How Labour plans to exploit coalition divisions over childcare ratios

The party will table a Commons vote to enshrine the current ratios in law after confusion over the government's position.

Despite Nick Clegg declaring last week that plans for new childcare ratios were "dead in the water", the government has still refused to confirm that this is the case, merely stating that it will make its position clear "shortly". 

The reason for the confusion is that the Tories weren't expecting Clegg's intervention. While resigned to losing the reforms, they hoped to make a managed retreat. But the Deputy PM ended any hope of that when he said: "There is no real evidence that increasing ratios will reduce the cost of childcare for families. The argument that this will help families with their weekly childcare bill simply does not stack up. I cannot ask parents to accept such a controversial change with no real guarantee it will save them money - in fact it could cost them more."

Eyeing a political opportunity, Labour has announced that it will table a Commons vote today enshrining the current ratios in law. As in the case of the recent motion on a mansion tax, the aim is to highlight the coalition's frayed unity, while challenging Clegg to put his vote where his mouth is.

The Commons will debate the remaining stages of the Children and Families Bill today and Labour has tabled New Clauses 6 and 7, which would protect the current ratios by transferring them from statutory guidance to primary legislation. Children's minister Liz Truss has proposed changing the ratios from 1:3 to 1:4 for children under one and one-year-olds and from 1:4 to 1:6 for two-year-olds.

Shadow children and families minister Sharon Hodgson said: "Ministers have no credible plan to solve Cameron’s childcare crisis. The one plan they did have would have put quality and safety at risk, and there was no evidence it would have made childcare cheaper.

"We want to ensure that David Cameron and Michael Gove are prevented from making these potentially damaging changes, which they haven’t ruled out in spite of last week’s announcement from the Deputy Prime Minister.

"If Nick Clegg is serious about blocking Liz Truss’s reforms, he should lead his MPs in joining Labour in voting for measures to protect child safety. We need action not warm words."

While there's little chance of Clegg rising to Labour's bait, this is another example of how the party is fighting smart as the coalition begins to unravel. 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg visit the Wandsworth Day Nursery in London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear