Maggie Jones on our attempts to make the Childcare Bill more meaningful and workable
David Cameron’s flagship Childcare Bill completed its Committee stage in the Lords last week. A Bill which places a substantial and significant duty on the Secretary of State to deliver an additional 15 hours of free childcare to working parents, it contains a mere six clauses across four pages.
Following concerns raised at Second Reading by Peers on all sides about the lack of detail in the Bill, given the wide reaching powers of secondary legislation, two respected cross-party Committees released their own damning analysis.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee (DPRRC) referred to it as a “skeleton” Bill and firmly disagreed with the ministerial statement that “too much detail on the face of the Bill risks obscuring the principal duties and powers from Parliamentary scrutiny”. Moreover, the government’s approach to delegation was described as ‘flawed’; and the use of the Bill as a vehicle to send a message to the public was deemed ‘inappropriate’.
The Constitution Committee echoed these concerns and suggested the Bill was an ‘egregious’ example of “a tendency by the Government to introduce vaguely worded legislation that leaves much to the discretion of ministers”. In a nutshell, there was simply not enough information for Peers to probe and scrutinise – the whole purpose of legislation being in Committee.
As a result of these findings, and a quasi-campaign on the Bill’s inadequacies run by The Independent on Sunday, we were able to mount considerable pressure and secure important concessions from Ministers. The Report stage will now be delayed to October. By then, the government has made various commitments: to release findings on the review of the cost of providing childcare, an update on the DWP taskforce examining the mechanisms of delivery, a response to the DPRRC, and a timeline so we can see the findings of each fits into the legislative timescale.
Despite all of this, a government response to the excellent Lords Select Committee Report on Affordable Childcare, which should have been considered before the legislation was drafted, will not be available for Report. Nor will any amendments in response to the DPRRC. A key consultation meanwhile, with parents, employers and childcare providers is yet to begin, with the results scheduled for next summer – long after the Bill has left the House.
There is also a sense of considerable frustration – both inside and outside of Parliament – that the essence of a good policy is being ruined in the rush to the statute books. Despite Ministers accepting our amendment to remove the establishment of a body corporate – a body that the Minister was unable to explain the functions and purpose of – several outstanding issues require further detail.
We still haven’t received an adequate answer on the necessity of provisions creating new criminal offences leading to imprisonment of up to two years. Ministers claim these regulations will prevent the unlawful disclosure of information. But we are not convinced of the scope of these powers and the safeguards for childcare providers and parents who may inadvertently fill in complex forms with errors.
We are also keen to see how the additional childcare entitlement will be delivered in a sector characterised with little capacity and in need of more qualified staff. Despite the entitlement being aimed at getting parents back into work, it is essential that the welfare of the child is held paramount in the delivery of this policy.
So even when the Bill comes back to the floor of the Lords in October, a great deal of work will be needed to ensure it really will can quality childcare whilst making it easier for parents to go back to work.
Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl
Published 16th July 2015