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 is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

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.