Increasing the number of childminders will help ease the cost of childcare and allow working parents to get their children looked after during the school holidays, the Children’s Minister has told i.
Claire Coutinho insisted that the childcare reforms announced in the Budget this week would prove to be a “really, really big moment” which would particularly help mothers who want to return to the workforce.
She hit back at warnings that the scheme would not come with the funding needed to transform the UK’s childcare regime – and at the accusation made by Conservative MPs that the Government was discriminating against stay-at-home mothers.
Ms Coutinho, a close ally of Rishi Sunak, who worked for him in the Treasury before becoming the MP for East Surrey in 2019, has been a minister since September last year and will be in charge of implementing the reforms to childcare unveiled by Jeremy Hunt on Wednesday in his Budget .
She is adamant that the additional money pledged by the Chancellor – more than £5bn a year by 2028 – is enough to meet the costs of the new policies: free care for children under three whose parents go out to work, additional funding for providers so they do not make a loss on each place, and “wraparound” care from 8am to 6pm for school pupils.
“The independent IFS has said the money we’ve put forward looks to be enough,” the minister said in an interview with i. “So we are going to work hard to get this right, but overall this is a really positive announcement, it is genuinely going to be I think transformational for families.”
Ms Coutinho acknowledged that the current childcare workforce is not yet big enough to match the increased demand expected once the higher subsidies kick in over the course of the next two years. She suggested that childminders, who look after children in their home rather than in a day care centre, would be essential in growing the work force, pointing to a new “start-up grant” of £600 for people who begin working as a childminder – or double that for those who register with an agency, allowing parents to find them more easily.
She said: “I was personally really delighted that childminders were mentioned in the Budget. I’ve gone to shadow lots of childminders who are absolutely brilliant, who get just as good outcomes as other early-years settings and do tremendous things. So I think part of it is being valued, part of it is looking at some of those incentives. So for childminders we have introduced a grant, £600 if you are registering with Ofsted and £1,200 if you are registering with a CMA, and part of it is looking at different barriers to get over your qualifications, things like that.”
Free childcare will still be available for just 38 weeks a year, forcing parents to pay during the school holidays – but Ms Coutinho insisted the reforms would help year-round by lowering the overall expense, and said expanding the workforce would also bring down costs. She said: “I think childminders, making sure we can attract more childminders, is another group of providers who have that flexibility which I think is really helpful for parents.”
Some Tory MPs have accused the Government of putting too much focus on working parents, with many of the subsidies on offer not being available to those who are not working. Former Cabinet minister George Eustice said in the House of Commons on Thursday.
He said: “The truth is that many mothers – many parents – return to work because they cannot afford not to, because there is a relentless cultural pressure that suggests that they must, and because they have concerns about losing their footing on the career ladder.”
Ms Coutinho responded: “This is about parental choice. The majority of households now are dual earner households, and this is about making sure that they have what the need in their lives so that they can balance that work life and that family life which we know is so important people.”
And she defended another controversial aspect of the plans, the earnings cliff-edge which means some parents with a salary of just under £100,000 will end up significantly worse off if their pay increases because they will no longer be eligible for free childcare. The minister said: “I think it is right that the majority of the new entitlements will be focused on parents who are balancing the demands of work and the family finances.”
But she appeared to admit that plans for wraparound care in schools are still a work in progress, with less than £300m committed to helping schools access the staffing and facilities they would need to start early and stay open late. “This is one of the areas that we have less evidence on,” Ms Coutinho said.
Overall, she insisted, the Budget would help the Conservatives gain ground among young people who now overwhelmingly support Labour.
Ms Coutinho – at 38, one of the few millennial ministers – told i: “I think this Budget was about growth and about supporting families, which are two really important things for young people across the country. If you can look at everything that we have achieved over the last few weeks, I’m feeling very positive about the party.”