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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

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