Labour's childcare plans will give women the support they need to work

Our pledge to provide all parents with access to childcare through their school from 8am-6pm will give men and women equal opportunity to succeed in the workplace.

Tonight I will talking on Channel 4's Political Slot about the cost of living crisis afflicting men - and particularly women - across the country. Under this Tory-led government, the number of women out of work reached a 25-year high earlier this year and there are currently 1.05 million unemployed women across the UK.

Between 2010 and April this year, the number of women without work rose by 12%, whilst the number of unemployed men fell over the same period. The Fawcett Society has projected female unemployment may rise to 1.5 million by 2018. If we want to tackle this and give men and women equal opportunity to succeed in the workplace, then we need to address the challenge parents have accessing quality childcare.

Labour has recognised this and announced this week that we will introduce a 'primary childcare guarantee' - giving all parents of primary school children guaranteed access to childcare through their school from 8am-6pm.

I know from speaking with hundreds of constituents and hearing the experience of many friends that it's really hard to juggle full time work with a child or children in primary school. In fact, 62% of parents of school-age children say that they need some form of before-and-after school care in order to combine family and work. But nearly three in ten of these parents are unable to find it. Too many parents can't find the childcare they need to fit around their working day.

Labour's commitment builds on what we did in government. It was Labour who introduced the extended schools policy - offering breakfast clubs so children could be at school from 8; and after-school clubs so parents could pick up at the end of the work day - rather than having to make special arrangements to collect when school finished up to three hours earlier.

As a former school governor, I saw how valuable extended schools were. While I was evaluating a breakfast club back in 2008, I met mums and dads at the school gate anxiously waiting for the door to open so they could drop off their kids and get to work; I witnessed students enjoying some time before the formal start of the learning day to eat a proper breakfast, use the computers (which many didn't have at home) and settle in. Likewise after-school clubs provided children with quiet rooms for homework, safe outdoor space for playing football and other supervised activities. The benefits for both parents and children of these clubs were significant - it was one of Labour's unsung successes.

That's why it was so depressing to learn last year that since the Tory-led government abandoned the extended schools programme, 37% of local authorities have reported a cut in the number of after-school clubs locally and 44% have seen breakfast clubs close in their area.

I saw the impact of this firsthand when I held a local childcare summit in my constituency a few months ago. Parents and I discussed the government's then plans to cut the number of staff needed to look after children - an idea subsequently scrapped because it was such a terrible, poorly informed proposal. It was clear from our conversations that those mums and dads were really struggling because of the lack of access to wraparound care at their childrens' primary school.

Household incomes are seriously being squeezed. Some parents report working part time when they want and need to be working full time. Others have said they've been adversely affected on a zero hours contract and haven't received subsequent hours because they aren't available for a full working day. For children whose parents feel they have no choice, it means taking themselves to school and returning to an empty home.

With so many hardworking families being hit by this cost of living crisis, David Cameron's government should be doing all it can to build an economy that works for working people. They shouldn't make it harder for parents who want to work.

Labour has given a clear commitment for what we would do to help mums and dads. It's good news for our economy, good news for parents and, most importantly, will make a real difference to children everywhere.

A National Union of Teachers stand ask delegates 'What is education for' at the Labour Party conference on September 22, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Luciana Berger is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Liverpool Wavertree and Shadow Minister for Energy & Climate Change.

Photo: Getty
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The Universal Credit nightmare shows there’s nothing more dangerous than a good idea

The hardest thing to build into any benefits IT project is common sense.

The trouble with Universal Credit is that everyone thinks it’s a good idea. Labour has long backed the concept of rolling multiple benefits into one payment but studiously refused to implement it when in power. Why? Because it takes all the mess and complication that claimants have to navigate and transfers that to the government. It’s like Whitehall volunteering to find your next house, sort out the survey and fix the best mortgage for you. It sounds brilliant – and that should make you suspicious.

“I think it’s quite a good idea, having it all in one go,” says Jo Whitaker when I speak to her at home in Moulton, North Yorkshire. Unfortunately, the reality fell short. Diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2016, Whitaker had to give up her cleaning business as she underwent chemotherapy. She was told – oh, happy day! – that her local jobcentre was one of those testing Universal Credit ahead of its countrywide roll-out.

