Jacquie Mills is Chair of the Childcare Voucher Providers Association.
Theresa May has made ordinary working families the key pillar of her domestic agenda, and for good reason – they represent the core of the electorate.
One of the biggest issues for working families is the cost of childcare. The BBC reported in October that childcare costs have risen seven times faster than average wages. Alongside housing costs, this is a critical issue impacting on ordinary working families.
That’s why the Government must keep the Childcare Vouchers scheme open beyond the April 2018 end date planned by the Coalition.
Childcare costs are quite clearly an issue that the public cares about. A petition to keep Childcare Vouchers open is the third most popular petition on the Parliament petitions website. At the time of writing it had 109,000 signatures – twice as much as those calling for an immediate Brexit – and it will now be debated on 15th January. This highlights an opportunity, and there is a very obvious potential victory for the Conservative Party.
Make no mistake, the Government will have to do something about this. The pressures of childcare are one of the issues that have strained the finances of the generation that were lost to Labour at the last election. It is not just the young but those under 47 – well into the age where we would naturally expect voters to swing to the Conservatives – that have turned to Jeremy Corbyn’s party. Besides, keeping parents in work has huge benefits for tax receipts and the local economy in the region of £14,000 per worker, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
However, the Government’s current plans on childcare look set to make things worse. While it is good news for some parents that they have started to roll out Tax-Free Childcare (TFC), they will also be removing Childcare Vouchers; a scheme that is currently relied on by 780,000 parents.
While TFC has a critical benefit over Childcare Vouchers in offering support to those who are self-employed and not incorporated, the downside is that compared to Childcare Vouchers, it disadvantages those that might need the most support – the ordinary working families who, according to data from the Department of Education, are likely to lose out.
They spend closer to £3,000 a year on childcare, far less than the £10,000 spend required to gain TFC’s headline £2,000 of support. It also means that families will lose all support if one parent was to lose their job for any reason. This is the exact time where an effective welfare state kicks in to help people bounce back.
It’s also politically difficult to present this as progressive or fair, given that the average London family is set to receive three times as much support under TFC than one in the north east.
So what should the Government do about this? In a sense, nothing. As it happens the Government is currently sitting on a very good childcare support package since it is yet to lay the statutory instrument required to close the Childcare Voucher scheme in April 2018.
Childcare Vouchers are available to millions, delivered efficiently by the private sector, and engage the employer in the process. Furthermore, once Tax-Free Childcare is up and running, it will have a secondary platform for delivering support to those that aren’t able to access Childcare Vouchers.
The decision to close Childcare Vouchers was made by the Coalition Government so there is no reason why the current Government should be wedded to it. This is an easy win at a time when the Government desperately needs one.
It also means ministers can avoid trying to lay and pass another statutory instrument when the current Parliamentary arithmetic, and sheer amount of Brexit related legislation, could make this a difficult and rather perilous task.
You can read more about how this could work and get involved in the discussion at www.futureofchildcaresupport.com.