Baroness King of Bow (Lab): My Lords, I thought I would start with a reflection on what a strange breed working mothers are. All you really need to know about us is that we never sleep and continually stress over childcare. Between 1 am last night, when I gave the baby his last feed and started jotting down a few notes for this speech, and 5 am this morning, when my husband got up to feed him, I was woken six times. I have four children so I have no one else to blame but myself. It is my bed and I made it; I just wish I could lie in it, but that is a problem entirely of my own making.

What is not a problem of my own making is that when I drag myself out of said bed and complete several school runs, as I did this morning, and when I finally arrive at my two year-old’s nursery, I find that I must pay £1,100 per month if I want her to go full-time, five days a week. Despite the fact that I am, by definition, extraordinarily privileged because—look—I am standing in this gilded Chamber as a Member of Britain’s most prestigious LinkedIn group, the fact remains that I cannot afford £1,100 a month. So my daughter does not go full time; she goes half time—two and a half days a week. For that I pay £660 a month.

When I previously had two pre-school children, the cost for me to place them in the local children’s centre was £880 per child, or £1,760 per month. That is why, as my noble friend Lady Prosser said, once you have two pre-school kids it is simply impossible for most people to afford that childcare. At the time I had what most people would consider to be a really good job. I was senior policy adviser to the Prime Minister but still I could not afford to spend £1,760 a month on childcare. So I left Downing Street and got a job where I could afford more childcare. So what? Who cares? My point is this: if you are a woman working in the Prime Minister’s Office and your employment choices are governed by the lack of affordable childcare, then you know that women with fewer resources and fewer networks have no chance at all of being able to pay for childcare out of their salary. They are forced to stay at home or make arrangements for their children that put those children at risk and do not take care of them.

Many others can hold down a job only if they have a sympathetic boss. Working mothers and working parents, therefore, often become unfairly beholden to the individual views of their boss. I was in a situation—a lot of us have been—in which I had a sympathetic boss. My boss in Downing Street was, after all, the first Chancellor and then Prime Minister to recognise the importance of massively increasing funding for childcare. He recognised that it was a national investment, as important in terms of infrastructure—certainly to women—as, say, transport.

Notwithstanding that, when I arrived at the local childcare centre that I mentioned and found a sign on the gate saying, “Closed due to staff sickness”, I felt sick in my stomach because I was due to have my first one-to-one briefing with the Prime Minister on my policy area. It was Sod’s law. I arrived in Downing Street with a 16 month-old on my hip and was shown in to see Gordon Brown, who had a face like thunder. To be fair, he often has a face like thunder, so I was not entirely sure if it was because I had a baby on my hip. However, I knew that I would not be pleased if a member of my staff turned up with a baby on their hip for a meeting. The baby started to cry, I was jiggling him and when I turned back, Gordon had disappeared. I thought, “Oh my God! He’s just walked out and is going to sack me. He is outraged and I do not really blame him that much”. Then his head popped out from the side of his desk. He was on his hands and knees and he said, “Maybe your son will like this little train set. My sons play with it”. He pushed it round and round for 10 minutes, and then said, “I think he’s settled now; we can get down to business”.

The point is that even though he was a sympathetic boss, let me get away with bringing the baby into the office, presided over a sea change in funding for childcare, and created and funded Sure Start, the fact is that now we see the gains falling back. Too often we see Sure Start being used as a political football or, indeed, not being used at all. When Labour was in power, Michael Gove said, “The Tories may well be wary of Sure Start because they believe it is the nationalisation of childcare”. If childcare is affordable and of high quality, I frankly do not mind who provides it, whether it is the voluntary sector, the private sector or the state. In reality, it is only the Government who can ensure that affordable, quality childcare is available to all children who need it. I thought that the point made by my noble friend Lady Prosser about the role that trade unions have played in providing childcare was important. I am reminded of the school run that I do each morning. Every day I pass a small blue plaque at the bottom of my street saying that this is where Sylvia Pankhurst set up the first crèche for working women—those otherwise known as the matchstick girls. Of course, times have changed since then, but not enough. Although we have poured in that money—and I recognise some of the very important points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin—we need to be smarter about how we invest it. We need to do as well as or better than our European competitors. However, I imagine that as well as spending the money more smartly, if we are to deal with all those children—and parents—who need childcare we are also going to have to bite the bullet and invest more.

This is where we come to the nub of this debate. What is the case for increasing access to affordable childcare? We have the economic case and we know that it is worth £15 billion to £23 billion per annum to the Exchequer, but what is the social case? In my few remaining minutes, I want to talk about how childcare impacts on tackling inequality and on improving social mobility, and how it can also improve parenting across social classes. I hope that we will also take note of the early intervention debate and how we can improve outcomes.

Let us remember that childcare is first and foremost about care of the child, and the best way to take care of children who would otherwise be at risk is to invest in their early years. I want to quote briefly from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, which has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. It says that,

“by age 3, there are already large gaps in cognitive and other areas of development between children with high-income or well educated parents and those with low-income or less well educated parents. These gaps get harder and more expensive to tackle as children get older”.

The point is that if we cannot come to a political consensus in this country that we need to invest in this area then we will just spend more and more of our money at the other end of the system in crisis, and that is not an intelligent way for us to spend our money. The OECD has stated that greater spend and higher enrolment in early education is correlated with increased social mobility. Universal, affordable and high-quality childcare helps in two ways. First, it lifts maternal employment rates and, secondly, it improves child development for the most disadvantaged children. I hope that we will note the report of the Early Action Task Force, entitled The Deciding Time—Prevent Today, or Pay Tomorrow, which reinforces those points.

In summary, investment in early years education and childcare is possibly the single most effective policy that government can implement. That is why I am proud of Labour’s vision on this issue, and I am glad to hear that we may have cross-party consensus here. However, over the long term what we need is more radical than what we have heard mentioned. Over the long term, we need free universal pre-school childcare. As Labour’s shadow Minister for Childcare, Lucy Powell MP, has stated, there is a clear economic argument for it: it will pay for itself over time.

Therefore, my only question for the Minister is a big, overarching one: does she agree with Labour—and, by the sound of it, the Liberal Democrats—that in the long term we must deliver free universal pre-school childcare? I hope that she does. I would certainly get a bit more sleep at night if she were able to consider that.