‘Chaos and incompetence’: Clegg makes Tory childcare minister wriggle

Education minister Liz Truss has conceded the coalition's childcare plans remain up in the air after Nick Clegg's intervention yesterday.

The deputy prime minister voiced concerns about the policy of "freeing high quality providers to offer more places" – in effect changing the child to staff ratio – after it appeared in yesterday's Queen's Speech.

Clegg told LBC this morning he was "ideologically" opposed to the change in policy but made clear he was concerned about the implementation of the change, warning the government had to "get the balance right".

His spokesman was clearer about the objection last night, saying: "Nick remains to be persuaded that this is the right thing to do for very young children, or, crucially, to be persuaded that this would actually help families with high childcare costs. This continues to be discussed in government."

As a result of the intervention Truss found herself rushing to the Commons chamber this morning to answer an urgent question by shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg.

She said the Department for Education's consultation on the issue had closed at the end of March and that the responses were now being considered, admitting: "We will make further announcements in due course."

Truss argued that "too many parents in the UK are struggling to juggle their work and childcare arrangements" and pointed out families spend 27% of their income on childcare costs, compared to 11% in countries like France.

"We are looking at other countries that mange to combine high quality and affordability in their childcare provision. At present we have the tightest ratios for children under three and we also have the lowest staff salaries," she said, citing annual average earnings of just £13,000.

"Our proposals will allow nurseries who hire high quality staff to be able to exercise high quality judgement," Truss added.

"These ratios are not compulsory. This is about professionals in the childcare sector being able to exercise their judgement in delivering an affordable, high quality service to parents."

Twigg responded to her answer with scorn, claiming the episode had been poorly managed by the government.

"Late last night the ink wasn't even dry on the Queen's Speech when we heard the government might in fact be U-turning on its policy," he said, asking: "Isn't this yet another example of chaos and incompetence at the heart of government policymaking?"

Debate over the government's childcare proposals remains intense. Professor Cathy Nutbrown, the coalition's own adviser on the issue, has said the plans "make no sense at all".

A commission on the issue currently looking at issues of affordability and availability is expected to publish its findings shortly.