After Labour's offer, the political battle on childcare has heated up

The party needs to show how new 'guarantees' will be delivered. If not, the Tories, with their offer of more money in parents’ pockets, could win the all-important female vote.

Earlier this week, Labour retook the initiative on childcare with the announcement of a major extension in free care for three-and-four-year-olds. Having been the party that established childcare as a new frontier of the welfare state when in government, Labour’s lack of a clear policy direction over the last year had left room for the coalition to creep in with its proposals. A YouGov poll for the Resolution Foundation conducted before the announcement revealed that even Labour supporters felt that the Lib Dems had better ideas on childcare than their own party. But Labour has come back with force. Will its ideas on childcare help it reclaim the all important women’s vote – a major battle ground at the next election? And will the Tories try to reclaim the initiative next week in Manchester?

Children aged three and four are currently entitled to 15 hours of free early education and care. Labour's plan would extend that free entitlement by a further 10 hours for families with working parents. One of the central complaints about the existing free entitlement is that it is just too short to help second earners – usually mothers - to work part-time. This is because when it was introduced it was designed around child development not the labour market. But with living standards now the dominant issue for all political parties, the extension to 25 hours is intended to make a part-time job possible.

Labour also set out a bold offer for parents of primary age children – a guarantee of childcare before and after school. While childcare for under-fives is more expensive, parents of older children struggle with the mismatch between the school day and the working day. Unless childcare can be easily wrapped around the school day, keeping a job can be a challenge.

Despite a decade of investment by government, the cost of childcare is still a major issue for families. A poll of 1,000 users of the parents’ website Mumsnet for the Resolution Foundation in advance of Labour conference found that nearly half of all respondents said that they found it more difficult to manage the costs of childcare in the past year compared to only one in 10 who thought the situation had improved. In fact, those who can are increasingly relying on grandparents or other types of informal care to reduce their childcare bill.

More free hours of childcare, as Labour has proposed, will definitely help to make work pay, particularly for lower-earning women for whom the costs of childcare eat up a large chunk of every extra pound they earn. The extension of the free entitlement and the guarantee for older children are also clearly distinct from the coalition’s current proposal announced at this year’s budget to create a new childcare voucher for better-off parents. The coalition has chosen to put more money in parents’ pockets; Labour to ensure more free provision is available.

With competing proposals in place, there is a lot to play for politically. When asked which of the parties has the best ideas on childcare, four in ten Mumsnet survey respondents said "none of them" and almost as many (38 per cent) answered "don’t know". Only 11 per cent named Labour and four per cent both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as having the best ideas on childcare.

If Labour can deliver on its announcements and communicate them to parents, it has a clear opportunity to win over the undecided majority. Here the concept of a 'guarantee' is a useful approach. But it will only work in Labour’s favour if parents can get the childcare to which they are entitled. This is where the risk lies for Labour. There are long-standing problems with access to the existing 15 hours entitlement because it is underfunded. Labour needs to ensure that any new entitlements and 'guarantees' can be delivered. If not, the Tories, with their offer of more money in parents’ pockets could grab the all-important female vote. 

Chancellor George Osborne during a visit to a nursery in Hammersmith on August 5, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Vidhya Alakeson is deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.