There is still a way to go to reach the vision of free, universal childcare. Photo: Getty
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Political parties woo parents' votes with childcare pledges – but it's not enough

Childcare proposals such as the Lib Dems' announcement this week are not close enough to a vision of free, universal childcare that parents need.

This week the Liberal Democrats made their play for much-coveted parent votes, pledging to extend free childcare to all two-year-olds.

The importance of accessible and affordable childcare can’t be underestimated. Without it, many parents, and particularly single parents, can’t go out to work; either because they can’t afford to, or because there is no-one else to look after their children if they do.

This is something that politicians of all parties have clearly begun to grasp, and each party has its own set of solutions:

  • While in office the coalition government has extended 15 hours of free early years education to disadvantaged two-year-olds; has introduced a bill to deliver tax-free childcare worth up to £2,000 per child each year for middle to high earners from autumn 2015; and plans to increase childcare support for parents on universal credit to up to 85 per cent of costs from April 2016.
     
  • The Liberal Democrats have this week pledged to extend 15 hours of free childcare to all two year olds, trailed as the first in a series of steps towards offering free childcare to all working parents from the end of parental leave until children start school.
     
  • The Labour Party has committed to increase free early years education for three and four year-olds from 15 hours to 25 hours per week for working parents; and has also pledged wraparound childcare for all children from 8am to 6pm in primary schools.
     

While these policies will help parents balance work and family life, there is still a way to go to reach the vision of free, universal childcare that Gingerbread and other family organisations believe government should be working towards.

All parties heavily focus on pre-school childcare, with none specifically addressing provision for children aged 11 and over. A further notable omission from party pledges to date: holiday childcare; any parent emerging from the other side of summer holidays this week will tell you this is impossible to ignore.

School holidays take up a quarter of the year – a massive 13 weeks in total; they affect free early years education for pre-schoolers (which is available term-time only) as well as school children; and in the last five years availability of holiday childcare has halved, while prices have risen by around a fifth.

At Gingerbread we work with single parents, who are particularly reliant on childcare. They can’t do the "shift-parenting" that couples can, for example, taking turns to take annual leave from work over the summer.

This summer we surveyed more than 600 single parents about their experiences of holiday childcare; and the financial and emotional toll it takes was clear to see. A third (34 per cent) told us that they had cut back on spending on food or other essentials, with one parent adding that she had been eating just one meal a day because otherwise she couldn’t afford the food and childcare her children needed over the holiday.

Many more told us they’d driven hundreds of miles to deliver children to stay with grandparents for weeks on end, some even flying in relatives from abroad to provide childcare, while others said they had no choice but to leave their job.

Ultimately, we would like to see all political parties set out their roadmap towards universal free childcare for all 52 weeks of the year, to provide parents with the support they need to balance work and care, in itself vital to increase parental employment from which we all benefit economically. We believe any strategy must include: engaging with employers to increase flexible working; extending the right to request flexible working from job offer onwards; considering using school buildings as childcare facilities; and supporting schools who want to provide childcare during the holidays.

For 13 weeks of the year, single and couple parents are faced with incredibly difficult choices about their children, their job and their finances. It’s time politicians offered some solutions.

Caroline Davey is director of policy, advice and communications at Gingerbread, the single parent family charity

Caroline Davey is the Director of Policy, Advice and Communications at Gingerbread.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.