Britain's immigration debate has taken one of its stranger turns, with calls for Prime Minister David Cameron to explain why he hired an Australian nanny rather than a British one.
Talk to weary veterans of the childcare market, however, and they would wonder why he hadn't done it sooner. An informal survey suggests most parents can't afford a British nanny and, given a choice, nine out of 10 would go for an Aussie. And if you can't get one of those, a Kiwi will do.
"They speak the language and are generally can-do and energetic, and very practical," says one North London mother. "Australians come on two-year visas and they live in your house because they want to save every penny and ‘do Europe' while they are here. They knuckle down and work because they don't want the hassle of looking for another job. And they aren't looking for promotion or a new career. English nannies are always looking to up their status."
We don't know why Cameron employed an Australian woman. Probably she was simply the best candidate. But there are some very good reasons why British families rely on an international brigade of nannies and carers.
"People get the best person they can get with the money available. Childcare is very expensive in the UK and in London in particular," says Fiona Neill, the author of What the Nanny Saw. "A top nanny costs a lot. A really good, well-educated, fully trained British nanny can cost £60,000 (NZ$117,700) a year and that is a lot of money for any family. Only UHNWIs [ultra-high net worth individuals] will pay that."
Often these are foreign families living in London. "They have homes that are the modern equivalent of Downton Abbey with a Filipino housekeeper, a gardener, a driver and a handyman. An English nanny is a brand, so in that sense it is a nanny's market. They are unaffordable for English people."
As well as cost there is the job description, Neill says. "Lots of people have Filipino nannies who are also housekeepers. Some foreign nannies are more amenable to doing more mundane domestic tasks. British nannies won't do that - not out of a sense of entitlement, but because they don't consider it part of their job description."
A mother-of-three in Camden says she found herself competing against neighbours for the services of a Norland nanny. She won the battle but says: "When you are trying to get a top-notch British nanny it is the inverse of the normal relationship.
"When they come for the interview they are interviewing you. They are visiting five or six families and choosing their employer. This is based on salary and what other perks you are offering such as gym membership or use of a car, but also whether they think you are going to be interfering in the way they look after the children. They don't want to kowtow to the parents on matters like discipline."
Foreign nannies, however, "mostly just want a job and will do what you ask them to do; they accept a broader job description. They might not scrub the floors but they will tidy up and wait in for the Ocado [online supermarket] delivery".
We British can get ourselves in a terrible, class-conscious tangle when it comes to hiring people. "Employing people from abroad sits more easily with your liberal sensibilities," a South London mother says.
"It's easier to tell someone foreign to do more," says an East London mother-of-two with a demanding media job. "It's our awkwardness about the feeling of employing servants. You just feel more comfortable telling a Bulgarian to empty the dishwasher. It feels more awkward with an English girl and they seem less ready to do it. The Filipinos on the other hand go the whole way and do everything."
Many British nannies see the job as treading water until something better comes along. Neill observes that students and graduates, who used to work as nannies a generation ago, are now being hired as tutors.
"I had one nanny who wanted to be a child psychologist; this was just a second job for her," the East London mother says. "Another wanted to be an actress. It's an insecure feeling with someone like that. You want someone who will be there for a while and build a relationship with your children."
Even career nannies can come with an unsettling attitude. "We had a fully qualified Welsh nanny who claimed to have looked after the children of a famous pop star and cost an absolute fortune," the woman from South London says. "It turned out that for her everything was too much trouble. She . . . had an ideological problem with people who were rich enough to employ nannies, which is not an ideal starting point if you want to be a nanny."
Since then she has had 14 nannies and au pairs "of every nationality and religion". The best? "The Eastern Europeans are unbelievable: they work so hard. The Germans are a bit stern but generally very good."
Almost a match, in fact, for the Aussie nannies. "We had a wonderful British nanny for years and she travelled round the world with us," says one globe-trotting businessman. "But British nannies are quite expensive so meanly we went for the cheaper option. We had a succession of Australian nannies, each more muscular than the next. We both travel a lot for work at short notice and they lived in and were always there, able to paint toenails and talk about cricket."
"My Australian nanny was unfazed by wildlife," says the North London mother happily. "We had mice. She was used to ensuring rats didn't get into the house back home. The other thing about Australians is that their grammar tends to be better than British nannies. The only slight irritation is that my daughter keeps saying ‘I'm good' all the time, which drives me slightly mad."
- The Marlborough Express