Look after a friend’s children? Careful, the nanny state is watching

Parents who regularly look after friends' children face being watched and checked up on by childcare officials.

Two policewomen disclosed yesterday they had been threatened with snap monitoring visits and surveillance if they continue to mind each other's daughters.

The women have been labelled illegal childminders and, unless they formally register with Ofsted, must end their arrangement.

Lucy Jarrett and Leanne Shepherd

Friends: Job sharing police officers Lucy Jarrett and Leanne Shepherd were reported to Ofsted for their childminding arrangement

The resulting wave of public outrage brought an announcement by ministers yesterday of a review of the little-known rules. However, any change could be months away and thousands of other families may be innocently breaking the law by relying on friends for informal childcare.

They too could face random home visits if Ofsted inspectors are tipped off.

Margaret Morrissey, of the campaign group Parents Outloud, said: 'This Big Brother attitude to children and parents has got to stop.'

Ministers are said to be disturbed by the rules which caught out the WPCs and are pushing for an overhaul to avoid penalising hard-working parents.

Schools Minister Vernon Coaker said his department was questioning Ofsted's interpretation of the law. The watchdog insisted it was merely implementing Labour's 2006 Childcare Act.

The two police women yesterday condemned their treatment in a series of interviews.

Leanne Shepherd and daughter

Leanne Shepherd (pictured with daughter Edie) said a 'perfect arrangement' with her friend had been ruined and that she trusted her colleague implicitly

Lucy Jarrett and Leanne Shepherd, both detectives based at Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, had been looking after each other's children for two-and-a-half years so both could work ten-hour days, twice a week.

But Ofsted received an anonymous complaint about the arrangement, thought to be from a neighbour of DC Shepherd.

Inspectors judged the arrangement to be illegal because its rules state that adults cannot gain a 'reward' for looking after a child for more than two hours a day outside the home.

Although the mothers never paid each other, the free childcare they received was judged to be a reward.

The mothers, both 32, were told that if they wished to continue the arrangement, they must register with Ofsted as childminders, submit to criminal records checks, pass a safety inspection and follow the 'nappy curriculum' of educational targets.

Neither was able to undertake the time-consuming registration process and had to place their daughters in nurseries.

DC Jarrett, who has a daughter Amy, three, said the 'perfect arrangement' she had with her friend and colleague had been ruined.

'Obviously Leanne and I are friends outside of work as well,' she told BBC Breakfast. 'We trust each other implicitly, we know each other.

'Our children have now grown up together. We would both know our children were safe.'

She was horrified to be threatened with prosecution by Ofsted if the arrangement continued.

She added: 'They said they would monitor our compliance with unannounced visits to our home address and surveillance techniques. It's an outrage.

'I thought it was ridiculous to be honest, that they would waste their time and effort on innocent people who are trying to provide for their family and return to the workplace.'

DC Shepherd, who has a two-year-old girl called Edie, says the stress of her ordeal has put her off having more children. She said she feared for her job after a visit from an Ofsted inspector.

'As a police officer you shouldn't be breaking the law,' she said. 'Their position needs seriously looking at and they need to have some discretion.'

A petition on behalf of the women on the Number 10 website has gathered more than 10,500 signatures.

Children's Minister Vernon Coaker said his department was talking to Ofsted about its interpretation of the word reward.

An aide said: 'We need to be sure that the legislation does not unnecessarily penalise hardworking families. We must ensure a common sense and measured approach which retains a balance between over-regulation and protecting children.'

Friends are most likely to be affected. Close relatives are exempt from the rules requiring them to register with Ofsted if they care for youngsters regularly. Nannies are also exempt because they provide childcare in a parent's home.