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Lord Carter: My Lords, this will be an extremely brief speech, just to thank my noble friend the Minister on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, and myself. We had a useful meeting with the Minister and his colleague, Beverley Hughes, and he has done all the things we asked him to do. We thought it would be easier simply to insert "18" in the Bill, but we understand the drafting point and the way in which the provision has to be worded. I presume that any guidance notes will explain exactly why that has been done. Thank you very much.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister and pay tribute to the noble Lords, Lord Rix and Lord Carter. The amendments will make a huge difference to children and families for whom life is a struggle. We on these Benches are most grateful to the Government.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, I echo those thanks and say how grateful we on these Benches are to the noble Lords, Lord Rix and Lord Carter, for what they have achieved. The amendments will make a lot of difference to those who have disabled children, and we very much welcome them.

Baroness Howarth of Breckland: My Lords, I am giving my noble friend Lord Rix, who has just arrived in the Chamber, a moment to gather himself because he might want to comment. This is something we all agree on absolutely. Cross-Bench Members are supposed to hold individual views, but we all welcome this.

Lord Rix: My Lords, I do apologise—I simply could not get the lift, so I have been raving around on the second floor. I thank the Minister very much indeed for the amendments, which all at Mencap and, I am sure, all organisations concerned with disabled children will welcome with gratitude. I am slightly out of breath, but I can assure noble Lords that my thanks and those of all my colleagues are warm-hearted and sincere.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I add my thanks to those of other noble Lords. I am glad the Minister has listened, and wish that Ministers would always do so.

Lord Adonis: My Lords, I am simply doing what I believe all Ministers do from this Dispatch Box. I regarded the arrival of the noble Lord, Lord Rix, with trepidation; just before he arrived, I said that the fact that he was not here must be a sign that he was completely content with our position. I am glad that when he rose, it was not to say that there were further issues we needed to get right before he could support the amendment. I am very grateful for all that has been
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said on all sides of the House and am glad to be able to meet the wishes of the House in this important matter.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 7 [Duty to secure prescribed early years provision free of charge]:

Baroness Morris of Bolton moved Amendment No. 13:

"( ) Regulations under this section must allow for private, voluntary and independent providers of childcare to provide childcare free of charge for between—
(a) two and a half or three hours per day at the choosing of that provider, and
(b) thirty-three or thirty-eight weeks per year at the choosing of that provider."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I decided to retable this amendment because when I looked again at the Grand Committee debate, I felt that the Minister's response did not fully address the concerns raised—indeed, he fuelled them.

The amendment would insert a new subsection into Clause 7 to specify on the face of the Bill that regulations outlining the prescribed description in subsection (1) regarding a local authority's duty to secure early years provision free of charge must allow for a degree of flexibility and choice for the PVI sector regarding the number of hours and total weeks they may provide as a minimum free entitlement. Paragraph (a) addresses the number of hours a day to be provided and paragraph (b) the number of weeks.

The aim of the amendment is to discuss the interests of real parental choice, the diversity of childcare provision, and to explore the details between free places and subsidised places.

From April this year, as a result of the 10-year strategy and following the publication of the DfES code of practice for grant funding of nursery education for three and four year-olds, some local authorities have required private, voluntary and independent providers to extend the minimum free entitlement from 33 to 38 weeks. Other local authorities are providing flexibility and not enforcing 38 weeks, as long as parents are informed that some childcare providers may offer up to 38 weeks and that funding would be pro rata.

However, growing pressure is being placed on providers to extend the number of weeks; clearly, the current flexibility is temporary. PVIs would like the choice of how many weeks of nursery provision they offer above the statutory 33 weeks. They argue convincingly that that will provide diversity and real choice for parents who may wish to balance their work and family lives differently and not require such long childcare hours to their children because they want their children to spend more time with their families.

In Grand Committee, I explained that many childcare settings simply cannot extend the weeks of provision because they rent premises on a fixed basis, share the community centre with other organisations and activities or because of staffing issues. From April 2007, the minimum free entitlement will be
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extended to 15 hours per week—namely, it will rise from the two current 2.5 hours per day to three hours per day. At the moment, many nurseries already provide three hours, but they offer the additional half hour for a top-up fee that reflects the cost dependent on the area. For many providers, it is only possible for them to offer the 2.5 hour daily, grant-funded sessions free and maintain a high quality of care because they subsidise these free sessions with the top-up fees from parents for three-hour sessions. Many providers fear that once the free entitlement is extended, without the flexibility of choice, they will not be able to subsidise grant-funded sessions and, as a consequence, many sessional settings will no longer be sustainable and will have to close. The result of that is that there will not be sufficient high-quality places for three and four year-olds—the exact opposite of what the Government claim they want to achieve.

In his reply, the Minister only confirmed that fear when he read out paragraph 5.9 of the code of practice which stated:

I missed that phrase "in the first year" when the Minister replied in Grand Committee. I would hate him to think that I do not hang on his every word, but I missed that bit. This is only for one year and this year of transition will not address the fundamental problem that we need to maintain the choice of nurseries in terms of hours and weeks of operation and so provide real choice of parents. The Montessori Foundation has called this extension of hours a threat to the actual existence of small community-based nurseries.

The Minister also said that if providers could not find appropriate premises they could simply move into the all-singing, all-dancing children's centres. I am afraid that that smacks of choice and diversity, but, as I said on the last amendment, only on the Government's terms. They should not be forced to move if they do not want to, particularly in light of recent statistics that call into question the wisdom of placing very young children in group care for long hours.

I quickly raise a third issue. It has come to my attention that the DfES is sending questionnaires to nursery providers regarding costs focusing on day care providers. One nursery has informed me that it estimates that it will be £25,000 adrift in costs with these new provisions. Why did the department not carry out the survey before suggesting the implementation of such plans? I know that this is only one example, but it strikes right at the heart of the problem. Local authorities will have powers to ensure that all providers do not charge a top-up for places funded by the nursery education grant. However, there have been no guarantees that the level of NEG funding will cover the cost of providing a good-quality early years experience. We believe that parents should have a real choice of the setting that they wish to send their children to, a real choice in the hours of childcare that they want and the choice to pay a top-up fee should
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they be confident that that will provide them with a good-quality childcare place. I hope that the Minister will undertake to reconsider this issue and I beg to move.

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