Waiting for the childcare revolution
The muddle and chaos on childcare policy just get worse.
On Monday the children and families bill had its second reading. Like the curate’s egg, the bill is good in parts, with noble aims on parental contact, adoption and warm words on special educational needs.
But on childcare it does too little, and that little is muddled and chaotic.
It abolishes in one stroke the legal duty on councils to assess childcare provision and need locally.
This is another example of a ‘small state is good’ ideology, this time on a local level, and with working parents as the victims. It does not square with the government’s sensible desire to encourage people into work.
But then why should we be surprised at the hasty, muddled and ineffectual approach to changing childcare? Last summer then backbench MP Liz Truss outlined her ‘vision’ for childcare. This lightweight pamphlet was hopelessly confused. Sold as a serious attempt to look at reducing the cost of childcare, it created such an uproar that I was stopped in the street by worried local parents. And 40 childminders met me to voice their fears about a return to the bad old days of unregulated childminders.
I was concerned that Truss was an outrider for government but after the uproar from parents and childcarers on her proposals to increase the number of children that an adult could look after from four to six, I relaxed just a bit. After all, a government so desperate to woo school gate mums would surely listen?
But, no. David Cameron was so impressed that he promoted Truss to be children’s minister, responsible for delivering these a ‘pile them high, teach them cheap’ policies for under-fives.
And now this bill will introduce agencies which will become intermediaries between parents and childminders.
Let’s be clear – a network of support, professional development and possibly even a local registered offshoot of Ofsted is something that might work.
But look at the agencies that exist: nanny agencies and agencies which employ carers for older people at home. The former charge a hefty fee and can be very variable in quality. As for care in the home – direct personal experience gives me no confidence whatsoever that good quality childcare will beat a dash to slash the costs.
But what’s to stop agencies offering variations – school pick-up care, night-shift care and charging low rates for unqualified strangers looking after our children, childcare rather than early years education?
Before Christmas Truss trailed radical policies to reduce childcare costs with hints of a £1,000-a-year tax break for working parents. But many parents already receive vouchers of around this value, so will the promised tax break be as well as, or instead of, these? And higher-rate taxpayers already have to earn an extra £4,000 gross to replace child benefit for three children.
But whatever she is promising there is still no sign of it. The Treasury is clearly nervous. This dither reflects the comments made by former children’s minister Tim Loughton last month that the children and families agenda was being ‘downgraded’ by Michael Gove and was a ‘declining priority’ for the government.
Having policy ideas is the easy bit, delivering them and stitching together the deal across government takes a lot of work. In my constituency and up and down the country parents are still struggling and the government is merely tinkering with the existing system.
We need a vision of what childcare should look like over the next decade. And then we need a government that is committed to working towards a system of universal childcare to support parents back into work. That vision is not coming from this government – Labour must build on its previous record but be more radical. The childcare revolution is long overdue.
Meg Hillier is MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch. She tweets @Meg_HillierMP
childcare, coalition government, David Cameron, Labour, Liz Truss, Michael Gove, universal childcare