On 9th January 2014, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds took part in Baroness Massey of Darwen’s debate on affordable childcare.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: My Lords, I am very grateful indeed to the noble Baroness, Lady Massey of Darwen, for initiating this debate and for expressing so clearly the issues involved and, indeed still more, for her determined advocacy in this House and elsewhere of the rights and needs of children, especially those children who are most at risk within our society.
Childcare provision in this country has grown like Topsy. As we have heard from a number of examples comparing our own experiences when we were young parents with those of our children as parents now, the need for childcare has become more and more crucial to both parents and children, and as a mainstay of our culture as well of our economy. However, there is such a complex system, which is part universal and part not, with childcare vouchers in their varied forms as an additional complication. Rather strangely, there is also the danger that universal credit will actually make the situation more, rather than less, complex.
There is indeed a very strong case for extending access to affordable childcare, but there is also a case for starting again to provide a coherent system. I wonder whether there ought to be something along the lines of an all-party commission—we have heard a good deal about how the parties are coming together on some of these issues—which could stand back a bit from the immense detail with which we can get involved and consider whether there is a more coherent long-term strategy for looking at childcare.
Within that context, I should like to stress two particular points. First is the need for childcare to be not only affordable but of high quality. There are some welcome signs. The increase in the proportion of paid daycare staff who hold at least a level 3 early years qualification from 54% in 2003 to 84% now is a very encouraging marker. Nevertheless, childcare remains a low-wage profession, and the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, that we have here a system that is at the same time expensive and low-wage, needs looking at carefully.
The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, cited the statistic that turnover of childcare staff is as much as three times that of a good school. This must have an effect on quality. I know from my own experience how much my own grandchildren value the particular relationships that they establish through the childcare that is provided for them, and how difficult it can be for them and their friends when there are changes in that childcare. That turnover of staff is something that needs to be combated. What strategy do the Government have for improving the status of the childcare profession and the requirement for adequate training and qualifications so that it is comparable, for example, to teaching or nursing?
Secondly, despite the increase in free provision, childcare is taking an increasing proportion of the income of our poorest families, especially of those in work. More than half the families living in poverty are in work. We need to ensure that the main beneficiary of childcare is the child. Children in poverty need the high-quality childcare that enables their parents to work and so contributes to the well-being of the whole family. It is perhaps particularly important for lone mothers. Gingerbread has recently published startling evidence of the improvement in the mental health of lone mothers when they enter employment.
The Government need to be careful in the financial arrangements they make to support lone mothers and others who are unemployed in accessing affordable, high- quality childcare to enable them to return to work. Yet the current proposal for a childcare element of universal credit provides 85% of costs from 2016 only if both parents earn above the income tax threshold. The lowest-income working parents will receive only 70% of childcare costs. If earnings fluctuate, as they do in so many of these families, it will be unclear to them whether they are entitled to 70% or 85%.
Through tax credits and housing benefit, families can now receive up to 90% of their childcare costs. Those in most need will see help reduced to 70% in 2016. How will the Government ensure that support for childcare costs is given to the families in most need? This is a key part of the weft and woof of our society in these days. It is something that needs and deserves the attention that we are paying to it in this debate today, but this needs to be extended to serious consideration in all our parties and in this House as a whole. I hope that this debate will be a developing part of a concentration on childcare that will stress its importance for families, for parents, for our society and, above all, for the children themselves.
Baroness Northover: We remain committed to helping families with the cost of living and supporting parents to work. We are improving support for middle-income families by introducing a new tax-free childcare scheme. Noble Lords will, I hope, know the details of that. Once the scheme is fully established it will benefit 2.5 million working families. For low earners, government will continue to pay up to 70% of childcare costs through working tax credit and universal credit. I am again happy to put details in a letter to noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds and my noble friend Lord Kirkwood asked about this. We are already investing £2.2 billion in universal credit childcare support and making a further investment of £200 million to provide extra support for working families earning enough to pay income tax. We are considering responses to a recent consultation on tax-free childcare and will respond shortly.