UK Politics

Minister's past views on cheaper childcare spark row

Generic picture of an adult and a child at a nursery

A row has broken out about plans intended to make childcare cheaper.

It is an unusual dispute, because the policies have not yet been adopted by government.

But the outcome could affect thousands of working families coping with some of the most expensive childcare in the world.

At the heart of the debate is the new minister for childcare Elizabeth Truss.

Since her appointment in September, Ms Truss has said little.

In an article published in the Daily Telegraph though she wrote: "We are looking at how to allow new childcare providers to enter the system, while making it easier for existing providers to get on by cutting red tape."

That sounds vague, but she has a much more detailed plan for childcare in England.

A few months before she got her ministerial job, Ms Truss spelt out ideas for a series of changes to childcare rules in a pamphlet for the Centreforum think tank.

She suggested individual childminders should be allowed to look after more young children, with one adult caring for five under fives - not three as at present.

Under her plans, the government would copy a system in the Netherlands in which parents pay agencies that train and monitor registered childminders.

Ofsted would then regulate the agencies, not individual carers.

Her hope was this would allow cheaper, more plentiful care.

She has not committed to turning her backbencher's ideas into reality; ministers are still reviewing policy in this area.

But her opinions are so well known, they have already sparked a debate.

The left-learning think tank, the IPPR, says she needs to reconsider.

It argues that many of the new childcare places in the Netherlands are in reality provided by grandparents taking advantage of new public subsidies.

Childcare costs are low there, says the IPPR, because Dutch employers pay a third of fees.

The IPPR's director Nick Pearce told the BBC: "Deregulation is not the answer."

The think tank argues the government should instead copy a Danish system in which there is a national entitlement to childcare places.

Its conclusions have not gone unnoticed by Labour.

The shadow minister for children Sharon Hodgson MP said: "This report shows that the Dutch-style deregulation of childcare promoted by Tory childcare minister Liz Truss would increase costs and reduce quality."

The Conservative MP Claire Perry said: "I am delighted that the IPPR, Labour's favourite think tank, agree with us that the last government left behind a childcare system which is 'expensive', 'inefficient', 'low-quality', 'confusing' and 'variable'."

She added: "This Government will address the issues of affordability, quality and availability of childcare which Labour comprehensively failed to when they were in government."

Already nurseries and childminders have complained there is not enough money to cover the cost of free childcare places promised by government.

Three and four-year-olds in England are entitled to 15 free hours of childcare a week, and there are plans to extend this to disadvantaged two-year-olds next year.

The government recently announced extra funding for the policy, but the Pre-School Learning Alliance has said many nurseries think the there is still insufficient cash to cover the cost.

Whether they concern free childcare places, or the regulations that can affect how much parents pay childminders, government decisions in this area can have a direct impact not just on children's welfare, but on parents' wallets and their careers.

For that simple reason this is a political debate that resonates outside Westminster.

All of which means, when Elizabeth Truss does speak, working voters with children will be listening very carefully.

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