Page last updated at 14:56 GMT, Monday, 12 October 2009 15:56 UK

Childcare swaps 'outside rules'

Children playing computer games
Childcare swaps between friends do not need to be regulated, says minister

Inspectors should not interfere in private arrangements between friends looking after each other's children, says Children's Secretary Ed Balls.

This follows the case of policewomen who were told that helping each other with babysitting was illegal if they were not registered.

Mr Balls has written to England's inspectorate, Ofsted, to say this is not the intention of childcare law.

Such arrangements "should not be a matter for regulation," he says.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the children's secretary told MPs that he had written to Ofsted chief, Christine Gilbert, to clarify the rules on informal arrangements for looking after children.


Mr Balls said he wanted "to make clear that reciprocal childcare arrangements between parents where there is no payment involved should not be a matter for regulation".

"I have agreed today with Ofsted that with immediate effect, this will be beyond the scope of their childcare inspections and will make this crystal clear by changing the regulations in the coming period."

The two mothers, Leanne Shepherd and Lucy Jarrett from Buckinghamshire, had been told by Ofsted inspectors that their reciprocal babysitting arrangement represented a "reward" - and as such should be covered by childcare regulations.

Inspectors ruled that these friends would need to be registered or face a penalty for failing to comply.

Mr Balls says that he has now asked Ofsted not to interpret these rules as applying to arrangements which have no "financial reward" and are for "mutual aid".

"When parents make their own reciprocal childcare arrangements with friends they retain full control and responsibility for the care their children receive, and I am clear that this should not be a matter for regulation," he has written to Ofsted.

A spokeswoman for the education watchdog said: "Ofsted welcomes the moves to clarify these regulations."

Childcare rules

The case of the two policewomen who swapped babysitting was prompted by the Childcare Act of 2006, which refers to "reward" without making a distinction between financial payment and other incentives, such as a swap between parents.

Before the intervention from Mr Balls, it raised the prospect that many informal arrangements in which friends looked after each other's children, or where parents took turns in bringing home children after school, could fall under regulations intended for people who were paid for child care.

There are complex rules surrounding when the childcare registration regulations apply.

Close family members are exempt from having to register and the regulations do not apply if the care lasts less than two hours, takes place between 6pm and 2am or the child is looked after in his or her own home.

Frequency is also a factor - with exemptions for 14 days or fewer in any year, if as Ofsted says, "you tell us in writing at least 14 days before you start to provide care".

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