After Labour's offer, the political battle on childcare has heated up

The party needs to show how new 'guarantees' will be delivered. If not, the Tories, with their offer of more money in parents’ pockets, could win the all-important female vote.

Earlier this week, Labour retook the initiative on childcare with the announcement of a major extension in free care for three-and-four-year-olds. Having been the party that established childcare as a new frontier of the welfare state when in government, Labour’s lack of a clear policy direction over the last year had left room for the coalition to creep in with its proposals. A YouGov poll for the Resolution Foundation conducted before the announcement revealed that even Labour supporters felt that the Lib Dems had better ideas on childcare than their own party. But Labour has come back with force. Will its ideas on childcare help it reclaim the all important women’s vote – a major battle ground at the next election? And will the Tories try to reclaim the initiative next week in Manchester?

Children aged three and four are currently entitled to 15 hours of free early education and care. Labour's plan would extend that free entitlement by a further 10 hours for families with working parents. One of the central complaints about the existing free entitlement is that it is just too short to help second earners – usually mothers - to work part-time. This is because when it was introduced it was designed around child development not the labour market. But with living standards now the dominant issue for all political parties, the extension to 25 hours is intended to make a part-time job possible.

Labour also set out a bold offer for parents of primary age children – a guarantee of childcare before and after school. While childcare for under-fives is more expensive, parents of older children struggle with the mismatch between the school day and the working day. Unless childcare can be easily wrapped around the school day, keeping a job can be a challenge.

Despite a decade of investment by government, the cost of childcare is still a major issue for families. A poll of 1,000 users of the parents’ website Mumsnet for the Resolution Foundation in advance of Labour conference found that nearly half of all respondents said that they found it more difficult to manage the costs of childcare in the past year compared to only one in 10 who thought the situation had improved. In fact, those who can are increasingly relying on grandparents or other types of informal care to reduce their childcare bill.

More free hours of childcare, as Labour has proposed, will definitely help to make work pay, particularly for lower-earning women for whom the costs of childcare eat up a large chunk of every extra pound they earn. The extension of the free entitlement and the guarantee for older children are also clearly distinct from the coalition’s current proposal announced at this year’s budget to create a new childcare voucher for better-off parents. The coalition has chosen to put more money in parents’ pockets; Labour to ensure more free provision is available.

With competing proposals in place, there is a lot to play for politically. When asked which of the parties has the best ideas on childcare, four in ten Mumsnet survey respondents said "none of them" and almost as many (38 per cent) answered "don’t know". Only 11 per cent named Labour and four per cent both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats as having the best ideas on childcare.

If Labour can deliver on its announcements and communicate them to parents, it has a clear opportunity to win over the undecided majority. Here the concept of a 'guarantee' is a useful approach. But it will only work in Labour’s favour if parents can get the childcare to which they are entitled. This is where the risk lies for Labour. There are long-standing problems with access to the existing 15 hours entitlement because it is underfunded. Labour needs to ensure that any new entitlements and 'guarantees' can be delivered. If not, the Tories, with their offer of more money in parents’ pockets could grab the all-important female vote. 

Chancellor George Osborne during a visit to a nursery in Hammersmith on August 5, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Vidhya Alakeson is deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.