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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser