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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide