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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt