminders, and I would be interested to hear what innovative ideas the Minister has for expanding this important child care provision.

Elizabeth Truss: I thank my hon. Friend for her points and I note her consistent support for home-based child care and the important help it can offer.

Meg Hillier: Childminders in my constituency are very pro what they do and also pro the fact that they provide good-quality child care. They tell me that the bad childminders were run out of town so that parents such as me can rely on a childminder to look after their children, as I do for my daughter, and be sure that there are good-quality, properly inspected childminders. That puts my mind at rest as a working mum, as it does those of other working mums in my constituency.

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Elizabeth Truss: I thank the hon. Lady for her points. I will deal specifically with childminders later and I will respond to her point then.

Labour also had a voucher scheme, but only one fifth of parents could use it—only those whose employers offered it, and only those who were in employment rather than self-employed. There was no limit on income, unlike tax-free child care, so millionaires got it, but the self-employed did not. That was Labour’s legacy on child care—a massive waste of money, added complexity and a huge spreading of confusion.

Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): It was even more unhelpful than that, as my employer offered the child care voucher scheme, but because it was so tightly regulated, even though I was spending a fortune on child care, I was not able to use it.

Elizabeth Truss: I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which illustrates the problem with the child care voucher system.

Let me further point out to Labour Members that in the ’80s and ’90s, when we had a working mother in charge of our country, England was ahead in respect of maternal employment, but we fell behind other countries such as France and Germany under Labour’s watch. Maternal employment rates are rapidly rising under this Government. As Edmund Burke pointed out—the shadow Education Secretary is clearly a big fan—“those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”, and if he has not learnt the lessons that people in the previous Labour Government learnt at the time, he will fail, should he ever get the opportunity to be in office. That is why we are reforming the child care system: we are reforming the hopeless legacy that Labour left.

The signs are that what we are doing is working. We are seeing prices stabilising, more places being made available in school nurseries and a revival in childminding. We want parents to have a good choice of options, including nurseries, schools, childminders and children staying at home with parents, or a combination of those. We are introducing much simpler funding and creating a regulatory structure to support modern working parents.

We are determined to reverse the decline in the number of childminders. From this September, good and outstanding childminders will be able automatically to access funding for early education places for two, three and four-year-olds. That means that an additional 28,000 childminders will automatically be funded. I think that addresses the point raised by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) about ensuring high-quality childminding.

Lucy Powell: Perhaps the hon. Lady will explain why there are 2,423 fewer childminders than there were in 2009.

Elizabeth Truss: That is a continuation of the fall in the number of childminders under Labour. We have reversed the policy, starting this September, and the Department for Education is already getting a lot of positive calls from childminders who are keen to offer early education places. There is a great deal of support for that; it helps parents to combine their child care and early education requirements. From this September, we

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are trialling childminder agencies, which will enable more childminders to join the profession, and they will be fully up and running in September 2014. They will provide training and support, and will be an easy way for parents to access home-based care. We are at the beginning of making significant changes to the way childminders are regarded in our system. What we want to see is an increase in independent childminders and more agency childminders, as well.

We want to expand the level of school-based care, too. As opposed to Labour’s child care mirage, we are allowing real schools to offer real facilities. We are encouraging schools to use their nursery facilities to offer full-time day care rather than just be open for part of the day. We are allowing schools automatically to register two-year-olds, and I saw some brilliant provision for two-year-olds at the Oasis school in Hadley, which opened in January.

We are seeing 8-to-6 schools blossoming. The Norwich free school has a squirrels club, which means it is open from 8 am to 6 pm, 51 weeks a year. I know that the shadow Education Secretary thinks that free schools are a “dangerous ideological experiment”, but I think schools like the Norwich free school are giving hard-working parents the support that they need.

Another example is the Harris chain of academies, which has promised that every new school it opens will operate on an 8-to-6 basis. I am hugely in favour of 8-to-6 provision. It supports working families and helps to increase children’s attainment, but we must do that in a way that is realistic and sustainable for schools. That means making the necessary regulatory changes, aligning the requirements after the school day from within the school day and making it easier for schools to collaborate with outside providers. We do not get anywhere by making false promises that cannot be realised. We are also reforming child care funding so that parents see more of their money, rather than see it wasted. This means that all working parents will get up to £1,200 per child towards child care costs and the provision of 15 hours for three and four-year-olds.

All that is in the context of what the Government are doing to help families with the cost of living: a £705 income tax cut, thanks to our increases in the personal allowance; a £1,000 saving on mortgages because rates have been kept low; £364 saved on petrol for those who top up their cars once a week; and £210 saved thanks to our council tax freeze. This Government have real policies, helping real working parents to manage their lives—not the dodgy numbers, unfunded promises and gimmicks we have seen from the Labour party today.

Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab/Co-op): On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I understand that a very serious incident has occurred in the Mediterranean today, when a Spanish naval vessel entered Gibraltar harbour. Is a Minister from the Foreign Office coming along to make a statement about what amounts to a very serious incident?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I have been given no notification that a statement is to be made, but I am sure that the Foreign Office is listening carefully to what has been said about such a serious incident.

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I shall now impose an eight-minute limit in order to get all Members who want to speak into the debate. We will start with Jonathan Ashworth.

3.7 pm

Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to be called so early, not least because I have just returned from two weeks’ paternity leave.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Is the hon. Member declaring an interest in the debate?

Jonathan Ashworth: I will take your guidance, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am the father of a two-year-old toddler and now a two-week-old baby girl, as well, so perhaps I should declare an interest. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) asks me their names. My two girls are called Gracie and Annie, but enough about my family; let me move on to the substance of the debate.

Investment in child care is one of the most important sets of investment that any Government can make. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) who made the point a few weeks ago in one of the many articles she writes that we often talk about the importance of infrastructure investment—very topical at the moment, given the controversies over High Speed 2—and that child care should be viewed as an infrastructure investment. I entirely agree. Investment in child care is good not only for our future economic capacity, but for our children. That is what I shall focus on in my speech.

There is a general debate about how to raise the trend rate of growth in this country and how to rebalance the economy. We also debate how, if growth happens, it should be shared fairly and not snaffled away by the privileged few, as seems to be happening under this Government. Investment in child care must be an absolutely central part of building the economy of the future that we all want to see. I consider it to be one of the best social and economic investments that we can make. However, today I want to emphasise the benefits that it has for children.

I am sure all Members will agree that learning begins at birth. The first few years of a child’s life are critical to its development. Children need a stimulating, caring environment: they need opportunities to interact, to be talked to, to play, and to explore in safe surroundings. While I entirely accept that academic researchers differ on what is the right balance for a child between being in child care and being at home and that there are different conclusions to be drawn, it is undeniable that good-quality, affordable child care is central to a child’s development.

Both Front Benchers mentioned Baroness Morgan’s observations on preparing children for school. Academic evidence suggests that children who have experienced child care are much further ahead when it comes to development and readiness for school, but we also know that child care gives society an equality dividend. It helps women, in particular, to move into the labour market, but all too often they are priced out of that market by the cost of child care.

Ministers boast about the state of the economy, and say that we have turned the corner. Some top Tories even claim that they are on the glide path to victory,

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which I would describe as a brave and, indeed, arrogant prediction. In reality, however, the economic benefits that exist are not being shared. There is a huge squeeze on living standards, and hard-working people are worse off and therefore cannot afford child care. We know from the figures that 2 million children in poverty live in households containing a single earner, and that nine out of 10 of the workless partners are female. Securing good-quality, affordable child care and helping mothers to return to the labour market is one of the best ways in which we can make a significant dent in child poverty numbers. But what is the record of the present Government?

As the Minister knows, I have tremendous respect for her. I listen carefully to her speeches, and read a great deal of what she says. However, the fact remains that the cost of nursery places has risen by 30%, and Ofsted figures show that there are 35,000 fewer child care places. The average bill for a part-time nursery place providing 25 hours a week has risen to £107. Breakfast clubs have been scaled down, and the cost of summer holiday child care places has passed the £100-a-week mark for the first time ever. Although all the academic research tells us of the advantages enjoyed by children and toddlers who have been exposed to books, the Secretary of State—who likes to think of himself as a champion of academic rigour—has halved the Bookstart grant.

The Government have implemented a range of policies that affect mothers. For instance, they have cut the child care element of working tax credit: a total of £7 billion has been cut from working parents’ tax credit. In two months’ time, many of the higher-earning parents whose child benefit is being clawed away will have the taxman knocking on their doors because of the Government’s woeful handling of the situation.

Perhaps the Government’s worst act of vandalism against early-years provision is the fact that there are 578 fewer Sure Start centres. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) quoted what the Prime Minister said before the last election, but as the Tories have taken it off their website, it is worth quoting again. He said that we were scaremongering. He said that the Government would back Sure Start. He said that it was “a disgrace” that my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) was “trying to frighten people”. The fact remains, however, that we have 578 fewer Sure Start centres. The Tories can take that quotation off their website, like some Bolshevik politburo apparatchik trying to doctor photographs, but we will continue to remind the British people that the Prime Minister promised to maintain Sure Start centres, and that under his Government we are losing them.

Andrew Gwynne: My hon. Friend is making a very important point about the breaking of the promises made by the Prime Minister at the last general election. Not only did he say that he would keep Sure Start centres open; he also said that the Government would invest in 4,200 extra health care visitors. How does my hon. Friend think that that target is going?

