Maggie Jones on the government’s continued failure to provide adequate detail on its flagship Childcare Bill
Politicians are not famed for admitting they were wrong, so it would have been too much to expect a public climb down from Ministers on the chaotic progress of the Childcare Bill. But rather than of an apology, they have now produced a major rewrite of the legislation which sadly still fails to address many of the criticisms made about the original.
Serious doubts remain about the funding of the scheme. Despite the government's repeated promises on the floor of the Lords that it would “report back on the funding review’s findings” by this stage of the Bill, we are yet to see the necessary detail. Instead, we’ve been given a summary of the evidence being collected for the autumn Spending Review. The substance and concluding findings will only be published afterwards, which means the Bill could progress through both Houses of Parliament without any scrutiny – or indeed, sight – of the proposed costings. This is crucial as the early years sector has given evidence that the current free hours are being provided at a loss – a situation which will worsen with the increase.
The wider consultation of the Bill, which began two months ago, will only conclude next summer and the draft regulations, which the core of the Bill relies on, won’t be published until after that. To add to this ambiguity, the work of the taskforce looking into the implementation of the additional entitlement is being kept completely confidential. This is a strange chain of events for David Cameron’s flagship policy of doubling free childcare. Despite being heavily hyped during the General Election, it was poorly thought out and sprung upon civil servants with little instruction other than the Bill needed to achieve Royal Assent as soon as possible. Yet the new entitlement does not come into force until 2017.
In response to all of this, we have tabled a sunrise clause to the Bill that would prevent the Act from coming into force until an independent review of the free childcare entitlement funding system is conducted. We also want the government to establish a sustainable funding solution which takes into account the complete findings of the review after a more extensive consultation.
There were initial rumours that the government’s suggested budget was £350m – something that is massively at odds with the sector’s estimated £1bn+. If Ministers were to ignore such overwhelming advice from the sector, the amendment would have the Secretary of State outline the reason for doing so and lay a report before both Houses.
The private and voluntary childcare sector, understandably united in their fury at the government for having reneged on its promise, have expressed support for the amendment – as have a number of LibDem Peers. So we are set to press the amendment to a vote, with the aim of achieving much needed clarity before the Bill is fully implemented.
Among the government’s other promises was a commitment to respond to the damning report on the Bill of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee (DPRRC) and table amendments ‘where appropriate’. But what they have put down effectively rewrites the Bill, with the DPRRC now commenting that they were ‘surprised and disappointed that many of our recommendations have not been acted on’ and stating that the amendments ‘add very little substance to the face of the Bill’.
There has been some movement from Ministers on provisions establishing criminal offences, limiting this to unauthorised disclosure of official information. But regulations would still enable the creation of an offence sufficiently serious to be punishable by imprisonment for up to two years. And the DPRRC believe this continues to show a lack clarity on who will be penalised and who will enforce the measure, and how it would be determined if a parent had simply filled in a form incorrectly or purposely withheld details that would their child to qualify.
Additionally, having indicated they will subject the Bill’s regulations to the affirmative, Ministers now appear to be applying this just to the first batch – with the rest deemed negative. They have also failed to indicate which regulations will be included in the former. Again we will seek to amend the Bill so that all regulations will be scrutinised by both Houses.
Another major concern is whether the responsibility for delivery of the additional entitlement will be up to the Education Secretary or local authorities. Government amendments reveal the burden will be put on councils – something that the sector is incredibly concerned about, believing it could be held account for things that it has little or no control over.
The inconsistencies, broken promises and blatant lack of substance are not only a feature of the Childcare Bill but of other pieces of legislation currently going through the Lords, on devolution, energy reform and small business support. But this a Bill which will have a direct impact on the wellbeing of young children, where Ministers have failed in their promise, previously forced on them by Peers, to provide the essential details of how it will all work. That I’m afraid amounts to a dereliction of duty.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a member of Labour’s frontbench team in the Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 13th October 2015