I was on LBC this morning talking about childcare costs; a new report has come out showing that childcare costs have rocketed by almost 80% in the last ten years and people are outraged.
Actually, the figure they quote as an average (and are clearly outraged by) is about £50 a week less than what I pay.
My daughter goes to a fantastic nursery. I know she is safe and well cared for there, and she has fun. She is happy there. I can leave her there in the morning knowing that she will play happily with her friends, learn about the world, do painting, drawing, make collages, play outside in the playground. At lunch time, the cook prepares a fabulous meal that they all eat together; S often has double helpings. If her nose runs, someone will wipe it. If she falls down, someone will pick her up and give her a cuddle. She usually comes home wearing her spare change of clothes, covered in sand and paint and glitter and food - and a great big grin. I am happy to pay what some might think is an extortionate amount on childcare because I know every penny of it is money well spent.
Let's look at the options parents have here:
1. One parent stays home and looks after the child(ren) while the other goes out to work. One income (unless it's fairly substantial) will not go terribly far and unless the stay at home parent is Mum/Dad of the Year, there is likely to be a fair bit of down time during the day while the parent does things like cleaning, washing, preparing lunch and so on. Yes, they can go out to toddler groups and meet friends at the park, but there is also likely to be a fair amount of time spent watching CBeebies (there was when I was a SAHM any way). Doing things outside of the house costs money, and if your partner is not bringing home the big bucks, you can't always afford an educational trip to the zoo or whatever.
2. Both parents work, and the child or children go to nursery or stay with a relative. It's hard enough to pay for a nursery place for one child, but if you have two nursery age children, at what point do you decide that actually, the second parent going to work is costing you money?
Childcare seems to have become this problem to solve: find someone to watch the children and make sure they don't break any bones while you go and sit at a desk doing a job you hate and resent because it's keeping you away from your child. The media, and the government, seem to have forgotten that actually, many of us don't want cheap-as-chips nursery places. If my nursery put its prices down, I would wonder what the hell they were scrimping on. I want to pay good money, knowing that my child is happy and safe and secure, and that the staff are not spending their time at work preoccupied with how they will make ends meet this month. I don't want to pay peanuts to just shove my child somewhere to keep her out of harm's way. No job is worth that.
My personal opinion is that nurseries should receive massive subsidies from the government. In the same way that schools receive funding per pupil for the academic year, nurseries should receive the same - with a token amount of top-up from the parents.
I fully respect parents who choose to stay home with their children until they're of school age. I know a lot of women who do this, and they do a fantastic job. I know that I could not do such a great job; I know that on a day-to-day basis, my daughter has more fun at nursery than she does stuck at home with me. And I am a better Mummy for the time I get to spend working and chatting to adults about things that don't involve nappies and CBeebies.
So what do we do? The other caller on the show today was a lady called Claire Paye from a campaign group called Mothers At Home Matter. She quite rightly said that funding seems to be skewed in favour of families where the parents work; families where a parent stays home to care for the children receive no funding. Incidentally, it's the same if you decide to home school your child: pack your child off to a crowded, dirty school that's more about crowd control and exams than actual enrichment of life, and that school get a set amount of funding per head. Decide to home school your child... you don't even get a free exercise book.
Mothers at Home Matters believes that mothers are the most important person in a child's life. However, this Government is spending £4.5bn on childcare and what it calls early intervention whilst charging families with a mother at home at least 54% more tax than families where both parents work. So they are subsidising childcare and penalising mothercare. Mothers at Home Matter is campaigning for a level playing field where families can make a genuine choice as to whether to look after their babies and children entirely themselves or for both parents to work to whatever extent suits the family. The only 'choice' the Government offers families is for both parents to work, ideally for as many hours as possible, outsourcing childcare to paid, detached professionals.
The phrase Claire used on air was a "level playing field." I think she's right to be honest. I really believe that being a parent is the most important job there is. As parents we are responsible for raising the next generation. If we do a bad job, who will pick up the pieces? If we can't afford to do enriching, educating activities with our children, if we can't afford to take them places, to feed them nice and varied foods... what happens then? What happens when that child grows up into an adult who has never seen a pineapple, or hasn't learned how to tell the time? Or something more serious?
Which brings me onto my next point.
I've written before about the change to Universal Credit, and how I'm not the biggest fan. The latest revelations have left me gobsmacked though!
With the proposed changes, families claiming what are currently known as tax credits and earning above the income tax threshold - due to rise to £10,000 this April - will be able to reclaim up to 85% of their childcare costs (at the moment it's 70%). Sounds good, right?
Except that those earning below the income tax threshold will only be able to claim up to 70% of their childcare costs. According to Gingerbread, this means families on lower incomes will effectively be paying double for their childcare. How is that in any way right?
Just sit and have a think for a moment about this. Single parents returning to work invariably end up in low-paid, menial jobs - because that's what's available to fit around everything else. Mums in general end up mostly on the checkouts at Tesco or in cleaning jobs because of a lack of flexibility in their original jobs. How many of those jobs do you think will pay more than £10,000 a year? Bearing in mind, of course, that the person in question might only be doing 18 hours a week.
I understand the idea that "if you're not paying tax, you can't claim it back" but really that puts lower income families in a really tricky position. What do they do? I claim tax credits to pay for S's nursery. If my funding suddenly dropped to 70% I'd have to find that shortfall from somewhere. I'm trying to think of where I'd find it... It would undoubtedly be the money spent on day trips, bus rides, supplies for messy play, colouring pens. Or I would have to stop work and go onto Income Support. How is forcing someone who wants to work to go back to life on benefits helping anyone?
I don't understand what they want us to do. They seem to be putting low income families in a position where they have zero chance of things getting any better. No chance of moving to a nicer area, affording a car so that they can get to a better job a little further afield. No light at the end of the tunnel. The attitude seems to be well, you had the kid; you look after it and don't come begging to us for help. Fabulous. But however you penalise my child for existing today, tomorrow, this year, next year - at some point she will grow up and become a member of society like you and I. And with more children being pushed below the poverty line, their parents not given the chance to set them a good example, what will society look like in 20, 30, 40 years?
And I know this is the point where all the people who aren't entitled to claim any form of tax relief or benefit pipe up and say "well I don't get any help; why should you?" I think the question there really should be "why shouldn't I be entitled?" I think all families, regardless of background or income or anything else, deserve a level playing field. This is not a numbers game; it's not an experiment; it's not a joke. This is the wellbeing of our children we are talking about here. How are we to know that the cure for Cancer is not currently inside the brain of a little boy who lives on a rough council estate, already written off by the government as not being worth their effort?
Everyone deserves the chance to have the very best start in life. I believe the parent knows their child best, and therefore it's their decision what the best start will be. For some, that is going to work - and they should be able to go to work in a fulfilling job, without worrying about who is taking care of their child. For others, it's staying home and taking care of the child themselves - and these people should be given just as much help and support to do that. Because if we don't... well, who will be in charge of the pensions by the time we hit pension age?