David Cameron's great childcare con

This isn’t just bad news for parents and children, it’s bad news for the economy too, says Sharon Hodgson.

Today’s coverage of David Cameron’s childcare policies has illustrated how out of touch this Government is. While they give tax cuts to those at the top, they have totally failed to support hardworking families with the cost of childcare.

As one mother, who works from home as a childminder, put it: “I remain unconvinced that it does anything for the typical working/lower middle class family”.

She is right. According to the Resolution Foundation think tank, 900,000 low income working families will not benefit from David Cameron’s childcare vouchers.

And of course no-one will get any help until 2015. There has been nothing for families in five years from this Government, while costs continue to rise and wages stagnate. And of course when it comes to living standards, hardworking parents have already seen their family budgets squeezed.

Working parents with two children have already lost £1,500 a year from the cut in childcare tax credits. Added to that, many mums have lost hundreds of pounds because of cuts to maternity pay, child benefit and pregnancy grants.

By the next election, George Osborne will have taken a total of £15 billion out of parents’ pockets.

All this is happening while costs continue to spiral. Childcare costs are rising faster than wages. A parent buying 50 hours of childcare per week for a child under two now faces an annual bill of nearly £11,000 per year or £14,000 per year in London. That’s the equivalent of a second mortgage.

And yet provision is getting patchier. Unbelievably, there are now 5,000 fewer childcare places since last year, as nurseries close down and childminders go out of business.

And many nurseries and children’s centres are charging top up fees for services that used to be free, pricing yet more hardworking families out of the labour market.

This isn’t just bad news for parents and children, it’s bad news for the economy too.

Labour want to ensure parents are able to go back to work if they want to. That’s why we’re looking to countries in Scandinavia who provide stronger support for childcare and where female unemployment is lower.

But this Government has made it more difficult for new mums to return to their job.

An Aviva survey found that 32,000 women left the workforce in one year since summer 2010 due to high costs of childcare making it more cost-effective to stay at home.

The summer holidays are a particularly tricky time for working parents. Those who can’t afford a private nanny or nursery are often forced to take time off work or rely on help from friends or families.

Labour was working to address this in Government. We tripled the number of holiday childcare places, but in their first year this Government cut 10,000 of those places, and have slashed the budget for holiday childcare by 40% so far.

There’s no doubt that childcare costs are one of the biggest drivers of living standards. The trouble is that hardworking parents have seen their income squeezed since the last election.

Only David Cameron could be so out of touch to think parents will be grateful for some help in 2015, when they’ve already seen their childcare support cut.

Sharon Hodgson MP is Labour’s Shadow Children’s Minister

David Cameron visits a school. Photo: Getty

Sharon Hodgson is Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West. 

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot