Ed Miliband is making a speech today lamenting the increased cost of child care. The cost certainly is high – it has been rising for over a decade. Also parents in Britain face higher childcare costs as a share of net income than any other country in the OECD – in Britain it’s an average of 33 per cent.
However Mr Miliband has an astonishing nerve in raising the issue. The main reason why the costs have risen so much in this country is that the Labour Government increasingly added to the regulatory burden for child care. In 1997 there were 100,000 childminders, by 2011, there were just 55,000 childminders.
The bureaucracy was so onerous that many quit. There is much duplication on registration requirement and interference in the curriculum. Some of this is being eased by the Government. But the big change that would help has been blocked.
The Lib Dems opportunistically decided to veto any change to child staff ratios – something they had earlier agreed to. The result of trying to improve standards, by insisting on a low ratio of children to adults, is that there is a shortage of providers and their charges are high.
Sir Martin Narey, the former head of Barnado’s, said of Education Minister Liz Truss’ plans:
Under the new proposals the minimum staff-child ratio for children ages one and under will ease from 1:3 to 1:4 (in France it’s 1:5 and in Italy 1:8) and those for two-year-olds will move from 1:4 to 1:6 (compared to 1:8 in Norway and 1:11 in Portugal). Minimum ratios for those aged three and older will remain unchanged.
Were I still running Barnardo’s, the UK’s largest children’s charity, I would have welcomed the flexibility this offered.
In 2006 we tried to get into the nursery business on a large scale, particularly in the North East.
We believed that we could simultaneously provide high quality childcare for the poorest children while using the Barnardo’s brand to attract paying families.
Any surplus was to be ploughed back into our work with the most disadvantaged. But there was no surplus.
Indeed we struggled to balance the books. The inflexibility of the ratios were part of the problem.
If we had, say, three staff looking after nine infants under one, we found it difficult to expand.
If a new mum dropped in to see if there was a place for her child we had to turn her away, unless she could return with two more mums in which case we could then afford to recruit another member of staff.
The main childcare providers are familiar with the problem – and backed reform.The costs have increased because of the rules that Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband fought to keep. Instead the poor resort to black market childcare providers set up informally without any regulation at all and paid cash in hand.
Mr Miliband says that his alternative would be to fund childcare through increased public spending paid for by taxing bankers bonuses – but he uses that same pot of money whenever he says he will pay for something. It has been committed 11 times over.
The credible way to provide more choice and competition in childcare, with higher paid staff offering better standards at lower cost, is to allow more flexibility on the ratios. That is one reason why a majority Conservative Government is needed so that the important original proposal from Liz Truss can be brought in to help poorer families.