Jonathan Ashworth: It sounds like an example of “same old Tories”—yet more broken Tory promises.

As I said earlier, I have tremendous respect for the Minister. I watched her carefully as she toured the studios yesterday, when she talked about the Conservative proposal

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for tax relief. That tax relief, however, will not be introduced until 2015, and I understand that it will apply only to couples when both partners are earning. If a couple have a two-year-old at nursery, one partner is working and the other is at home caring for a newborn child, that couple will receive nothing—zilch. There will be no help for them whatsoever from this Government.

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman is forgetting the fact that if the couple are married, they will be able to transfer some of their tax allowance from one to the other. [Interruption.]

Jonathan Ashworth: My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who speaks on Treasury matters, shouts “No, she won’t.” I think that that deals with the hon. Lady’s point.

I gather that the child care voucher companies will manage the Minister’s proposed scheme, but I do not know whether they will manage it for free. I should be interested to know what estimates the Department has made. How much will it cost the voucher companies to administer the scheme, and how much of the £1.5 billion that the Minister is putting into the tax-free scheme will be creamed off?

The Minister’s big plan was to downgrade child care ratios. I remember the pamphlet that she wrote about that before she was appointed. At the time, a woman stopped me to complain about it while I was doing my shopping in Morrisons in the centre of Leicester. We know that, all too often, the Government’s answer to the challenges of globalisation is a race to the bottom, but what the Minister proposed would have put downward pressure on quality in the child care sector. I hope that she has now listened to campaigners, and does not plan to return to that proposal.

Tory spin doctors used to brief that the solution to the problem of a lack of affordable high-quality child care was the holy grail of policy, but we do not hear that so much nowadays. Regrettably, they are now briefing against the Minister. I read in Ben Brogan’s daily briefing the other day that they like to watch her “like a hawk”, and I read in Total Politics magazine that they like to keep her “on a tight leash”. Such briefing is nasty and unfair: that is no way to treat a Minister who is trying to develop better child care policies, although I disagree with the direction in which she is heading. However, I am afraid that it will fall to my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent Central and for Manchester Central to clear up the Minister’s mess, and implement a child care policy that will give hard-working mums and dads in my constituency the support that they so desperately need.

3.17 pm

Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): All parents want the best for their child’s early years. They want a safe, stimulating and secure environment, an environment that provides the best possible foundation for the child’s future success at school and in life. I do not think we should forget that, for many parents, that means early years at home with mother or father; but for many others who, like me, are working full or part time, it means relying on child care. What we all want is the best-quality child care, which will promote the best possible development for our children in those early years. It is not just

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parents who are committed to that; the Government are absolutely committed to supporting families by providing quality child care, to meeting the costs of that care, and, importantly, to meeting parents’ need for flexible child care choices in an era of increasingly flexible work.

I speak from considerable experience. During my working life, I have probably accessed every possible type of child care: a small private nursery, a pre-school nursery attached to my son’s state school, a childminder, family support, after-school clubs and breakfast clubs—and dad helped. I received wonderful support from friends, neighbours, and families whom I knew from church. However, I knew what it took to make that work for my children: it took an enormous amount of co-ordination. Without the network of support that I was fortunate enough to have, many families struggle. That is why it is so important for us to give as much support as we can to families and parents who want to work.

Fiona Mactaggart: One of the sources of that kind of family support, which a quarter of families depend on, is grannies or grandparents. I am sad that we have not heard in this debate about how we are going to help working grandmothers cope. There was a study by a building society a couple of years ago which pointed out that grandparents save the taxpayer about £4,000 a year through every piece of child care they offer.

Fiona Bruce: The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and we should pay tribute to grandparents. I was very fortunate in having four wonderful grandparents without whom I could not have developed the business I did develop in those early years, when I could not have afforded the quality of child care that I could, perhaps, have afforded in later years. It is important that we strengthen family life, and I will come on to talk about some of the initiatives we need to put in place to support family life more widely. Many people cannot access that in their locality, however.

Harriett Baldwin: I am sure my hon. Friend will support this Government’s extension of the right to request to all employees, so that, for example, the grandparents the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) referred to are able to take time off, perhaps for child care responsibilities.

Fiona Bruce: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point because I was going to discuss the extensive provision that this Government are promoting for flexible working. As an employer, I have been able to accommodate some of the flexibility young mothers need, even when they perhaps just want to start work at 9.15 rather than 9. That can make an enormous difference to family life by enabling there to be good care and a good start to the day for very young children.

I was very fortunate that when my two boys were young we had a wonderful childminder, who is still very much a friend of the family. They still refer to her as “Auntie Pam.” Auntie Pam cared for my boys for two days a week. It is a tragedy that between 1996 and 2010 under the previous Government the number of childminders —the number of auntie Pams—dropped from 103,000 to 57,000. This Government are addressing that.

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Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that this Government’s policy of introducing childminder agencies will enable better support to be given to childminders, so many of whom say they left the industry because of the burden of regulation and the lack of support for their profession?

Fiona Bruce: That is absolutely right, and I am glad to have this chance to put on record that it is a profession that deserves respect. Many childminders do not want the burdens of having to set up and run their own business. They do not want to have the burdens of complying with regulations and training requirements; they simply want to care for children. Let us release them and set them free to do that by supporting this new initiative of childminder agencies that the Government are setting up.

Meg Hillier: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Fiona Bruce: I am going to make some progress now; I have taken several interventions.

The Government’s childminder agency initiative is an excellent step, not least because it will mean that families will have a local resource that they can access to find a childminder they can have confidence in—a childminder who has been through the appropriate training, and who is from an agency that they know is maintaining proper standards. The agencies will also provide for occasions when the childminder falls ill, which can cause a great deal of stress to parents; there will be additional cover to provide someone else at short notice when they need that.

The Government’s provisions to build up the number of childminders should be supported, therefore, and the agencies will also help to promote take-up of Government funding for two to four-year-olds. At present fewer than 10% of childminders are funded through Government funding. I am sure that a lot of early-year place provision is being missed out as a result of that.

I support the Government’s proposals. They will enable childminders to concentrate on delivering high-quality education and care, which is what they want to do, and not be driven out of their profession simply because they do not want to face the regulations and red tape they have had to deal with until now. They will be able to benchmark themselves against the highest standards. They will be able to access the new framework of training and support and ongoing improvement, and concentrate on giving the best provision to families.

We should remind ourselves of the support that the Government are giving families in meeting the costs of child care. Some 70% of the child care costs of those on tax credits are covered by the Government and an additional £200 million of support for lower-income families will be available within universal credit from April 2016, to take the proportion to 85%. Parents of all three and four-year-olds can access free child care. As we have heard, the Government have increased early education for three and four-year-olds from 12.5 hours a week to 15 hours a week so that what amounted to 475 hours a year of free child care in September 2010 now increases to 570 hours a year. I certainly would have greatly appreciated that when my boys were younger.

The Government are extending the offer of 15 hours a week of early education to two-year-olds from low-income families, which will benefit about 260,000 two-year-olds

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from September 2014, costing £760 million a year by the end of this Parliament. Just four weeks into this Government’s scheme that offers free child care to the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, 92,000 children are already benefiting, which is a huge increase on the 20,000 two-year-olds who accessed early education in 2010. Looking at share of GDP, this Government are spending £5 billion on early-years child care and are spending more than 40% above the OECD average on child care for children under three.

The early-intervention grant replaces a number of centrally directed grants in supporting services for children and young people and families. It has allowed local authorities greater flexibility and freedom at the local level. I want to highlight some of the ways the local authorities in my area have used that funding to support a wide range of services for children, young people and families. There is targeted mental health support for young children through the charity Visyon in my constituency, of which I am a patron, and additional support is being given for fostering and adoption—and I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), my constituency neighbour, who has done excellent work in increasing take-up in Cheshire. There is also the funding for such projects as Let’s Stick Together run by Care For The Family.

Andrea Leadsom: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is so much better that the money that was previously ring-fenced for individual projects can now be used on proper early-years intervention?

Fiona Bruce: I do, because the key to all this is flexibility and choice, and that is what this Government are providing. They are providing flexibility in the way that money is used and flexibility and choice for parents in deciding how to care for their children.

3.28 pm

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness) (Lab/Co-op): It is a pleasure to follow that at times very personal speech from the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), but I want to pick up on one thing she said, which I think caused a little concern on the Opposition Benches. She talked about regulation of childminders in a way that gave us—and people watching on television, I suspect—the impression that all such regulation is a bad thing. Surely she is not suggesting that, for example, CRB checks should not be done. I caution Members on the Government Benches about the language they sometimes use in talking about regulation, as it can give a wholly misleading impression.

Fiona Bruce: Speaking as someone who has started and who runs a small business, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it is often extremely difficult to know what the regulations are. The fear of non-compliance can deter many people from starting a business in the first place. The agencies will give childminders reassurance that they are complying with the regulations. That is the big difference.

John Woodcock: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. I am sure that everyone on both sides of the House agrees on the need to cut unnecessary regulation, but I stand by the point I made.

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It is a pleasure for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), who marked his return to the House with an impassioned speech. The increased relaxation that being in the House of Commons can provide to someone who is the father of two very young children has immediately given him a boost, and he brought that into his speech today.

