I have copied and pasted the relevant sections from the transcript on the goverments website of the 2nd reading of the childcare bill last night.
Full transcript can be found here:
House of Commons Hansard Debates for 25 Feb 2013 (pt 0002)
25 Feb 2013 : Column 68
Stephen Twigg:….. As for child care agencies, we welcome the idea of additional support for childminders to promote work force development and progression, to increase efficiency and share best practice, and to improve local co-ordination to help parents find good childminders. However, as they stand, the plans are rather hazy on detail. Ministers will need to give assurances that they will not cause knock-on effects, such as extra costs to parents. Ministers will also need to clarify what they will mean for local authorities, how often Ofsted will inspect agencies, and how the criteria for the inspection of agencies will differ from those for inspections of individual childminders.
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Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend share my fear that agencies may cream off a profit and add costs to parents rather than supporting better child care? We have seen that happen in the older care sector.
Stephen Twigg: My hon. Friend has raised a legitimate concern that has been expressed by a number of other people. I hope that the agencies will provide a genuine opportunity for the raising of standards and improvement of quality in the child care sector, but I think that if the system is not managed and co-ordinated carefully, with a continuing role for local authorities, there will be a risk of our going down the path described by my hon. Friend. The quality and cost of child care, as well as parental confidence in childminders, must surely be at the centre of any changes.
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Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I represent one of the youngest constituencies in the UK: over 20% of the population of my borough is under 16. Between the last two censuses, the population in the borough of Hackney grew by 30,000. That included a large increase in under-fives, and many people in their early 20s and 30s, many of them parents. Child care is therefore of great importance in my constituency, as well as up and down the country.
The Bill deals with many important issues, but I want to focus on child care. The muddle of Government child care policy is not helped by the child care clauses. They make nothing clearer; in fact, they make the chaos worse. First, the Bill repeals the local authority duty to assess child care provision. I am against that, because it is important that we provide an accurate assessment of the availability of, and demand for, child care in an area, and it is reasonable to expect that to be done locally. I am greatly in favour of local authorities having more say on the subject, but if we remove that statutory duty, in areas unlike mine, where there are not that many children, that may be something that falls off the edge of a local authority’s area of responsibilities. That is another example of the Government’s small-state-is-good
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ideology, this time on a local level, and with working parents as the victims. It does not square with the Government’s desires—all our desires, indeed—and need to encourage people into work.
There is also a huge issue to do with the proposed ratios between children and their nursery carers or childminders. The policy is unworkable. It beggars belief. It does nothing to reduce costs, but if one were to say, on a generous reading, that it did, it would be at the cost of quality. So that Members are absolutely clear, let me explain that the Government propose that the adult-child ratios for nurseries should go from one adult per three children to one adult per four children for one-year-olds and younger—for the baby room in a nursery, as most of us would know it—and from one adult per four children to one adult per six children for two-year olds. They propose changing the childminder-to-child ratios from 1:1 to 1:2 for the under-ones, and from 1:3 to 1:4 for children aged two to five.
I am the second of 10 children, so I do not have a problem with lots of children being looked after, but imagine taking six toddlers through potty training, or to the park. A constituent wrote to me on the subject. She is just one of the many parents, childminders and professional child carers in Hackney who are really concerned about the proposal. Her child is looked after by a childminder, whom she values greatly. She says:
“If this ratio had come in before I had gone back to work I may not have gone at all. I didn’t want my baby in a nursery. I feel very strongly that parents need the option of leaving our children in a safe, caring home environment”
with a childminder. She speaks for so many parents up and down the country, and indeed for childminders.
That brings me on to the proposals in the Bill relating to the setting up of childminder agencies. I mentioned my concerns about this in an intervention. I am not alone in my scepticism. It is unclear from the Bill how the proposals will work. Among other things, I am concerned that the concept of an agency is different to different people. It might mean one thing to the Minister who made the proposal, and another to others. Is it a children’s centre or a local authority effectively acting as an agent for Ofsted and professional development locally—something that I could support, with the right safeguards—or is it the relentless march of the private sector, supported by the Government, who are enabling it to turn a profit from the relationship between child- minders and parents? We have had no further clarity on that from the Minister today. Will the agencies be able to allocate any childminder to any family, or will the parent have a say? The local, very specific negotiation about a child is vital to the relationship between parents and childminders.
Will there be the recreation of what we could laughingly call the paradigm of the agencies that manage domiciliary care for older people? As someone who has been a carer for two older people, I would hate to see child care go down that route—to see agencies creaming off a profit while providing inadequate care—when we have a very good childminder sector that has improved immensely thanks to the Ofsted badge of quality, which is prized by childminders and valued by parents.
That is not to say that I do not support any change. Sometimes there are challenges arising from Ofsted inspecting such a range of childminders, but I would prefer that to be done through the local authority, or
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possibly the local children’s centre, both of which already have a relationship with the childminder, rather than through new agencies being set up.
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Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op): ….. This is an important Bill that will impact on children and their parents—on how families function and how the state supports them in so doing. I support many aspects of the Bill and the spirit of this debate, which has been conducted in a very comradely fashion. Some of the Bill received pre-legislative scrutiny, and it is much better for that. However, there is concern inside and outside the House about some of the proposed changes, particularly to child care, that are being foisted on a sector that is fairly united in its opposition to them. It is therefore disappointing that so much of that aspect did not go to consultation before the Bill came before us.
Lucy Powell: I agree with my hon. Friend. In addition, my local authority in Manchester is experiencing a huge cut to its children’s services budget, which is having a massive impact on how the local council provides for children in care. That is particularly worrying.
As I said in my recent Adjournment debate on child care, the child-care crisis is one of the most fundamental issues facing families today. Part 4 of the Bill relates to child care and many elements have been met by a chorus of disapproval. Childminder organisations have welcomed the changes to allow Ofsted to charge for early reinspection at the request of the provider, but there is deep concern at opposition to plans to create new childminder agencies. Providers, the third sector, parents and the Government’s own advisers also have deep reservations about measures to change child-care ratios. Indeed, an unpublished report being sat on by the Secretary of State apparently says that changes to ratios will lead to a deterioration in the quality of care and will not help parents reduce their costs. I have previously asked for that report to be published and I repeat that request tonight. The Minister is in danger of driving down quality while costs balloon.
There are many concerns about the proposed childminder agency changes, and I echo those raised earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). Childminders are concerned that agencies could charge them high fees for registering and that plans for Ofsted to cease inspecting agency-registered childminders could confuse parents. Indeed, the Pre-School Learning Alliance has questioned why the Government would create another layer of bureaucracy that will see many parents and childminders pay more while duplicating the work of several organisations.
I am also concerned about plans to remove the existing duty on local authorities to assess the sufficiency of child care in their area. I have spoken before about the
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child-care crisis facing families hit by the triple whammy, including a reduction in the number of places. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) has highlighted the closure of Sure Start centres in some parts of the country and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) also raised that point earlier. More than 400 centres have been lost since this Government took office and 4Children has highlighted that 55% of children’s centres no longer provide any on-site child care, while 50% of those that still do report that those places are massively over-subscribed.
Sufficient child care is a prerequisite for parents—mainly mothers—returning to work. Removing the duty on local authorities to ensure sufficient child care will not help parents who are trying to get back into the workplace. It is a backward step that sends the wrong message to families who struggle to find the right child care.