Childcare still matters
Today I am helping to celebrate the 10th birthday of the National Day Nurseries Association in the Houses of Parliament. This is a chance for the staff and friends of the Association to congratulate themselves on their continued role and influence but it is also an opportunity for all of us who have an interest in childcare and early years to reflect on how far debates in this area have come.
Ten years ago we saw the passing of the new(ish) Government’s Tax Credit Act which, in time, provided supported childcare for hundreds of thousands of families. There can be no doubt, no matter whether one believes that the policy was the right one or that it has worked well, that this marked a landmark in Britain’s political relationship to working families. It acknowledged the hardships faced by working parents, the importance of good childcare and the positive effect that subsidised childcare can have on child and in-work poverty rates.
The world looks a little gloomier a decade on and one could be forgiven for losing faith in the optimism of New Labour’s approach. Child poverty targets, as I blogged last week, have passed unmet and in-work poverty remains at an unacceptable high. What is more, the recession has left thousands of families struggling to get by on reduced hours or in unsecure employment whilst the mechanisms for paying for childcare remain inflexible and the available hours frankly stingy.
But childcare will remain a pertinent political issue; that’s why the Progressive Conservatism Project made improving the availability and flexibility of state subsidies one of our twelve tests for the Tories. We have argued for the childcare tax credit to be uncapped, and tied to hours worked, for minimum wage earners and for the allowance to be increased to 20 hours a week. This isn’t because we believe that parents should be out at work rather than at home with their children, it’s because we recognize the realities of our society - where the majority of parents either want to, or have to, work.
Of course this will be expensive but it is affordable. If we cut childcare benefits to middle class parents, as Gordon Brown tried to do after his conference speech this year, we can save money and target it to those who need the most help to balance working with children. This is also an investment, as we begin to grow out of recession it will be essential to get people into jobs quickly – so that we can stop paying them benefits and they can return to being consumers – doing this means ensuring that good, safe and reliable childcare is available at affordable rates.
It’s tempting, in debates such as these, to imagine that it’s all about children. It’s not. Providing childcare to the working poor is about more than simply looking after kids; it’s about boosting the economy and ensuring that hundreds of thousands of children are not brought up in workless households. It matters today as much as it did a decade ago, the Conservative Party needs to ensure that they are on the progressive side of this debate.