When the cost of child care rockets, something has to give. For some, it is the opportunity to work, but those mums and dads who choose to stay in work try hard to ensure that they are the ones who bear the brunt of the cuts. They often stop going out, and they hold off from buying things for themselves that, in happier times, they would not think twice about buying. I should like Members to listen to one of the testimonies given to the Furness Poverty Commission, a body that I set up to look into the increasing deprivation in Barrow-in-Furness. A 34-year-old mother from my constituency told the commissioners that she was

“constantly worrying if the bills are all going to be paid, sometimes not having money for food, not ever being able to afford to get away anywhere, not being able to afford to secure your home, broken locks, no insurance…having to sell things to afford Christmas and not to be able to afford heating.”

Stories such as hers are all too common in Furness and right across the country.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The evidence is not only anecdotal; it is very real when we look at the figures. Is he aware that the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that, at the current rate, there will be more than 1 million additional children in poverty by 2020? Does it not appear that the country is going in the wrong direction for our children and our future?

John Woodcock: It does; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a striking, damning figure that sits alongside the human stories of difficulty and suffering that we all experience in our constituencies almost daily.

Harriett Baldwin: The hon. Gentleman is making some powerful points about poverty. Does he accept that work is one of the best ways out of poverty? Does he also welcome the fact that, when universal credit is rolled out in his constituency, child care will be supported for the first hour of work for the individual whom he so eloquently described?

John Woodcock: Work is important in many ways, not simply as a means of getting an income. There are some real questions about universal credit, but if the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not go into that now.

Privately, my constituents sometimes share with me their sense of guilt and frustration when the strain is so great that they just cannot shield their children from the cuts they are having to make. Swimming lessons go, trips to the zoo are put off, and when nothing beyond the bare nutritional minimum goes into their child’s lunchbox, they worry that their child is not going to eat enough because they are not giving them what they really like or want. These are working people. They have made the choice to go out and hold down a job, and to juggle work and family life. They do not expect handouts. They know that life will not be easy when they choose to bring up kids, but they just ask for a bit of help with

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what can seem like the suffocating burden of rising living costs. Child care should be one of the things that lift the strain on families and give them a way out of poverty; it should not add to the burden.

One of key recommendations of the Furness Poverty Commission on dealing with social and economic exclusion in Barrow and Furness was to close the gap that local people had identified in affordable and flexible child care. It is great that the number of children under the age of four in England is increasing, and I am pleased to have been able to do my bit on that front in recent years. So I am delighted by Labour’s plans, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) has set out, to increase the availability of affordable child care. I am especially pleased that the extra entitlement will come in the form of wraparound care from 8 am to 6 pm.

Increasing child care from 15 to 25 hours a week could make a real difference to many families in my constituency. For many parents, it would make the difference between being able to work and not being able to do so. The provision of 12.5 or 15 hours has been a help but it has often not provided a trigger given the way in which the need for child care is spread out if parents rearrange their lives to go back to work. I believe that this wraparound care, aligning child care with the standard working day, will be revolutionary in helping parents to get back to work.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South, I have a great deal of respect for the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss). I was therefore disappointed to hear her dismiss the wraparound child care guarantee in the way she did. She did not want to take my intervention earlier, but I have to tell her that one of the main problems is that there is often no provision at all for families—

Elizabeth Truss indicated dissent.

John Woodcock: The Minister shakes her head and says that that is not true, but I invite her to come to my constituency and see the problems that many people face when trying to arrange that kind of wraparound child care.

Working parents in my constituency—and in those of many of my hon. Friends—know how hard it can be to find affordable child care, or indeed any form of child care, to cover the period before the beginning of the formal school day and the hour or so at the end of it. Effectively, they are trying to find someone to care for their children and walk them to and from school. That might comprise only an hour of care, but an inability to find it can present an impenetrable barrier to getting back to work. This is why our plans could make a real difference. If we are serious about a sustained recovery that is shared by everyone across the country, we need to tackle the child care crisis head on. If this Government will not do that effectively, the next Labour Government will.

3.38 pm

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate, and to follow the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock).

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It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), who gave us the great news that his wife had recently given birth to a beautiful daughter.

It was also interesting to listen to the beginning of the debate. I thought that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) was able to truss up like a turkey the shadow Education Secretary, the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), by putting up a good defence of the Government’s record and exposing the issues involved. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I can assure the House that the jokes do not get better than that.

Of course, child care is an issue not only for mothers; both parents should and do play a full role in the care of their children. They, and people without children, such as me, recognise that access to good quality child care is key. We should also celebrate the fact that more women are working than ever before.

Fiona Bruce: Should we not also honour and celebrate those mothers who decide to stay at home throughout their children’s childhoods and commit to caring for them personally?

