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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.