Childcare tax breaks risk helping the rich the most

At present, there are almost no voucher recipients among the poorest 40 per cent of households.

In the week that parents earning over £50,000 saw their child benefit cut, the speculation is that the government intends to introduce tax relief for childcare, possibly making those who were worse off from the child benefit change, better off once again. In the absence of an announcement from ministers, we will not know what the government actually intends to do until next week’s announcement. But the talk is of the introduction of basic rate tax relief for childcare worth £2,000 a year per child. How the scheme will work is anyone's guess but, even without the details, we can already speculate that this is a policy that is likely to help the better off more than the ‘strivers’ the government says it supports.

The government already spends £700m a year on tax relief for childcare through employer supported childcare vouchers which look likely to be scrapped following the introduction of tax relief. It’s a voluntary scheme that employers can offer which gives their employees basic rate tax relief on £55 a week of childcare costs (less if they are a higher rate taxpayer). Resolution Foundation analysis shows that 50 per cent of people who used vouchers in 2010-11 were in the top 20 per cent of households (see graph). Almost no voucher recipients were found among the poorest 40 per cent of households.

Position of childcare voucher recipient households in the income distribution, 2010-11

At the moment, whether or not you can benefit from vouchers depends on whether your employer offers them. In this respect, the government’s proposal could be an improvement if it is available to all. But assuming it works in a similar way to the existing vouchers, it is likely to be of little benefit to low paid working families who struggle most with the costs of childcare. Under the current scheme, those who do not earn enough to pay tax cannot benefit at all and those who qualify for tax credits are only marginally better off if they also take up vouchers. The argument may be that tax credits are there for those on low income and tax relief is there to help the rest. But let’s be clear that the government may be about to make a major investment in childcare that barely benefits low income working families, while offering help to the richest.

Other choices would have been possible. The Resolution Foundation’s Commission on Living Standards recommended an extension of the universal entitlement to childcare for three and four year olds from 15 hours a week for 38 weeks a year to 25 hours a week for 47 weeks a year. This would make it easier for more mums to work part-time than the current childcare entitlement which is what most say they would like to do. The extension would have benefited all families with young children, including the better off, but importantly would have also helped the least well off.

Among the details of the government’s proposals that will be made clear next week is how the scheme will be administered. There seem to be three choices. The government could extend the current employer scheme but make it compulsory for employers to take part. This seems unlikely given prior commitments to cut red tape. Tax relief could be claimed by individuals through the self assessment process but this also seems unlikely given criticisms about a similar approach introduced to deal with the messy child benefit change. The third option is to force providers to administer it and claim tax relief on behalf of parents. If this is the preferred option, the government will need to ensure that the extra money is passed onto parents in lower fees. Otherwise, this could end up being a subsidy to struggling providers rather than a benefit to squeezed parents.

David Cameron during a visit to a London Early Years Foundation nursery in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Vidhya Alakeson is deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories