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As part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' (DEFRA) Rural Life Opportunities Brief, it has been announced that improving childcare provision in rural areas is now the responsibility of Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey.
Since the general election last year Ms Coffey has been serving as Deputy Leader of the House of Commons and was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the DEFRA on 17 July 2016.
Commenting on her new appointment, Ms Coffey said: "I am thrilled to have been appointed a Minister at the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs. With so many environmental jewels along our coast co-existing with significant industry including marine, nuclear and agriculture, as well as the challenges of erosion and flooding at one extreme and water shortages for farming at the other, I have had a great apprenticeship already.
"One of my main challenges will be managing expectations locally as I am minister for the whole country, not just for the Suffolk Coast. I am looking forward to working with Andrea Leadsom, George Eustice and Lord Gardiner in this exciting department which touches everyone across our great country. Rest assured though, I will still be batting for Suffolk and working hard on behalf of constituents on local issues."
Previously the deputy leader of the House of Commons serving under Chris Grayling, Ms Coffey served on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee until she was appointed parliamentary private secretary to Michael Fallon, minister for business and energy.
The department confirmed that Ms Coffey's responsibilities as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State include floods, water and waterways; air quality; waste management; natural environment, including biodiversity, the marine environment, and international wildlife trafficking; and rural life opportunities, covering rural childcare, education and skills, and health.
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) said: "The specific inclusion of childcare in a DEFRA minister’s brief is a new departure for Government. It’s welcome that rural childcare will be prioritised in this way under the rural life chances strand of Thérèse Coffey’s brief and we look forward to working with the minister.
"Childcare is of national strategic importance and it’s vital we have strong leadership from the Department for Education with an announcement on ministerial responsibilities urgently awaited by the early years sector. National roll out of 30 hours’ free childcare is only just over a year away now and clarity over the funding and delivery arrangements is critical to success of the scheme."
The Pre-school Learning Alliance has written to the Department for Education also expressing its concerns about the ongoing delay in the appointment of a minister with responsibility for childcare and early years.
A Government reshuffle, prompted by the appointment of Theresa May as Prime Minister, took place on 14 July, and resulted in Justine Greening being named as Education Secretary. Ministerial duties within the Department for Education have still to be confirmed, meaning that the early years sector have been without a minister for nearly a month.
Writing to the DfE ministerial team, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Alliance, said: "We of course recognise that allocation of ministerial responsibilities is not a process that should be rushed. However, the fact that, nearly a month after the Government reshuffle, the early years sector is still without a Governmental representative is unacceptable.
"I don’t have to tell you what a crucial time this is for the sector. There is just over a year to go until the scheduled implementation of the 30-hour free entitlement offer, less than eight months to go until the promised implementation of a completely new funding system, and less than a month until the start of the pilots. It remains unclear, however, how Government expects any progress on the roll-out of this scheme to be made without a dedicated minister."
He also voiced concerns about the viability of the 30-hour offer, in light of the recently announced delay to the introduction of the schools funding formula, stating: "As you will no doubt be aware, the Alliance is greatly concerned about the viability of the 30-hour offer. Much of the success of the scheme relies on ensuring that the scheme is adequately funded – and yet, despite being assured that new higher early years funding rates would be in place by April 2017, the promised consultation into a national early years funding formula hasn’t even been published.
"Given that the introduction of the new schools funding formula – for which a consultation was published in March – has been delayed to, as put by the education secretary, “allow time for … the details of that formula to be debated”, it seems only logical that the same will have to happen for the early years. This puts the planned 2017 introduction of the 30-hour offer in jeopardy."