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

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.