Dr Coffey: I fully recognise that, too. What matters is that we should be allowing people to choose what they do. It is right to say that we should not condemn people who decide not to work in an external job and to focus their time on caring for their children at home.

The Minister referred to a number of cases where there has been concern about statistics being bandied about. Everyone in this House, however, would agree that one of the worst situations for a parent is when they need emergency child care, as occurs when teachers go on strike and parents are left trying to get time off work. It would be welcome if Labour Members condemned the decision of teaching unions to go on strike at irregular intervals, so that we can make sure that children are in school. The Minister referred to the fact that we are starting to remove red tape, so no longer will schools have to have a separate Ofsted registration when they cater for children under three years of age—that is to be welcomed. We are also dealing with aspects of planning and other requirements that restrict schools and deter them from facilitating child care provision outside the core school hours. It is important that we make it as straightforward as possible for existing school buildings to be used, be it by the school or not. I understand the wraparound guarantee to which the Opposition refer but, as has been pointed out, no extra funding is being provided for that—indeed, Opposition Members suggest that the funding has already been built into the formula grant.

One thing that does matter is having extra flexibility and choice. I also appreciate the commendation made by Ministers to ensure that schools do not just keep contracting their opening hours, as that, too, causes problems for parents trying to juggle work with getting their children to school. Some schools in my constituency have tried to do that and were still not listening after a consultation. Fortunately, however, when I sent them their communications from the Secretary of State, they realised that they should, of course, be considering the

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wider issues for working families. So I am glad that in the particular school I am thinking about the decision was reversed by the governing body.

Let me deal with other aspects of removing red tape or increasing the number of places. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) eloquently referred to the issue of childminder agencies, which will be introduced. That is a good innovation to allow more people to put themselves forward to offer child care, and that is very welcome. In addition, childminders who are rated “good” and “outstanding” will be able to be funded directly from Government, as opposed to the money being routed through the local council. That is a good step forward and, again, it removes the administration or other extra bureaucracy that stops government funding —we must remember that more than £5 billion is being spent by this Government on early years education and child care.

Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating North Yorkshire county council on its work? Not only has it managed to preserve the number of Sure Start children’s centres in my constituency, but I had the pleasure of opening one last year; we have actually increased the number of Sure Start centres.

Dr Coffey: I indeed join my hon. Friend in congratulating North Yorkshire county council and I will also give a boost to Suffolk’s council, as one Sure Start centre has opened in my constituency since the general election, and that is to be welcomed.

That takes me neatly on to the issue of Sure Start centres—or children’s centres, as they have become. A lot of figures are being bandied around about how many have closed. I have a regular correspondent on Twitter who assures me that the figure is now more than 700, whereas the Opposition tell us that it is more than 500. We have heard from the Minister today that fewer than 50 have closed. I will not pretend that I have had the time to go through all the different links and go into detail about the different numbers, but I am assured by what she has said at the Dispatch Box. Our Prime Minister said that he wanted to counter scaremongering, and we should not always get hung up about the buildings; it is about what matters for the child.

Andrea Leadsom rose

Dr Coffey: I was about to refer to my hon. Friend and I will do so before I give way to her. Early intervention grants are no longer ring-fenced; it is to be welcomed that we have local solutions to deal what is needed. I wish to commend three Members of Parliament, in particular, in this regard: the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field); my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Ben Gummer), who has done some extraordinary work—learning, to some extent, from the right hon. Gentleman—on how to help children in his constituency; and my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom), whom I was going to praise because of her work with OxPIP—the Oxford Parent Infant Project—and other facilities.

Andrea Leadsom: Surely what really matters is what Sure Start centres are achieving for families. We are not looking enough at the achievements of the centres, the inroads they are making and the improvement in UNICEF’s

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assessment of the happiness of British children—that is going in the right direction. Instead, all we talk about is whether a centre has closed. That is surely not the right thing to be looking at.

Dr Coffey: I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes the point I was referring to. Whether we are talking about Sure Start centres, children’s centres or many other public sector services, we should not get hung up solely on bricks and mortar; we should be focused on the outcomes for children, as that is what really matters.

I also wish to praise another local scheme in my constituency, Home-Start, which also operates around the country. I am particularly impressed with what it is doing to try to reach people, many of whom are not going to children’s centres to access services. It is taking the service to people in their homes, and giving help without it being seen as being judgmental—instead, it is seen as friendly. These are the kinds of initiatives we should be supporting. We should be allowing local councils to use their discretion and initiative to focus on what works best in their area, rather than solely implementing an idea from Whitehall.

Opposition Members have said that their proposals will be funded through the bank levy—I appreciate that they are not talking about a bankers’ bonus measure, which may have been discussed earlier. The shadow Secretary of State mentioned that less tax is coming in. He might have noticed that some of our largest banks have not been making a profit. The obvious cause is the global recession, but the previous Administration allowed the financial disasters to emerge: they allowed RBS to grow without any particular controls; HBOS was forced together with Lloyds, and similar other things occurred; and we had the disasters at the Co-op which have been revealed in the past few works. The Opposition are trying to suggest that a recovery in financial services is bad and that we need to tax them and, indeed, the people who work in them, further to pay for more and more schemes; the bankers’ bonus tax seems to have been used 11 times to pay for various schemes that Labour Members cite. The reality is that money does not grow on trees—we all got taught that lesson when we were children—and we have to make every penny stretch. I am very proud that this Government have genuine ambitions for world-class child care. We know that at this moment in time the coverage is patchy and it is costing more than it should, but I am very supportive of the moves we are making to ensure that child care becomes a significant contributor to growth and to the growth of the family.

3.48 pm

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). Although I respect her immensely, I pretty much disagreed with most of what she said. I know from personal experience and from talking to mums and families in Newcastle just how vital good quality, affordable child care can be. Support with child care is particularly crucial to those mums who want to get on, stay in work and help lift their families out of poverty.

My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) made a powerful speech about the difficulties in which many families find themselves. A recent

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Asda survey reveals the startling picture that seven out of 10 mums said that they would be worse off if they went back to work because of the costs of child care. Any Government should take such a matter extremely seriously. Many families are caught in the poverty trap. Although they work all the hours they can, only one person can work because of the costs of child care. As a result they are struggling with the ever-rising cost of living, which is the reality for families up and down the country.

Fewer women are in work in this country compared with many of our leading competitor countries, so we need to take the matter seriously. At the same time, women are paying three times more than men to reduce the deficit, yet they earn less and own less than men.

I am not just talking about supporting parents with the costs of child care, it is also important to ensure that child care places exist. Children and families in Newcastle are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the Government’s cuts. The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) raised the issue of the Sure Start centres and how we should measure their outcomes and not just bemoan their closure. None the less, their gradual disappearance is a serious loss and blow to every community.

Andrea Leadsom: This is an incredibly important point about Sure Starts. I am chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Sure Start, and we have just done a year-long inquiry into best practice in Sure Starts. Our conclusion is that there is absolutely no wholesale closure of the centres. In fact, lots more are opening. The Sure Starts that exist are really focusing on outcomes and on getting in better services for families. I wish that Opposition Members would stop suggesting to families that the support they need in those early years is disappearing; it is just not. There is no evidence for that.

Catherine McKinnell: The Minister provided no clarity on the figures. The hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal said that she was unable to clarify the figures, but that she had been reassured by the Minister. I am less so. I would be pleased if the Minister provided some clarity now.

Elizabeth Truss: The figure of 500 to which the Opposition have been referring is the number of centres that were independent and that are now part of a network. They are still open to the public and providing services, but management efficiencies have been achieved. There have been 45 outright closures. I hope that I have made myself clear.

Catherine McKinnell: It is clear that the Government are using figures to manipulate the reality that is being reported by constituents up and down the country.

Let me get back to the situation in Newcastle. Last year, my local authority, in the light of unprecedented funding challenges, consulted on a three-year budget for the period 2013-16. When it began the process, it believed that, as a result of funding reductions from the Government and rising cost pressures from inflation, high energy prices and the costs of providing services to

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an ever-ageing population, it faced a funding shortfall of £90 million over three years. That figure rose during the consultation process to £100 million. Following further cuts announced in the autumn statement and the local government finance settlement, it is now facing cuts of £108 million. It has already announced the closure of Sure Start centres in my constituency—all of them—and because of the additional funding requirement and shortfall, it has now put all 20 Sure Start centres within the Newcastle city council area under review, so we do not know what their future will be.

Lyn Brown (West Ham) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is staggering that there is such a lack of understanding about the swingeing cuts that have been made to local government over the past few years and the fact that it will have an effect on essential services? It is wrong to pretend otherwise.

Catherine McKinnell: The Department for Education’s children’s centre database on the website shows that there are 3,053 centres whereas the DFE website shows that there were 3,632 Sure Start centres in 2010. The number of Sure Start centres, in the form in which communities recognise and value them, is reducing and the Department’s figures show that. It would be an appalling situation if Sure Start was just about providing affordable child care—we know that the Government have a great challenge on their hands to meet their obligations in that regard—but it is not. Sure Start also provides vital support services to young children and families, who are some of the most vulnerable and hardest to reach in our communities, by providing parenting advice, breastfeeding support, affordable child care or just an opportunity for isolated and often vulnerable and frustrated new mothers and fathers to meet up with other people.

