Controversial though her proposals to relax quotas for childminders and nursery staff may be, no-one disagrees with Liz Truss’ central mission to reduce the cost of childcare. The opposition know affordable childcare will form an important part of their 2015 offer, and have also been visiting countries such as Denmark to pick up some tips.
It’s also worth noting that Truss is only relaxing quotas in so far as childcare providers can take on one or two more children per staff member: a nursery worker will be allowed to look after four babies instead of three, and six under-fives rather than four. Similarly, a childminder will be able to look after two babies rather than one, and four under-fives, rather than three. Clearly each child brings a whole host of extra work, and Truss’ response to claims this will actually decrease standards is that childcare professionals will be better trained, better paid and better able to offer a higher standard of care, as in other European countries.
But where the real problem lies with this policy is that it was supposed to be part of the Mid-Term Review’s display of the two parties working well together. As has already been well-reported, the paint started to peel pretty early on this, with the childcare announcement – a personal priority for the Prime Minister – was delayed after squabbles in the Quad. Today’s announcement goes ahead without the tax break that was so heavily briefed ahead of the Mid-Term review. Initially there were reports that the Lib Dems had put their foot down on this because they didn’t want to back an initiative that supported middle-income families above those on low incomes. Truss said today:
‘I think it is the big thing, I think it’s so incredibly important, it hasn’t fizzled out. It is coming, it may be slightly longer in the gestation than would be ideal, but it is coming… the Coalition are agreed, we’re agreed, the Liberal Democrats are agreed. We all want to help working families.’
The minister seems confident that the Tories will get their way on this. But the question for the mid-term review, which was all about communicating a united coalition, was why so much was briefed before it was actually agreed? There was sufficient delay between the real mid-term point of the Coalition and the Downing Street mid-term launch at the start of January to hammer out differences. The announcement was briefed to journalists ahead of the mid-term review launch. But just days later it was delayed after a meeting of the Quad that week failed to reach an agreement.
There are inevitably going to be disagreements in a coalition: I’ve argued before that it’s healthy for parties to air their different positions before a policy is agreed. But the problem here is that a policy was detailed in pre-launch briefings, then delayed, and is now being partially announced, with more to come.
That’s not a show of Coalition unity, clearly, but it’s also not a show of the coalition parties hammering out their differences in a mature way as the policy had already in effect been announced before all parties had signed off on it. The mid-term review was supposed to move the two parties on from the summer squabbles over Lords reform. But poor planning and communications have made that far more difficult than it should have been.