This week saw the government unveil part of its much-heralded plan to help families meet the costs of childcare. But after weeks of briefing what was announced by Liz Truss yesterday is at best confused and at worst dangerous. Her plans have been widely denounced by parents, the professionals and even her own childcare advisor, Professor Helen Penn, who described the plans to loosen ratios of staff to children as “grotesque”.
First, the government must accept that the current childcare crisis facing many families is of their making. Over the last year or so the number of childcare places has reduced dramatically, with over 400 Sure Start Centres closing and many others paring back daycare provision. In addition, the squeeze on early year’s budgets has seen many school nursery places reduce. The full effects of the cuts in places is not yet clear, however, average costs have already risen nearly 4% in the last year.
On top of this, working parents have seen their real incomes and financial support slashed. Tax credits for many have disappeared altogether; for others they have been cut. Child Benefit, maternity pay and other support is being cut too.
So as returning mothers weigh up the pro’s and con’s of going back to work, the balance of the decision is becoming harder and harder.
The proposals announced by Liz Truss, the Early Years Minister, yesterday do nothing to address this problem.
For weeks now, she has trailed her plans to relax ratios of nursery staff and childminders with children as a major “deregulation” which she claims will reduce costs. Yet, in a confused and muddled policy, she simultaneously proposes that nursery staff should be more highly paid and be better qualified. So it is unlikely to lead to any reduction in cost to the parents.
What’s worse, though, is that the relaxation in ratios is likely to lead to poorer quality and possibly dangerous safeguarding issues, as single carers try to juggle four under 2’s or six over 2’s. This change is not what parents or the sector wants.
Apparently the government is to separately announce a “new package” of support for parents to meet the costs of childcare (but are struggling to agree the details within the coalition). What we know from reports is they are considering a tax break for working mums of £2k a year. However, this is unlikely to leave many parents, other than higher rate tax payers, better off as the childcare voucher scheme it would replace is more generous for most families, and/or it won’t make up for lost tax credits.
What is actually needed to resolve the childcare crisis is far more radical thinking. This should be underpinned by making a strong case, as the IPPR and Resolution Foundation have begun doing, that enabling mums (and it is still mums) to return to work after having a child has huge economic benefits. And therefore looking at radical solutions on the supply-side of childcare as well as the demand-side will have a net benefit to the tax payer as the returning mum maintains her earning power, rather than taking time out and returning to a lower paid, often part-time job some time later.
Lucy Powell is the Labour MP for Manchester Central