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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle