Clause 2 - Qualifying childcare

Part of Childcare Payments Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:30 am ar 21 Hydref 2014.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Llafur, Stockton North 10:30, 21 Hydref 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, and to serve on this Committee. Members of the Committee will already be aware that provisions in clause 2 allow parents to use the scheme to purchase child care only when the main purpose—or one of the main purposes—is to help them to work. However, such a requirement will cause headaches for all parents, and is likely to prove particularly problematic for parents of disabled children. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to highlight the importance of relaxing these restrictions by broadening the definition of qualifying child care, and making sure that the available support is made more flexible for these parents.

We are all aware that access to good-quality, affordable child care is important for all parents. The quality of provision has a positive impact on children’s learning outcomes, as well as enabling parents to work. However, we must also be conscious that the relationship between work, family life and child care is not always straightforward, particularly for families with disabled children. There are intricate complexities that are unique to individual families. Indeed, it is impossible to foresee and cater for every eventuality, although that is not to say that we  cannot look to do more with the knowledge that we have. I was therefore pleased to see the Minister acknowledge in her letter to the Chairs of the Committee the additional challenges faced by parents of disabled children, and offer a commitment to giving more support to these families.

One such complexity that is destined to arise is that the parents of disabled children need to buy child care outside of normal working hours, in order to allow them to combine caring and working. This may, for example, be over the course of a weekend, or perhaps for the purpose of providing respite care or short breaks. An extended definition of qualifying child care would be very beneficial for those parents. Let us also remember that for families with disabled children in particular, access to good quality child care is of great significance, because they are comparatively far more vulnerable to poverty.

It is an unfortunate reality that childhood disability is frequently a trigger for poverty, because families incur considerable additional and ongoing expenses as they care for their child or, in many cases, children, with it costing as much as three times more to bring up a disabled child than a child without disability. As a direct consequence, parents with disabled children are more dependent on accessing child care provision to support family well-being and to manage an often extremely tough combination of caring and work. To complicate matters further, disabled children are also more dependent on organised activities that fall within the child care registration system to stay active, make friends and participate in activities outside school.

Adding to the burden imposed by the higher everyday costs incurred is the fact that less quality child care provision is available for parents of disabled children to access. Only two in five parent carers believe there are child care providers in their local area that can cater for their child’s disability, while only 35% feel that providers are available at times that fit around daily commitments. We have had an example locally in Stockton-on-Tees, where the parents of one child are absolutely distraught at the decision of the local hospital foundation trust to close the nursery at North Tees hospital, where they believe provision is of high quality and specialist enough to cope with their child’s special needs.

This is not the case at North Tees, but generally speaking, where suitable child care for disabled children is available, it is often significantly more expensive than care for non-disabled children, which can render such options unattainable for many parent carers. That does not help parents of disabled children to return to and access work.

I was pleased to see the Minister acknowledge the additional child care costs that such families will need to meet, and to hear her commitment to exploring the possibility of going further to support them. I hope the written and oral evidence presented to the Committee will convince her that she needs to go further. I look forward to hearing her expand on the theory outlined in her letter.

As the Committee heard when taking oral evidence, a recent parliamentary inquiry found that 38% of parents with disabled children paid between £11 and £20 an hour for child care, while 5% paid much more than £20 an hour. That is obviously very high, particularly when compared with the national average of £3.50 to £4.50.  As a result, 72% of such families were forced to cut back on, or give up, work. That not only risks forcing parent carers out of the labour market, but leaves working parents to pay what amounts to a significant income penalty due to their child’s disability. There cannot possibly be any fairness in that.

It would therefore make eminently good sense to expand the definition of qualifying child care to include that which supports carer well-being or educational and social activities for disabled children. As a feasible alternative, the parents of children with disabilities could simply be exempted from the requirements in clause 2. That would, effectively, allow them to qualify for child care under the regulations, because they would not be subject to the specific requirement that the cost of child care was incurred for work purposes only.

I hope the Minister will consider those potential courses of action when exploring the possible additional support that can be provided to parents of disabled children. She has gone some way, but I hope she will go the extra distance and make the difference that is needed.