What does the childcare announcement really tell us?

By prioritising support for dual-earner couples, the coalition is shunning backbench Tory calls to favour the 'traditional' family.

Before we rush to dissect the government’s new childcare policy it is worth pausing to reflect on the very fact that in an unprecedented time of austerity a Conservative-led administration is proposing to spend near on £1bn on childcare. There are all sorts of caveats and problems with the policy, when it will be introduced and how it will be paid for. But before we rush into all that we should note that today’s announcement confirms that the issue of childcare will remain at the centre of the political arena.

There has already been plenty of unpicking of the proposals. But there are several aspects of what has been announced that say something significant about the policy and politics of the coalition that need to be drawn out.

First, there is the issue of who benefits. When highly constrained governments decide to spend new money, the issue of who gains the most provides an unusual moment of clarity about its distributional priorities. Choosing to spend the bulk of the new resource (£750m out of £950m) on a policy that excludes those on tax credits is very significant (bear in those on tax credits do already get support – see below). It rules out a lot people from the headline announcement. Indeed not many commentators are aware of how many people won’t access the new voucher policy because not many people realise how far up the income ladder universal credit reaches for working families relying on childcare (there is a hazy notion that UC is about the 'poor' when it actually reaches many households on middle incomes relying on childcare). A couple with two children in childcare would have to be on more than £40k of post-tax income before they come off universal credit (the figure is significantly higher if they are renting rather than home-owners). That is above the middle of the working-age income distribution. Those who have highly misleadingly referred to the vouchers policy as being ‘universal’ need to change their language.

Second, the announcement confirms something important about the type of family that the coalition is prioritising. As with all governments, it’s best to ignore the words that ministers are using and instead focus on the deeds. Child Benefit was means-tested in a way that helped dual earning families far more than single earning couples – much to the chagrin of Conservative backbenchers. The childcare announcement further ups the ante: not a penny of the £1bn of extra spending will benefit a couple where one parent stays at home. What’s more, some of the future spending will be paid for by ending the eligibility of single earner couples to vouchers (though existing claimants will be protected): to the extent there is a clear group of ‘losers’ it is single earner families wanting to claim vouchers in 2015 and beyond. And bear in mind this is happening at a time when the revealed preference of the Conservative leadership is to determinedly ignore its manifesto commitment to a married couples’ allowance, shunning calls to support the ‘traditional’ family. Whether you like or loathe this direction of travel (and I’ve long called for new support to be geared towards dual earners) it is pretty stark and reveals a willingness to ignore the sentiment of a large swathe of influential backbench support who feel ideologically disoriented (to put it politely) by these choices. This strategy on the family also hardly fits with the characterisation - popular among some centre-left critics of the Conservative leadership – that it is now largely captured by backbencher sentiment.

Third, today’s announcement included a significant, highly welcome, and largely unnoticed U-turn. One of the first cuts the coalition made was to the support on offer to low and middle income families for childcare via working tax credit. It was reduced from 80% to 70%. Privately some senior Lib Dems bitterly regret this decision (and their lack of scrutiny of it at the time). Following today’s announcement some of those on Universal Credit will be eligible for 85% of their childcare costs. This is a partial correction of an early mistake and should be welcomed as such.

It is, however, only a partial correction as from 2015 there will be a two-tier system of support for childcare within Universal Credit (bear with me). Depending on the level of family earnings, support for childcare costs will either be set at 85% or 70% - to be eligible for the higher rate both adults need to earn more than the (rapidly rising) personal tax allowance. This means a couple or lone parent with someone on the minimum wage working fewer than roughly 30 hours will miss out on the more generous level of support. ( It’s also striking that the new policy re-introduces cliff-edges to the tax credit system of the type that existed during the Labour years that Universal Credit was supposed to be getting rid of). I’ve yet to hear anyone even begin to justify how excluding these struggling part-time workers can be right when families with two children on a household income of up to £300k are set to receive a generous payment of £2.4k per year.

Fourth, this is a very fiddly announcement – and the fiddliness has important consequences. At a time when there is a lot of interest and potential support for simplifying childcare funding, today’s announcement - should it become policy beyond 2015 – cements three different childcare funding regimes: more generous tax-break vouchers for middle and higher income parents; and (for some) more generous tax-credits; as well as an entitlement to free childcare hours for 2, 3 and 4 year olds. As a result, the future politics of trying to pool spending on childcare in order to move towards a single, universal, supply-side funded system of childcare provision has just got harder.

Fifth, and related to this complexity, the announcement continues the awkward evolution of our tax system from one based solely around individuals to one which increasingly takes into account the earnings of partners. In addition to the highly clumsy system of means-testing introduced via the child benefit reforms, we will now need new systems for assessing childcare support entailing a joint assessment of earners in a household. Do they both earn enough to pay income tax in the case of universal credit? And do either of them earn enough to pay the 45% rate of tax in the case of the childcare voucher? Our tax and benefit systems continue to bump into each other.

Whatever you make of today’s announcement we can be sure that childcare is an issue which will run all the way to the next election (and quite possibly beyond). Labour’s response will be keenly awaited. It will certainly need one. The government’s announcement has in no way settled the childcare problem but it has signalled the start of the argument about how to solve it.

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

Gavin Kelly is a former adviser to Downing Street and the Treasury. He tweets @GavinJKelly1.

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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.