Cameron’s childcare crunch is hitting family finances and the economy

Parents are struggling to cope with a triple whammy of rising nursery costs, plummeting childcare places and cuts to support. Labour is offering an alternative.

As a working mum myself, I know the impact of the cost of childcare on family budgets. New figures by the Labour Party released today underline the childcare crunch facing families. Already hit by a cost of living crisis of David Cameron’s making, mums and dads are struggling to cope with a triple whammy of rising nursery costs, plummeting childcare places and cuts to support through tax credits.

Under this government, parents have been hit by a nursery price hike of 30% since 2010 – five times faster than pay. The average bill for a part-time nursery place has rocketed to £107 per week, with parents working part-time on average wages having to work from Monday until Thursday before they pay their weekly childcare costs.

A crisis in childcare places is fuelling this rise in prices under Cameron and Clegg. Figures from Ofsted show that there are 35,000 fewer places since 2009. Many childcare providers are small businesses buffeted by the poor economic situation. David Cameron’s broken promises to back Sure Start meant that in many areas this vital service for children and families is withering away. There are 578 fewer children’s centres since May 2010, the equivalent of the loss of three centres a week.

The government are not just failing families on the childcare crunch; they’re failing the economy too. Fewer women with children in the UK work than in many of our leading competitor countries and a recent survey by Asda Mumdex found that 70% of stay at home mums said they would be worse off in the current climate if they worked because of the cost of childcare. The childcare crunch is trapping women at home who want to work and stifling their economic potential.

Labour is on the side of working parents. Today, Ed Miliband has reiterated our pledge to introduce a legal guarantee of access to wraparound care from 8am to 6pm at primary schools. By 2010, 99% of schools were providing access to before and after school childcare but David Cameron abandoned Labour’s extended schools programme and many parents face a logistical nightmare.

We will also extend free childcare for three and four year olds from 15 to 25 hours per week for working parents. The value of this extra childcare support is over £1,500 per child per year. The next Labour government will increase the bank levy rate to raise an extra £800m in order to meet the cost of this extra support for families.

The government has done nothing in this Parliament to help families with childcare costs. Labour’s bold new measures are a sign of intent. They will tackle the childcare crunch and make a difference for mums and dads.

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

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education. 

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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.