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Last Updated: Monday, 28 November 2005, 19:32 GMT
Childcare 'will not put up costs'
Young children
Councils will have to work with private and voluntary providers
Local councils will be forced to ensure every parent in England has access to affordable, high quality childcare, the education secretary has said.

Ruth Kelly says the Childcare Bill will help parents "balance work and family life", but will not raise costs.

Theresa May, for the Tories, says she is concerned the bill will mean lessons from birth to five years old

The Lib Dems' Annette Brooke asked if there was sufficient funding to deliver the bill's goals.

'Landmark day'

The bill, which tells childcare providers to give a mixture of "integrated care and education from birth", was given a second reading by MPs without a vote.

Ms Kelly hailed it as a "landmark day for families and children" and rejected Tory claims that the plans could mean higher council tax bills.

What we see in this bill is the government giving local authorities another job to do without giving them the resources to do it
Theresa May

"There are no new unfunded costs in this bill," she said.

"The bill sets out a new duty on local authorities to take steps to provide sufficient childcare, integrating inspection regimes and setting targets for outcomes we want to achieve for children.

"Every local authority will have to take into account what parents say they need, particularly those on low incomes and with disabled children."

They will then have to work with providers in the voluntary, private and state sectors and do all they reasonably can to ensure there are sufficient places that match parents' needs, she said.

'Baby curriculum'

The bill will also introduce the "early years foundation stage" - a single phase of development for all young children during which activities appropriate to their age will be provided to support development.

Mrs May praised the aims of the bill, saying: "We recognise the very important role that childcare plays in Britain's future."

But she expressed concern that the plans would introduce the so-called baby national curriculum, for children from birth to age five.

"It is impossible for a government official or a minister to establish a framework for the development of babies," she said. "They develop at their own pace."

She said children should be allowed to "enjoy their childhood" instead of being forced into lessons.

Nursery closures?

But Children's Minister Beverley Hughes intervened to say that the framework would be play-based and would steer away from "distinct curriculum headings".

Mrs May said there was "real concern" in the industry that the measures would mean the closure of many nurseries.

She also pointed to the financial implications of placing a duty to provide proper childcare on local authorities.

They will be left "holding the baby" and could be forced to raise council tax bills, she said.

"Once again, what we see in this bill is the government giving local authorities another job to do without giving them the resources to do it," she said.

Ms Brooke welcomed the bill, but said: "In an ideal world there would be universal, affordable, quality childcare and 12 months parental leave would provide all parents with the option to stay at home for the first year and much more."

See how parents' groups have reacted

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