The Government's childcare reforms were in chaos today after Nick Clegg hit out at plans to relax rules on the number of toddlers nursery staff can supervise.
The Deputy Prime Minister questioned whether the proposals would have the desired effect of reducing costs and said present limits were "already quite a handful" for nursery staff and childminders.
Asked during his phone-in show on LBC 97.3 if the Prime Minister was aware of his concerns, Mr Clegg said: "We have been talking about this for weeks and weeks."
He added: "I have got young children... they have been through nursery so I know how much parents will really care that we get this right in terms of improving both the affordability of childcare, which we must do, but also the quality.
"What the Department for Education did is they consulted and they said is it possible to have an adult look after more children, so instead of four two-year-olds ... go up to six two-year-olds. I think four is already quite a handful, just imagine if they go up to six.
"Can you do that at the same time as raising quality? A lot of people basically got back in the consultation and said this isn't going to work, particularly for very small children, it isn't necessarily going to be passed on in terms of cost savings to parents."
But childcare minister Liz Truss told MPs the system was in desperate need of reform and England had the tightest restrictions in Europe on the number of children each member of staff could supervise.
Ms Truss said the Government was considering responses to its consultation on the plans but stressed the need for change.
She said: "The current system of childcare is not working for parents. Too many parents in the UK are struggling to juggle their work and childcare arrangements.
"Families in England pay some of the highest costs in the world - 27% of their income goes on costs, compared to 11% in countries like France.
"Our proposals will allow nurseries who hire high-quality staff to be able to exercise professional judgment.
"It is exactly the same concept that we have used in academies, giving high-quality institutions the autonomy to make decisions for themselves and to be able to exercise professional judgment.
"These ratios are not compulsory. This is about professionals in the childcare sector being able to exercise their judgement and being able to deliver an affordable, high-quality service to parents."
My Urgent Question to Michael Gove about childcare ratios has been granted by the Speaker and will be heard at 9.30 #RewindOnRatios
Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg added: "David Cameron and Nick Clegg are creating chaos and confusion on childcare.
"Nobody supports the plans to weaken childcare standards. Expert academics have told the Government that these changes would risk child safety and will not reduce costs to parents.
"And it's not just the experts of course. As any parent will tell you, young children are demanding and they need lots of attention, so while a childminder can have the very best qualifications, they still only have one pair of hands."
What are the government's childcare reforms?
The government's plans to increase the number of children that nursery workers and childminders can care for were announced in January.
The new rules are due to come into force in England in September.
- One-years-old and under: Current ratio of adults to children is 1:3, this would change to 1:4
- Two-years-old and under: Current ratio is 1:4, this is due to change to 1:6
- Three-years-old and over: Current ratio is 1:8 or 1:13 (if teacher led), this would remain the same