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

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.