Labour Policy - Shadow minister explains pledges

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Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central, was appointed as Labour's new shadow minister for childcare and early years in October. Katy Morton met her to discuss her party's policies.

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Labour has pledged to extend the free places for threeand four-year-olds from 15 to 25 hours a week for working parents if the party comes to power. How would the additional hours be funded?

The offer is a fully costed Labour commitment, which will make a real difference to parents for meeting childcare costs. It would save the average family around £1,500 a year per child.

We intend to fund the additional hours by using tax raised from the bank levy, which is money we have identified from a stream of money the Chancellor George Osborne said he would raise. Mr Osborne said he would raise £2.6bn in the bank's levy every year, but he hasn't been raising it properly and has only achieved £1.6bn a year. It's a shortfall that would pay for the £800m this scheme would cost a year. The Government's argument - that this is money we have spent elsewhere - is simply not true.

The issue with the 15 hours free childcare is that by the time you've dropped off a child at 9am in the morning, you have to go back again at midday. With 25 hours, parents would at the very least be able to work part time.


Labour launched its Childcare Commission last year. Is that ongoing?

It is very much ongoing and there is a renewed focus. Part of that focus is to continue with policy development work about other issues.

We are also going to be visiting early years settings and talking to parents in areas where childcare is the top issue. Any nursery that wants a visit should get in touch (www.labour.org.uk/childcarecommission).


How would you increase take-up of the two-year-old places for disadvantaged children?

Both demand and supply need to be looked at. I don't think the Government has been doing enough to generate demand.

Sure Start children's centres are ideally placed to help develop demand through outreach work in the community. This is why I worry about what is happening to centres and the services associated with them.

Then on the supply side, we know that one in three councils think they are not going to have enough places to fill demand.

We need to make sure that delivering the offer is affordable for providers. I know that for many providers, because of the extra needs of these children, it does require even more funding than the universal offer for threeand four-year-olds.

I think if the Government was being really responsible about this, it would think carefully about why there is a shortfall of places and how to stimulate the market to make this policy a success. It's a great policy and one that Labour championed before we left office, but the devil is in the detail.


The Government's childminder agencies are currently being piloted. Would you continue with the initiative?

What I'm not clear on, because the Government isn't being clear, is what the childminder agency proposal is really about.

Is it about forming supportive networks for childminders to drive up quality, or is it about placing extra charges on parents and/or childminders?

I don't think it is a good idea to make the owner of the agency both a childminder's boss and inspector of their setting.

While I can understand Ofsted saying it doesn't have the capacity to inspect everybody, I've not come across a parent who has said they want fewer inspections and to know less about a setting. The other question is: what funding is going to be available for agencies?


The Department for Education has been consulting on a 1: 13 ratio for threeand four-year-olds in graduate-led sessions. Do you believe this is the way forward?

The biggest issue here is that Elizabeth Truss has an obsession with the relaxation of ratios. It was the only thing she talked about before and after she got appointed as education and childcare minister. She's lost the argument with parents, the sector and within her own Government. It is a dead issue now.


There appears to be a push by the Government to get two-year-olds in schools. What is your take on this?

I'm not a supporter of what you would describe as school-type learning for two-year-olds. What I am in favour of, though, is two-year-olds having access to quality early years settings that can help their developmental skills.

Sally Morgan, chair of Ofsted, was talking about trying to get more two-year-olds in the system, which is absolutely something I support. I don't support the idea of sitting around in large classes at desks doing formal work because I don't think this is the best way for children to learn.

I think at some point I will have a look at what they do in France. However, the settings are not necessarily what we would choose in this country. The Scandinavian models have a lot to offer. It's where the Labour party has traditionally drawn its inspiration for early years.


Those who work in the sector continue to be low-paid. How would you tackle this?

This has always been at the heart of the issue. That is why the Labour party is advocating the Living Wage, as well as trying to upskill the workforce and drive that through the system. We are also looking at freezing energy bills and business rates, which are issues for the sector.


A large number of early years providers have reported dissatisfaction with Ofsted inspections and judgements. What steps would you take?

I am fully alive to this issue. It has been raised with me a lot and is the number one issue for many childcare providers. Having said that, I think what parents want to know is that there is a good inspection regime they can trust and understand.

The issue going forward is how Ofsted develops better early years inspectors so they understand the sector and so when they come in to do inspections they know what they are looking for.


Lots of children's centres are closing or their services and opening hours are being reduced as a result of local authorities' diminishing budgets. How would you protect children's centres from being subjected to cuts?

We are currently in debate with the Government about how many Sure Start centres have closed since it came into power.

The Government needs to come forward with the evidence. All the evidence that I can garner suggests there have been 578 closures. And that figure resonates with what I am hearing on the ground. Thirty-seven centres are closing in Prime Minister David Cameron's own county council, let alone other examples in Kent, Newcastle and Essex.

In addition to that, other centres that haven't been totally closed offer a skeleton service, have effectively been mothballed or are sharing staff with another centre so are only open a couple of hours a day. This is a Sure Start system that is in decline and going backwards.

We've got to look at this and try to work out how we can save the Sure Start model. We have to make sure that centres are there for parents who want and choose the service, as well as reaching out to families who might be very isolated and vulnerable.

I want to look at how we can reshape and remodel Sure Start in a way that is affordable. The Government doesn't appear to be interested at all in any early intervention work. That is why it got rid of the ringfence on funding and at the same time massively cut local authority budgets, particularly in the most deprived areas where most of the Sure Start centres have historically been. What did they expect would happen?


You have shown your support for workplace nurseries. What difference do you think these would make to working families?

Making the transition from being a full-time parent to going back to work full time or part time can be very hard, so I think a workplace nursery is one option that could make it easier for parents, knowing that your child is nearby.

Employers that I've spoken to who have a good work-based nursery find it is a real asset for their workers. However, after the recession a lot of workplace nurseries were closed. One issue is that these settings can often be loss leaders, so it is important that we look at how they can be supported.

One area that hasn't been explored much is the provision of a workplace nursery for parents who work anti-social or irregular hours. A work-based nursery would be amenable to their working hours.


What are your thoughts on the Government's Tax Free Childcare scheme?

I welcome any new money to help parents meet the cost of childcare. However, from what the Government has published so far, it seems that the main beneficiaries are going to be the better off. It's also not giving help to families now, with the scheme being introduced in 2015, as well as not helping parents with children over the age of five, many of whom have quite high childcare costs with wraparound care.

I am going to look at the scheme in detail when the Government publishes its figures, which may be during the Autumn Statement..