Childcare is giving me sleepless day, er nights. Once again. This time it's nothing to do with me or Cubling, well, at least not directly, but the issue is all the more important.
The Labour government, in an attempt to encourage mums to work (and I won't go into the pros and cons of that, but check out Being a Mummy for some useful insights), introduced tax credits and childcare vouchers to ease the burden of childcare. There's also some half measure of free childcare which is rather useless and doesn't really ease the financial cost of having kids while also working.
Now, the government is proposing to phase out childcare vouchers. I take issue with this. While I understand the spirit of it, I still don't think it's a good idea as the proposal stands. Here's the problem: There is actually a significant gap in support for childcare costs. In the case of a two parent family, if one partner works and the other is in training or education that does not qualify for Educational Maintenance Allowance, the couple cannot claim for working parent tax credits. Both parents have to be in work to claim working parents tax credits. I am in such a situation, unable to claim the childcare element of working parents tax credits because my other half is in postgraduate education. So while only I can only take advantage of the tax relief through childcare vouchers (if two parents are employed, the advantage is doubled to 100 pounds a month), it is still so much better than nothing (i.e. the amount I can claim through the childcare element of working parentstax credit).
Childcare vouchers are therefore the only way of getting some tax relief on the soaring cost of childcare, childcare which in this country is heavily privatised. Just compare the cost: in some countries childcare is free, in others it may put you down between 100 and 200 quid. Here it's at least 600 full time. What do you do if you have to children under 5? Maybe there are people out there with an income that would leave some spare, but surely this is rare.
Granted, most training providers may have some support available. But many don't. So for instance, there's the mum who wants to do an NHS training, her partner is on a very low income but working full time, and the NHS does not provide any support at all to cover her childcare costs. She will not be able to undertake the training, thus limiting her chances of future employment and moving beyond the poverty line. Then there is a young parents who is offered a basic and non-certified course at a college, a course that may re-engage him/her with education and with time lead to him/her undertaking a course leading to a qualification. A parent who, as her/his situation is, is extremely unlikely to become economically active without this access course, but who wants to, and is offered an opportunity to gain new skills and over time, qualifications and the hope of employment. It won't happen because the college cannot offer childcare and without childcare, the parent can't take advantage of the course offered.
Childcare vouchers and childcare support for parents in training are two ways of enabling parents to have choices. I do believe that childcare vouchers for parents on high incomes, especially if they are in the higher rate tax bracket, are unnecessary. However for those on low and middle incomes, they are more often than not a lifeline.
What's more, the system of available support for childcare is complex and hard to understand. If a child tax credit form does my educated head in, and it takes me a full working day to research support options available to the woman who contacted me (and I have the advantage of being in exactly the same situation as her, so I had some considerable previous knowledge), how hard must it be for the many most in need of support for childcare costs.
Whatever the new proposal is going to be, I'd like to see a shift of focus to ensure those in need of childcare for any form of education, training and employment that is suitable for them to get adequate financial support, and that life choices and chances are not ever determined by the ability to afford childcare or to understand and complete tax credit forms.
PS: Polly Toynbee put it much better than me in the Comment is free section of the Guardian: "But to pay for their (the most deprived two year olds) care by abolishing childcare vouchers (...) would mean that not very well-off mothers would pay to alleviate the plight of toddlers of even worse-off mothers."