There was a catch. In order for her to claim Universal Credit, her existing child and working tax credits had to be stopped for six weeks, while her eligibility for the single monthly payment was assessed. She created an online “journal” to record her income and provide supporting evidence and was told that she could apply for an advance, which would have to be paid back later, to cover the time she spent waiting.

She received her payments in November and December, then ran into a problem. Whitaker, a mother of three, owns a house jointly with her ex-husband, but it was on the market and had no tenants. (She was renting elsewhere.) This seems to have given the jobcentre computer conniptions: did Whitaker have an asset that meant her housing benefit should be reduced, or not?

She received a demand in her “journal” a few days before Christmas: show us that you’re paying rent, or we’ll stop your benefits. “I was on my fifth round of chemo and I wasn’t well at all,” she says. “After Christmas, I couldn’t get hold of anyone to give me a straight answer. This went on for about a month.” The January payment didn’t come. Whitaker spent hours on the phone – her mother, listening to our call, chimes in to amplify this point – and she eventually received a letter admitting that it was a mistake to withhold her benefit. “I can remember being on the phone, crying my eyes out,” she says. “Chemo, it does your brain in. It was the last thing I needed. It was an absolute nightmare.”

Yet Jo Whitaker’s story is not a particularly extreme one. She is, she says, lucky to have a great support network, and she never felt truly helpless. Her business experience helped her budget and cope with rectifying the jobcentre’s error. I’ll also admit that when I heard she had a house, I thought: hang on, why is she claiming benefits when she has an asset? As she talked, the situation became clear. But this is the kind of detail that computer systems struggle to deal with: the hardest thing to build into any IT project is common sense.

Many aren’t as resilient as Whitaker. New figures from the Department for Work and Pensions show that around a quarter of new claimants wait more than six weeks for their first payment. And because Universal Credit is paid to tenants, rather than directly to landlords, it has significantly increased the number of people falling behind on their rent.

There’s a cruel double bind here. Most people claim benefits precisely because they are in difficult personal circumstances. They have lost their job, got sick, or broken up with a partner and had to move house. Those same circumstances make dealing with bureaucracy more challenging. When the computer says no, it doesn’t just take away one of half a dozen benefits; it can disrupt the only assistance people are getting.

The quiet unhappiness of Jo Whitaker’s story should worry the government. In 2015, the possibility of cuts to tax credits caused enough concern on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries that even Tory MPs quailed. George Osborne’s resulting fudge was to kick back the cuts, promising that “savings” would be found anyway as more people moved to Universal Credit.

The idea that this can be accomplished without people feeling noticeably poorer is optimistic. That it can be accomplished using the existing IT system is even more so. Universal Credit should be a pragmatic project, but it has always been politicised: first by Iain Duncan Smith’s evangelical insistence that he would “make work pay” (even though 60 per cent of UK households in poverty have at least one member who works) and then by his flouncing anger that the project was being used as a cover for “salami-slicing” the welfare budget. IDS must have been the last man in Britain to work out that Osborne wasn’t just pretending to be into austerity; he really loved it.

In 2013, the National Audit Office found that the Universal Credit programme was struggling with a “tight timescale, unfamiliar project management approach and lack of a detailed plan”. The Labour MP Margaret Hodge, then the chair of the public accounts committee, concluded that most of the £425m spent so far would have to be written off. The programme was “reset”.

That, in effect, is what Citizens Advice wants to happen again. The organisation is calling for a pause on the roll-out, which is scheduled to accelerate next month. “[It] is a disaster waiting to happen,” says its chief executive, Gillian Guy. “People face severe consequences, like visits from bailiffs and eviction, when they can’t pay their bills.”

Like Jo Whitaker, she believes that the “principles behind Universal Credit are sound”. But that won’t be a consolation to anyone left cold, hungry or homeless over Christmas. In politics, there’s nothing more dangerous than something that everyone thinks is a good idea. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left