Last month, I wrote a post about childcare costs, and how the government's proposed changes were less than ideal.
For once, it seems the government listened to what people were saying, and yesterday's announcement was that everyone claiming Universal Credit would be able to claim 85% of childcare costs. Previously, this figure was intended to be split, with those earning above the income tax threshold receiving 85% and those earning below the threshold receiving just 70%.
I am so relieve they have done this; it will make a big difference to people like me who are working hard to avoid relying on benefits. This will hopefully mean that less of my income will be going out the door in childcare costs (at the moment my childcare bill is around £7800 a year, and I don't expect to earn much more than that in my first year of self employment).
One thing that does concern me, and something they've cleverly left out of all their PR opportunities, is the small fact that at the moment, the only people claiming Universal Credit are a relatively tiny group of single people with no dependents. The roll-out of Universal Credit has been somewhat delayed, and there has been little word on when they expect it to complete. So at the moment their lovely new announcement is a bit... academic, isn't it!
I am, quite frankly, petrified of Universal Credit. When my maternity leave finished and I claimed Income Support, I had a first-hand experience of just how poorly organised the system is. A claim for Income Support takes "up to" seventeen working days. When I got to Day 17 and there was still no money, I called them to ask what was going on - only to be told, oh, the money is here. I've no idea why it wasn't sent; I'll send a BACS payment now. For those who don't know a BACS payment typically takes three working days - taking the total time between applying for money and receiving it twenty working days. Four working weeks. It's not surprising then, that during that time I ended up having to receive a food parcel from the Trussell Trust.
During the time I was waiting for Income Support, I was still able to struggle by for most of the time because I was still receiving Child Tax Credits and Child Benefit. It was a comfort to know that if one incompetent government agency messed up, another would probably not mess up for a while - so there was still a chance of some money, however little, making it into my bank account. If all of the payments are going through the same government agency, the same computer system, where is the provision for when they mess up? I think it's a little optimistic to assume that everything will run smoothly and it won't mess up! I've heard too many stories to suggest otherwise.
Another point about the announcement is more clearly made by the website Mothers At Home Matter. The Universal Credit website gleefully tells claimants that there is no limit to the number of hours they can work each week - but why are we encouraging parents to go to work and spend as much time as possible at work? Yes, we absolutely should be helping those parents who want to work, to make it financially viable for them to do so - but equally, those staying at home are rarely doing so in order to keep up with their Jeremy Kyle fixation. Stay at home parents spend their days reading stories, making models, building towers, explaining, teaching. Why does society put such little value on this? The parents of today are raising the society of tomorrow. If we're not spending any time together as families, I am worried about what the society of tomorrow will look like to be honest.
So yes, well done government, your idea is good in principle - but I think you probably need to put a bit more work in. Could do better!