An arms race in childcare?

Childcare was politically neglected for generations. But following the transformative work of the last Labour government, shadow minister for childcare and early years Lucy Powell says there is now an arms race in this vital policy area.

This arms race was the backdrop for an excellent Progress fringe at conference 2014 entitled The Care Crunch: How does Labour help families meet work and childcare pressure? Expertly chaired by Lucy Rigby, new mum and Labour parliamentary candidate in Lincoln, the event laid bare fundamental differences between the Labour and Tory visions for childcare.

The parties have totally different positions on supporting the disadvantaged, enabling all parents to have flexible childcare options and providing wraparound family support in addition to nursery places. If there is a political arms race in childcare, the two belligerents are building very different armies.

On deprivation, Anne Longfield of 4Children reported that a third of families describe themselves as ‘only just coping.’ Childcare costs are cited as the single biggest determinant of this and a quarter of parents are getting into debt as a result. In response, Lucy Powell praised the power of high-quality childcare to tackle poverty and reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to support disadvantaged families. In contrast, Paul Bartlett from the Childcare Vouchers Providers Association detailed how the government’s plans are highly regressive. Its tax cuts for childcare will largely benefit those spending over £10,000 a year on childcare – a stark contrast with the progressive policies of the last Labour government.

On choice, there was much discussion on the different lifestyles and work patterns of modern families. Anne Longfield described a ‘nine till five’ childcare sector and Dalia Ben-Galim of IPPR called for more flexibility in the system and a fresh approach to maternity and paternity pay. Lucy Powell agreed, rejecting any idea of an institutionalised, uniform system of childcare. The next Labour government will encourage creativity and innovation within a clear national framework. In comparison Paul Bartlett bemoaned the bureaucracy of the government’s chosen approach: ‘if you want to design a system which is cumbersome and puts people off, then this would be a good way of doing it.’

But perhaps the biggest division between Labour and the Tories lies in wraparound care. The Tories have a childcare policy. It is deeply flawed, but they have a childcare policy. They do not have a family policy. The Tories solely see early years policy as a means to parental employment. But it must be more than this: it must nurture and stimulate the child, it must assist families facing difficult times and it must be a gateway to other support services. Sure Start was the last Labour government’s hugely successful response to this challenge. Anne Longfield, backed by multiple speakers from the floor, urged the revitalisation of Sure Start. Lucy Powell wholeheartedly agreed and spoke of detailed policy work underway to rejuvenate this Labour flagship. In contrast Tory party conference has now passed without a single reference to Sure Start all week.

So there is real difference between Labour and the Conservatives. Different approaches on supporting the less advantaged, on offering parents choice and on providing wraparound family support services. It is great news that childcare has a higher political profile than ever before. But it is even better news that voters have such a clear choice of visions.

The Tories are offering a bureaucratic future of form-filling and red tape. Tax cuts that will only benefit the wealthy and their accountants. And nothing at all on family support.

Labour is offering an extension of childcare, rooted in a clear commitment to tackle disadvantage, extend choice and nurture families.

If there is an arms race in childcare, this event showed that Labour’s forces have overwhelming superiority.

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If you missed The Care Crunch: How does Labour help families meet work and childcare pressure? at Labour party conference you can catch up with the discussion here

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Michael Pavey is deputy leader of the London borough of Brent. He tweets @MikeyPavey

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Photo: aboyandhisbike

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