Q&A: childcare policy

Childcare is shaping up as a key battleground in the lead-up to the next general election. The Labour government and the Conservative party are battling for voters with a range of promises on after-hours childcare, parental choice, maternity pay and tax credits. David Batty examines their proposals

Thursday November 11, 2004

Why is childcare such a big issue?
Labour and the Conservatives both regard giving parents a choice about how they work and bring up children as a key election battleground. Earlier this year the Daycare Trust warned that working parents, particularly those with large families, are being financially stretched to the limit to secure care for their children. According to the charity, British parents pay the biggest childcare bills in Europe, spending 1.8bn a year.

Affordable childcare is also key to increasing economic productivity by ensuring career opportunities for women. Men's participation in childcare has not kept pace with women's employment, leaving an increasing burden on the latter in the home. Kate Stanley, the head of social policy at the centre-left thinktank the Institute for Public Policy Research, says childcare is a political priority because it is a gender issue as well as a children's issue. Furthermore it is central to one of the major social concerns of 21st-century living - how to achieve a work-life balance.

What is the government's childcare record?
Since 1997 the government has rolled out a range of childcare reforms. It has created childcare places for more than 1 million children and nursery education places for all three and four-year-olds; introduced a tax credit to help pay for childcare; established the Sure Start programme to provide support for families in poorer areas; and created new children's centres offering childcare, healthcare and parental support. Under its five-year education plan, published in July, the government also pledged to set up an extended school and a children's centre in every community, providing care services from 8am to 6pm. Further plans will be set out in a 10-year childcare strategy expected later this month.

What is the Conservative party's record?
Affordable childcare has not been regarded as a priority for the Conservatives. Traditional Conservative thinking dictates that mothers should stay at home providing unpaid care for their children. But Tory strategists now believe that the creation of a childcare policy will help convince voters that the party is in touch with current issues. Parents will have to wait until the party's election manifesto is unveiled to see what exactly the Tories are proposing.

What are the parties promising on maternity pay?
At present new mothers are entitled to maternity pay of 102.80 a week for a limit of six months. The government is looking at extending statutory maternity pay to cover the first year of a child's life. The Conservatives are looking to increase maternity pay within the first six months, but have yet to say by how much.

What are the Conservatives' proposals on childcare tax credits?
Currently parents can claim the childcare tax credit to help pay for formal childminders, such as a nanny or au pair. The Conservatives suggest reforming the system to allow parents to spend the credit as they like, so the system covers parents who look after their own children and other family members, such as grandparents. The Tory leader, Michael Howard, also suggested introducing special fast-track childminding courses for grandparents.

What role do the parties see for schools?
The prime minister, Tony Blair, has said that all parents should be offered affordable school-based care for children aged five to 11 years between the hours of 8am and 6pm by the end of the third term. The Conservatives do not have specific proposals for school-based care, but say they would allow schools to alter their opening hours to suit parents' needs.

What about children's centres?
The Conservatives have pledged to continue the roll-out of children's centres and the Sure Start programme, but they want the private and voluntary sectors to provide more of these services.

Anything else?
The Conservatives believe that childcare is overregulated and have pledged to tackle red tape.

What reaction has their been to the parties' proposals?
The National Childminding Association has raised concerns with the Conservative proposals, saying it was a myth that childminding was overregulated. They also said that few parents used family members to provide childcare. The charity 4Children has said that the prime minister's promise of a new statutory duty on councils to provide a childcare place for every school aged child who needs one by 2010 would help bring the UK's childcare provision in line with other European countries.