Why today’s childcare changes won’t help the squeezed middle

The government’s plans will not undo the damage from cuts to tax credits and Sure Start.

We know parents are struggling with the cost of childcare right now. Under David Cameron, childcare costs are eating further and further into household incomes. Research from the Daycare Trust shows costs have risen by 7% in the last year alone, while average hourly earnings have fallen. In one central London nursery, you would have to pay an eye-watering £42,000 a year for one full-time nursery place.

At the same time, David Cameron has been cutting support to families, including cuts to tax credits, child benefit and maternity support. By the next election, families with children will have been hit with cuts of £15bn in financial support over the course of the parliament. By 2015, these cuts will amount to £7bn a year, ten times the value of the £750m in childcare support the government is now proposing.

Worse still, under the government’s childcare plans, not a single family will get a penny before May 2015. But families need real help coping with childcare bills this year, not a vague promise of help in two and a half years’ time.

Many low and middle income earners will lose out under these plans. Families claiming childcare support through tax credits have already seen this support cut by up to £1,560 a year, yet the government’s plans will not undo the damage for many of these families.

But while many families on modest incomes are losing out, if you earn £300,000 you will benefit. The government claims this is fair – but then this is the government that is prioritising a £100,000 tax break to millionaires, so we know what David Cameron’s definition of fairness is.

Many families will lose out in other ways too. A couple who both pay basic rate tax and have one child can currently get just over £1,800 in support through the childcare voucher scheme. Under the government’s plans, this will fall to £1,200 – another blow to household incomes.

So the childcare squeeze will continue. At the same time, the government is threatening the quality of childcare with their plans to increase the number of toddlers that nursery staff look after and there are now 401 fewer Sure Start Children’s Centres than in 2010.

The government should provide immediate help to families that are struggling, not just more vague promises of help further down the line.

David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg visit Wandsworth Day Nursery on March 19, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Stephen Twigg is shadow minister for constitutional reform and MP for Liverpool West Derby

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.