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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.