The coalition's new childcare policy: three problems

High-earners gain the most, 860,000 single-earner families lose out and the system won't be introduced until 2015.

After months of negotiations, David Cameron and Nick Clegg will announce the coalition's childcare plans today. Under the new system, parents on joint incomes of up to £300,000 (or £150,000 for a one-parent family) will be able to claim £1,200 a year for each child - or 20 per cent of childcare costs. The £750m scheme will initially cover children under the age of five and will be gradually extended to include all children under 12. Half of the funding will come from the abolition of the existing system of childcare vouchers, with the reminder switched from other Whitehall departments. An additional £200m of support will be provided through Universal Credit. 

The chief benefit of the new policy is that will offer support to those parents who do not currently benefit from the employer-funded voucher scheme, which is provided by only five per cent of employers. Around 1.3 million families will qualify for the scheme, rising to 2.5 million as it is gradually extended. In a joint appearance with Clegg later today, Cameron will hail it as "one of the biggest measures ever introduced to help parents with childcare costs" but here are three problems with the policy that the government won't be so keen to draw attention to. 

1. High-earners will gain the most from the policy, with less support provided those on low and middle incomes. In order to be eligible for support, both parents must be earning over the personal allowance (which will rise to £9,440 this April) and 82 per cent of those families likely to gain from tax relief are in the top half of the income distribution. 

While low earners will benefit from increased support through Universal Credit, with 88 per cent of recipients in the bottom half of earners, the lion's share of funding is devoted to tax relief (£750m against £200m for UC), meaning that the system is regressive overall. 

2. To qualify for the scheme, both parents in a two-earner family and one parent in a single-earner family must be in work. As a result, around 860,000 single-earner families with a child under five will receive no support. Following the withdrawal of child benefit from those earning £50,000 (but not two-earners on £49,000 each), this is another blow to stay-at-home parents. 

3. The new system won't be introduced until autumn 2015 at the earliest. The coalition had originally intended to implement it before the next election but the anaemic state of the economy meant it was ruled unaffordable by the Treasury. However, as shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg notes, the government has found £1.1bn to reduce the top rate of income tax from 50p to 45p this April.

"Parents will be disappointed that three years into this government, they will not get any help with childcare costs for another two and a half years. While working parents are promised help tomorrow, this government is only helping millionaires today."

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

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt