Labour plans to force Commons vote on childcare ratios

The party seeks to set the coalition parties against each other after Clegg warns that relaxing ratios could damage the quality of childcare.

Labour has moved quickly to exploit the coalition split over childcare ratios by announcing plans to trigger a Commons vote on the issue. The party plans to table an amendment to the Children and Families Bill, which will move to Report Stage later this month. 

Earlier today, in response to an urgent question from Labour, childcare minister Liz Truss said that the government was considering responses to its consultation exercise and would "make further announcements in due course" after Nick Clegg warned that relaxing child-to-staff ratios could damage the quality of childcare and fail to achieve savings. On his phone-in show on LBC this morning, Clegg said: "It is not a great ideological thing, it is about getting it right for parents up and down the country. When the last government changed the so-called ratios for three-and four-year-olds, it had almost no effect in reducing the costs for parents whatsoever, so you do need to be led by the evidence and that is what I will continue to be in the debate."

Truss had proposed increasing the number of under-ones each adult can look after from three to four and the number of two-year-olds from four to six. This morning, Clegg sardonically remarked to LBC host Nick Ferrari,  "I would challenge you to spend a morning look after six two-year-olds". 

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said: 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are creating chaos and confusion on childcare.

Nobody supports the plans to weaken childcare standards. Expert academics have told the Government that these changes would risk child safety and will not reduce costs to parents.

And it’s not just the experts of course. As any parent will tell you, young children are demanding and they need lots of attention, so while a childminder can have the very best qualifications, they still only have one pair of hands.

Labour have been campaigning on this issue for months, warning that the changes would risk the quality of care and even child safety.

David Cameron is presiding over a crisis in childcare. Tax credits have been cut by £1560 and there are 401 fewer Sure Start centres than in 2010. The Government is doing nothing to help helping hard working families with the cost of childcare.

The question now is how the Lib Dems will respond if and when a Commons vote is triggered. The last time Labour tried to use this tactic to divide the coalition, in the case of a mansion tax, Cameron and Clegg responded by tabling their own amendment acknowledging the differences between their parties on the issue, while noting their shared support for the increase in the personal allowance. But judging by Clegg's remarks this morning, they may find it harder to find common ground on childcare. 

Childcare minister Liz Truss said the government would "make further announcements in due course" on childcare ratios.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.