Two ministers appeared in the Commons today to explain two different reforms. One is at the very start of its legislative life, appearing in yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, while the other one appears to be doddering about on its last legs after months of fanfare.
Liz Truss found herself summoned to the despatch box to explain her plans to relax childcare ratios in order to drive costs down after it emerged Nick Clegg wanted to block them. This isn’t a great surprise: the reform has excited strong opposition from the sector and parents. But what is strange is that the government never really made a great deal of effort to be aggressive about the idea in the first place. Relaxing ratios may have its merit, but the immediate reaction of any parent would be that the plan could put their precious child at risk from a distracted childminder. It is one of those proposals that might make perfect sense in Whitehall but which needs a great deal of groundwork before it can be sold to voters. There was perhaps an assumption that mothers have the same keen deregulatory instinct as a Tory MP who likes writing pamphlets.
There wasn’t this groundwork, which made it easy for opponents to brand it as a ‘pile ’em high’ ‘babyfarming‘ scheme. I understand that the plan had initially been for the launch of the policy to take place on an online parenting forum, which those organising it were warned would turn into a flame-grilling of the minister. It is just as well that this was abandoned as the policy would have bombed straight away. Similarly, there has been little attempt to explain the virtue – and safety – of the relaxed ratios themselves beyond their effect on costs. This has been a source of frustration for some Tory MPs, who know how important a good childcare offer is to their party’s chances in 2015, particularly with a falling female vote.
Childcare reform was one of the key elements of the Mid-Term Review that didn’t do quite such a good job of showing how well the Coalition is working as everyone had hoped. That it appears dead in the water says a lot about the way the two parties are really working together, as really the Lib Dems appear to be able to pull the plug on something without too much effort.
Perhaps another ratios-style disaster for the Tories will be averted by the new Number 10 policy board. They are supposed to look at future policies and advise the Prime Minister on potential flashpoints. Childcare ratios would have been one such flashpoint.
Next up in the Commons was Chris Grayling, who gave his statement about his plans for rehabilitation of offenders. He has been making the case for his ‘rehabilitation revolution’ for months with countless speeches, interviews and op-eds, and today was just the next step in that. Grayling put in an impressive performance on this morning’s Today programme, pointing out that it was possible to offer more support without spending more money. He was helped in this by those he was supposed to be debating, who acknowledged that increased funding didn’t necessarily mean better outcomes for ex-offenders. His new policy was met with nit-picking rather than condemnation from Labour.
The difference between the receptions these two ideas have enjoyed underlines the importance of a communications operation that looks many months ahead at policies coming down the line and prepares the media, the opposition, and voters for it by making the arguments loud and clear. Whether it’s a more aggressive Number 10 comms strategy, or a policy board that speaks a bit of sense unto wonks, there needs to be more protection and planning for complex policies so they’re not left to fend for themselves.