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The Tories failed to make the case for relaxing childcare ratios: no wonder the policy bombed

9 May 2013

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.

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  • SimonToo

    Has it bombed ? I have not heard any actual case made for a reduction in ratios being a bad thing. Surely the cost issue is overwhelmingly important. If the cost is not reduced, childcare will remain a crippling expense for the less well off.

  • Teacher

    Having (many years ago) investigated the whole childcare world so that I could return to work as a teacher I quickly realised that numbers or ratios have little to do with the quality of the care. I eschewed nurseries as most seemed to be staffed by poorly skilled teenaged girls who looked as if they could have done with being nurtured and properly educated themselves. I couldn’t afford a nanny. So I used a childminder, a sensible, kindly woman who had brought up her own children successfully and who gave my kids a great start. She offered a worse child-adult ratio than the nurseries but was a much better choice in every other way: safety, emotional security, language development, number of activities undertaken in a day and so on. The children thrived so well that they were so far ahead by school age that we had to ‘go private’ for their primary education so they would not be held back.

    • Mr Creosote

      Many more such child minders would be allowed back into the sector, if only it were not so over-regulated.
      This message needs getting across to the mumsnet facists and the likes of Nick Clogg-up-the -system.

      • Teacher

        My own (wonderful) childminder, who knew far more than the local council ‘trainers’ about caring for children, was bullied and harried by the nonsensical, politically correct training she was forced to attend and eventually gave up childminding altogether.

        • Mr Creosote

          A tale that is all too familiar unfortunately…I have also had personal dealings with local authority “advisory teachers” and had to send staff on ridiculous training courses at huge cost ..only to find in the final analysis Ofsted were looking for something completely different – the perfect example of one arm of government not talking to the other!

  • Mr Creosote

    The childcare thing was all about bad presentation. Not enough was made of the fact that the new childcare ratios were VOLUNTARY. From September, nurseries and child minders could take up the new ratios, or not. Parents could choose to retain the gold plated expensive service, or not. This would have allowed some degree of flexibility and CHOICE into the market and would have allowed new entrants, especially child-minders, into the market place – increasing parental choice and potentially lowering costs through competition.
    In short, a market driven, Thatcherite solution to an intractable problem largely caused by 13 years of over-regulation and socio-economic dogma forced on the sector by Labour, on whose watch childcare costs doubled.

  • Daniel Maris

    Can you please stop using that ridiculous photo of Liz Truss? She looks nothing like that!

    • Tom Tom

      It’s the one she uses on her Website……..have you been dating a different one ?

  • Albert Cooper

    The Family has almost been destroyed by Socialist Policys and Militant Feminism.Today it is a nessesity for Mum & Dad to go out to work to make ends meet

  • Jupiter

    For thousands of years people looked after their own children but now they expect the government to do it for them. No wonder this country is going down the toilet.

    • Tom Tom

      No. The Government wants control of children to indoctrinate them from early years and socialise them into The State Family so middle class children lose any advantage of parental conversation and communication

  • Hexhamgeezer

    ‘the new Number 10 policy board. They are supposed to look at future policies and advise the Prime Minister on potential flashpoints’

    Isn’t that what Minister’s, PUSSs, and Civil Servants are there for?

    Anyway, anyone can see the flashpoint here. CMD’s big mate the little weasel clegg.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Yes, it’s becoming quite a little ritual. Government announces policy, Clegg throws toys out of pram and does bedtime tears act on TV.

  • Tory_High_Command

    What on earth has the child care ratio got to do with the Government? As long as it is published clearly by each child care establishment based on easily understood criteria, then it is up to parents to decide what sort of ratio of care they want to purchase.

    This is just another aspect of interfering, totalitarian social democracy in action. Thanks Clegg!

  • Hayekian2

    I work in social investment. We’ve looked at creating an affordable childcare business, whether as a social enterprise or for profit, and economics just don’t work outside the most affluent areas.

    Why? Because the mandated costs are so high that only highly-paid families can afford them. The result is that lower-paid people with children are trapped on benefits and shut out of the employment market. How is that in anyone’s interest?

    And where is the evidence that the ratios proposed by Liz Truss pose any threat to the safety and well-being of children? I’ve never seen any adduced to support the “two infants good, three infants bad” position apparently now adopted by Clegg etc. We have some of the highest childcare costs in the world because we have some of the tightest (for which read most expensive) regulations in the world; on the basis of what?

    There’s a simple solution to this: allow innovation and choice into the sector. No-one will be forced to leave their infant with (shock-horror) a child-minder who has two other charges; they can continue to use the Mumsnet-approved high-cost middle-class option. On the other hand, those for whom the decision to work is at best marginal and often counter-productive, will now have the choice.

    If looking after three infants or four children is “dangerous”, why isn’t Clegg arguing that those with more than two/three should have the “extras” taken away? As usual, his position is utterly facile!

    • Russell

      Perhaps the law needs to changing to remove children from homes where there are more than two children and only one mother!

      • Tom Tom

        The law exists…..Social Workers have the powers

  • lgrundy

    “the reform has excited strong opposition from…parents”.

    I’d imagine that those parents that have objected most strongly are those whose childcare is funded, in full or in part, by the taxpayer i.e. paid for with other people’s money.

    Any parent who had to pay these exorbitant fees themselves, out of their own net wages, would surely be more favourable to considering anything which would bring the cost down.

    • Fergus Pickering

      What you say is obviously true. If something is free then we expect the highest standards. If we have to pay then we cut our cloth….

    • Colonel Mustard

      From what I could see on the BBC most of the people objecting are the usual Labour-motivated suspects. They interviewed three mothers, two of whom were clearly foreign.

  • ScaryBiscuits

    Ah the old Cameroon canard that it’s all about communication, not the substance.
    Liz Truss was shot down because she is trying to do something vaguely Conservative and therefore gets no support from the leadership. Chris Grayling is trying to implement Labour’s agenda for them, so it’s no surprise that they and the LibDems gave it a relatively easy ride.

  • derekemery

    If there are significant savings to be made from lower staffing ratios why cannot this be translated into financial terms so that parents can judge the likely cost savings. It seems odd too that the proposed lower ratios as are what is normal practice in quite a few EU countries. How come it works for them but cannot possibly work for the UK? Are we more incompetent so need more staff??

    • Tom Tom

      There are requirements imposed by Blunkett that require childcare to provide educational attainment and use qualified teachers per 10 children. Just look at the Education Debate 2002

  • George_Arseborne

    Well there is nothing strange in this. This government motto is just one word FAILURE. Since May 2010 to date all policies not thought through. No doubt we are in this mess.

    • Colonel Mustard

      We are in this “mess” thanks to 13 years of having cultural marxist revolution shoved down our throats by New Labour. You can blame an incompetent fire brigade for not putting out a fire but you can’t blame them for starting it.

  • Ian Walker

    I expect the problem stems less from writing pamphlets and more from having a childcare experience nearer the Norland end of the spectrum than the babyfarm alternative.

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