Another huge concern is the impact that Sure Start closures would have on the preventive early intervention work that stops children and families entering the child protection system. I know that the children’s Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), cares about this matter, and I would be grateful if, in his winding-up speech, he commented on the consideration the Government have given to that impact on our child protection system. At present, about 50% of the looked-after children in Newcastle are in the local authority’s care as a result of domestic violence in their home.

Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): The hon. Lady is making a very good case for children’s centres, with which I completely agree. Would she not acknowledge, however, that despite the changes that she is saying are so detrimental, more than 1 million people are now accessing the centres, as are two thirds of the most disadvantaged families with children under five—a record number?

Catherine McKinnell: I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I am talking about the future, too, and putting on the record my concerns about further closures of Sure Start centres. I agree that it is positive that more families use them, but the worry is that they will disappear as the local authority cuts that have not even started yet have an impact. Both Under-Secretaries should be worried about the impact on their own figures and work.

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The long-term costs of the closure of Sure Start centres must be considered in the wider context. I have seen first hand the work that my local Sure Start centres, which are already earmarked for closure, do with vulnerable women and men in cases of domestic violence. That work is vital if more children are not to be taken into care in future.

The holistic approach to supporting children and young families across the country developed under Labour is, in my view, under threat from the action taken by a Government who seem incredibly out of touch, who just do not get it and who just do not care. That will only result in higher costs in the long term for society and for public services at every level.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I am changing the time limit for the last two speeches in order to start the wind-ups at 10 past 4. The time limit is now six minutes.

3.57 pm

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): For me, as for many people in the Chamber and up and down the country, child care is not an academic issue but something we grapple with every single day of the year, including today. I believe that child care is an area of public policy that, if we get it right, can transform the lives of millions and build a stronger economy. I think that so far I would have cross-party agreement.

I know that it is fashionable for some members of my party to apologise for things that Labour did in office, but we should make no apology whatsoever for what Labour did on child care. Our record is incredibly strong. Labour introduced the free entitlement to 15 hours a week of child care for every three and four-year-old in the country and Labour introduced Sure Start. When I was out on the doorsteps as a candidate before 2005, Sure Start was a policy that mothers were talking to me about. It is very rare that voters talk to us about policies by name. It was exciting, it was progressive and it has made a difference.

The three and four-year-olds coming through the system at the millennium are today 16 and 17, a generation of young people whose lives were enhanced under a Labour Government but are now blighted by the prospect of unemployment under the coalition Government. The latest evaluation of Sure Start, published by the Department for Education in June last year, showed many positive impacts of Sure Start on young children and their parents. The one I want to highlight is the greater improvement in life satisfaction among lone parents and workless households. We know that being unemployed is tough, and being a lone parent is one of the toughest things in the world. This programme demonstrably improved life satisfaction among those groups in our community. That is why we should be angry that Sure Start centres are closing or being watered down. Our blood should be boiling with indignation; mine certainly is.

We should nail the myth about Sure Start centres. Some may still be open, but what range of services are they providing? Many are no longer providing child care. Others have been subsumed into their sponsoring school.

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Andrea Leadsom: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Meg Hillier: I am sorry, I do not have time to take interventions.

The assault on Sure Start by this Government is surely their greatest act of vandalism—an assault on the future of the poorest and most vulnerable children and parents. We know that—

Andrea Leadsom rose

Meg Hillier: I regret not having the chance to debate, but I have three and a half minutes left—a very short time in what we thought would be a longer debate.

The “pile them high, teach them cheap” policy promoted by the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) is another example of the Government’s attitude to child care. I want to focus on three areas—first, that child care is not a peripheral issue, a soft issue or even a women’s issue. Quality child care goes to the heart of our society, our economy and our country’s prosperity. No policy matters more. As we see, with a squeeze on living standards throughout the country, people are looking at costs. We see the challenges.

For example, research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that the cost of necessities required to give a child a decent standard of living increased by 4% in the past year alone. A recent OECD report found that the UK has some of the most expensive child care in the world. I will not repeat the arguments that colleagues have made, but we know that a further 1.3 million women want to work more hours. If our employment rate for mothers moved up to the average of the world’s top five nations, 320,000 more women would have jobs, and crucially tax receipts would rise by £1.7 billion.

Secondly, we need to be bold. I urge those on my Front-Bench to be even bolder. We should be proud of our record, but in the past progress was sometimes slower than it should have been. It was sometimes piecemeal. I do not speak for my Front Bench, but I would like to see a child care Bill in the first Queen’s Speech, announcing our aim to move towards universal child care. The Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank has shown that a decent universal system of child care pays for itself in the long run. More parents working, paying taxes and not claiming tax credits and benefits more than pays for the state’s investment in child care. We know from Scandinavia that that increases women’s participation in the work force, so we need to be bold.