The Tories are wrong to double free childcare

Felicity Hannah
Cameron visit to south west London
Cameron visit to south west London

The Conservatives have announced that they are going to bring forward their pledge to double free childcare.

From as early as next year, working parents of three and four year olds will begin to qualify for 30 hours of free term-time childcare, up from 15 hours at the moment.

Short of sending me actual money through the post, there is pretty much nothing better the state can do for my finances. This free care is worth about £5,000 a year on average. I have two preschool children and so childcare is my biggest bill.

In September, my eldest starts school, so if my youngest received 30 hours of free nursery a week from next year then I would be about £12,000 a year better off in total. Twelve grand. And that's after tax (I am self-employed so I don't get childcare vouchers), meaning I am almost giddy at the thought of working in order to have money in my bank account rather than spending it on childcare bills.

Yet objectively I know that this is an idea to win votes and support, not an idea to help the country's children achieve their potential. How can we justify spending hundreds of millions on a universal benefit when child poverty is rising?

A government memo leaked to the Guardian last week showed that the benefit cap could force a further 40,000 children into poverty – how can we justify increasing spending on benefits that help well-off families when there are millions of kids in poverty?

The Child Poverty Action Group suggests that the 3.5 million youngsters living in poverty in 2012/13 will be joined by a further 600,000 by next year.

On top of that, children have been badly, badly hit by austerity. Research from the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion and the London School of Economics shows that tax benefit reforms have hurt families with under-5s harder than any other group; families with babies were particularly badly affected.

If there is now finally some money to spare, shouldn't we be spending it on increasing the life chances available to our poorest children?

These are not the only concerns; it's also been suggested that the scheme can't work. The Pre-School Learning Alliance has warned that councils are paying insufficient rates already, and suggested that at least £354 million more would be needed to make the extra hours happen.

Some preschools operate out of church halls and community centres and will be unable to offer such lengthy hours. It is a flawed scheme, both practically and ethically.

Increasing cost in raising children
Increasing cost in raising children

Of course, you might read this and accuse me of hypocrisy. Maybe you think that if I am so worried about poor kids I should donate the money I will save to the local foodbank or school uniform charity but I'm no saint. I am not going to work with no personal financial gain if I don't have to.

And even if I did, it would not even be a drop in the ocean when it comes to the UK's issue of child poverty. What would make a difference is the hundreds of millions pounds that is being spent on a universal scheme instead of being targeted at the needy.

You might be reading this and thinking that my argument is very unfair. Perhaps you're a working family forced under the breadline by the cost of childcare. Perhaps you're a parent working two jobs to meet the cost of childcare and the cost of living. Perhaps you can't afford to buy a home because childcare costs so much.

Families in that situation have my sympathy. I think you should certainly get more help. A few years ago, research from Save the Children and the Daycare Trust showed that the cost of childcare is forcing many families into debt, while some even reported cutting back on food in order to pay for childcare.

Clearly, those families need help, especially given that childcare costs for the under-5s rose by an inflation-busting 27% over the course of the last parliament, according to analysis from the Family and Childcare Trust.

But we live in a time of austerity and cuts, and we have to prioritise. The first priority should be lifting children out of poverty and making sure their parents can afford to keep them fed, warm and dressed. The next priority should be to provide more help to those working parents who are more likely to struggle to afford their childcare bills, perhaps by providing free care to those receiving tax credits.

Parents like me may find the childcare a severe squeeze; I am not wealthy. But we can still afford the mortgage, the heating, food bills and the childcare bills – and so really we need to be a lower priority than those who can't.

Free childcare for the comfortably-off is about politics, not about children. The government should not be providing such a vast and expensive kickback to comparatively wealthy families while in other homes children go hungry.

What do you think, is the government right to increase free childcare? Have your say using the comments below.

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