Alan Milburn, the former health secretary who resigned to spend
more time with his children, has been appointed as the government’s
political strategist, with a brief to inject fresh ideas into the
Labour manifesto. Oh dear. The country is already on its knees
suffering from acute over-initiative-itis. New strategies,
partnerships, reorganisations, funding streams et al, desperately
need time to bed down, not least with the promise of longevity in
A pattern repeats itself with all governments. They conceive a good
idea – fail to pilot it adequately, impose it haphazardly and
provide it with inadequate resources. Then, a year or so later, the
whole experiment is aborted, pushing social policy in particular,
further and further to the right, as one measure after another is
unfairly labelled a “failure”.
Child care, Milburn announced last week, must be at the heart of
Labour’s programme for a third term. He would like the government
to provide free or subsidised places from a very early age for all
children. He recognises this is not just to help the working parent
but to tackle inequalities in the early months and years of a
Very admirable in intent but in application it has apparently led
to civil war (again) between the Treasury which favours aiming the
cash at the poor and the Blairites who want the middle classes to
share the bounty with, for instance, taxbreaks for nannies and six
months’ well paid maternity leave.
Both sides miss a very large point. Accessibility to child care at
an affordable cost is worth having – but only if the child care on
offer is of the highest quality. That means well trained, well paid
staff, very limited turnover and proper facilities. None of which
will be available in many areas without substantial government help
with premises, training and wages.
The Daycare Trust charity has revealed that child care is a lottery
with the poorest children who often live in relatively affluent
areas faring badly. The young in poor neighbourhoods are also
clobbered since, if the nurseries exist at all, their lower fees
have a knock-on effect on staff morale, a constant turnover of
employees and inadequate training.
Quality and child care are two words which ought to be welded
together when mouthed by any politician. Otherwise, parents will be
bought off with infant warehousing that – whether rich or poor – we
already know can do more harm than good.