U-turn on childcare cuts: is the coalition waking up to its women problem?

Ministers have rightly backtracked on a regressive cut aimed directly at working women.

Sooner or later something had to give. And today it has. Following much speculation the government has finally announced a change in its planned cuts to childcare, a key area of concern for many working mothers (and fathers). The recent heat about fast falling support for the coalition among key groups of women voters is starting to take its toll.

So £300m has been found to ensure that more part-time workers can claim tax-credit support for childcare without necessitating a further cut in provision for existing claimants. Up until now there had been widespread fear that any extension in support for part-timers would mean yet another cut in childcare support for everyone else.

To get perspective on these changes requires some background. Under Labour those parents on low and modest incomes working more than 16 hours a week were eligible for support covering 80 per cent of their childcare costs. Last April the coalition cut this support to 70 per cent. That may sound a small change - it isn't. It meant a major hike in the share of childcare costs low-income working parents have to pay. On average this has translated into a £450 loss for half a million parents, with some losing a staggering £1300.

Since then there has been much well informed speculation, based on meetings between ministers and children's campaigners, about another significant reduction in support for working parents currently claiming childcare support (as part of the move to towards the Universal Credit). The implications of this further cut were going to be devastating for many families, as lone parents and second earners - overwhelmingly women - would have been left with little if any incentive to work more than a few days a week.

Today's announcement removes this threat. Importantly, it extends for the first time eligibility for childcare support to those working less than 16 hours a week, without any offsetting cut for other parents to pay for this. This is genuinely good news for many families struggling on low incomes looking for slivers of work to help make ends meet. What it completely fails to do, however, is reverse April's cut.

For those involved in the technicalities of this policy debate, today's news feels like a bit of a victory - something awful has been averted and something positive secured. That's why there has been a fair bit of relief, and positive reaction, to the announcement. But for working parents already claiming support, still smarting from April's cuts, there isn't going to be any gratitude. You don't get prizes in politics for avoiding making a bad situation worse. In fact the money made available today almost exactly matches the cut made in the spring. The net result has been a shift in support away from those working more than two days a week, towards those working less than this. And this extra money comes from the £2bn set aside for introducing the Universal Credit; we don't yet know what else this money might have been spent on.

And let's not forget that, particularly following April's cut, the system of childcare support has some truly miserable features. Donald Hirsch, the leading welfare expert, has pointed out that someone on the minimum wage weighing up whether to work an extra hour will keep only about 35p of the extra £6 they earn (once they take account of additional childcare costs, the extra tax paid and reduced tax credits). Work hardly pays.

Today's shift on childcare is, nonetheless, significant in that it represents a clear decision to back-track on what was going to be an incredibly regressive cut aimed directly at working women. It also reveals something of the internal discussion going on within the coalition.

Above all it confirms that they have been rocked by recent polling showing plummeting support amongst female C2 voters, as well as other work by campaign groups showing how severely childcare costs are hitting family living standards. In the face of these concerns, abstract apologies from David Cameron to women voters were never going to suffice.

It also reflects the fact that Nick Clegg, who absented himself from debates on welfare and work for too long, has woken up to the fact that what was happening on childcare made a total mockery of his claim to champion 'alarm clock Britain'.

On closer inspection his team realised that further cuts would have risked the death of full-time work, or anything near full-time work, for women in low-income families relying on tax credits to pay for the childcare they need to hold down a job. This is obviously a major economic issue - but it's a massive electoral and gender one too. The Liberal Democrats, who were disproportionately reliant on female votes last May, realised during the summer that they couldn't sit this one out. Over recent weeks Clegg forced the hand of IDS and George Osborne and vetoed the idea of the announcement being made to the Tory faithful in Manchester this week.

Less easy to discern are the other changes this new found concern with working women might result in. Many expect a watering down of the coalition's proposed axing of Child Benefit for all higher rate tax-payers in 2013, though pressure for this will come from Conservative backbenchers (worrying about the impact on middle income stay-at-home mothers) rather than the Liberal Democrat leadership. Another flashpoint is likely to be the new and severe charging regime for parents using the Child Support Agency.

Either way the coalition's woes with working women on low-to-middle incomes are set to grow not diminish. The wider economic, fiscal and social forces underpinning them are hardly going to be reversed by one announcement on childcare. But at least today's announcement was more than warm words. And that's a step forward.

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.