The coalition still isn't rising to the challenge on affordable childcare

The changes announced today by Liz Truss are unlikely to significantly reduce costs, boost quality or widen access to early years provision.

You might have missed it, but today Liz Truss published the latest instalment in the government’s early years reform plans. More Affordable Childcare is the culmination of the government’s commission on childcare. The looming summer holidays might be a delight for kids, but many working parents will be put under huge pressure by the childcare costs that go with it. The need to bring down the price is urgent.

This year, for the first time, the average cost of holiday childcare per child per week has now topped the hundred pound mark. Childcare inflation marches on, far above salary increases, squeezing family budgets. With the average couple spending over a quarter of their net income on care, England is one of the most expensive countries for parents needing childcare.

The government hasn't gone far enough to meet the challenge. Today’s publication, following a year long commission on the early years, doesn’t really provide any new approaches to reform. Most of the changes announced are unlikely to substantially reduce costs, boost quality or widen access to early years provision.

The best news from today’s publication is extending the free entitlement for 2 year olds from the most deprived 20 to 40 per cent. This is good news, but old news – restating what was already pledged by the government. Nevertheless, this is an important step forwards, and should have a positive impact for families. Another good measure is increasing funding for out-of-hours care in schools clubs. But this, in essence, is bringing back a weakened version of Labour’s Extended Schools funding, which was previously scrapped by the coalition.

The other announcements tinker at the margins. Cutting red tape is unlikely to lead to parents seeing real savings in their childcare bills. And new IPPR research shows that introducing childminder agencies could lead to costs actually increasing for parents (as well as potentially undermining quality).

Another bad move is leaving Ofsted as the sole arbiter of quality, and giving settings the automatic right to deliver the free entitlement if they receive a 'good' or 'outstanding' score. The Daycare Trust recently crunched the numbers and demonstrated that Ofsted isn’t always a reliable judge of quality. Particularly in the case of the under-3s, Ofsted scores failed to reflect which settings were best for children’s development. While high quality childcare is good for children, low quality can actually be detrimental.

There needs to be some new, bold thinking. There’s agreement that getting high quality early years care is important and yields dividends for children, parents and society. But both More Great Childcare and More Affordable Childcare fail to rise to the scale of the challenge.

On cost, the government should look seriously at supply-side funding. There are warnings from other countries, that investing in demand-side funding can lead to spiralling inflation and a system that costs more for everyone.

On quality, the government needs to go further. Our polling, and public responses to reform proposals, show there’s real appetite in the sector for driving up quality and status. We believe there should be a minimum requirement of having or working towards a relevant level 3 qualifications for all professionals delivering the Early Years Foundation Stage. The government should also bring back the successful Graduate Leader Fund to keep driving highly qualified staff. More graduates means more centres are able to look after more three and four year olds at any one time. This could cut costs for parents, without being detrimental to children’s development.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg sit together as they visit the Wandsworth Day Nursery in London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.