BARRISTER turned full-time mum Laura Perrins seemed to have Nick Clegg on the back foot when she attacked him over the coalition’s much-vaunted childcare policy.
The new vouchers, which will be worth up to £1,200 a year per child for every family where both parents work and receive no tax credits (and every single parent in the same position) showed just how little the government valued women who choose to look after their own children, she fulminated during his weekly LBC radio slot. On one level I suppose you could understand her frustration. Because her husband, also a barrister, earns more than £60,000 a year, she had already lost her child benefit. And now she had to contend with the thought of other legal mums being incentivised to return to the courtroom, while she received not so much as a thank you for staying at home to nurture her two toddlers. It’s easy to sneer, but only someone who has given up a job they loved for the sake of their children understands the need for that sacrifice to be recognised in some tangible way, and there’s no more tangible way to recognise sacrifice than through financial reward.
Nevertheless, that a policy aimed at improving the overall career prospects of women should be condemned as an affront to stay-at-home mothers as opposed to applauded for trying to redress a social imbalance is both reductive and self-defeating.
When analysing the pros and cons of the policy, to be introduced in 2015, I would prefer to take as my starting point the flurry of recent surveys which suggest gender equality in the workplace has stalled. One investigation, by the accountancy and consultancy practice PwC showed women in the UK were less likely to be in work, and more likely to experience lower job security and greater pay inequality, than their counterparts in other developed countries. More shocking still, a report produced by a coalition of five organisations including the Fawcett Society last month found the number of women in senior levels of the judiciary, education, the arts, finance, the civil service and government was plummeting.
It would be a bit perverse to argue that part of what’s holding women back is the prohibitive cost of childcare, then castigate the government for trying to subsidise it. Under the current Employer Supported Childcare scheme, working parents can each receive vouchers for childcare worth up to £55 a week. This sum is deducted from their salary before tax is paid. The saving in tax and national insurance is typically worth about £900 a year for a basic-rate taxpayer. Where both parents work, families can save about £1,800 a year, but it is only available to those whose employers have signed up the scheme (around 5 per cent) and not to the self-employed.
Under the new system, vouchers will be available to all those working parents with children under five who meet the criteria (to be extended to children under 12 by 2020) and the families will be able to save up to £1,200 a year per child, not per household. The broadening out of the scheme means the number receiving vouchers is likely to rise from 450,000 to 1.3 million (2.5 million by 2020). But, and here’s the rub, unlike the current scheme, it will not be open to two-parent families where only one works (though, to be honest, I never understood why mothers who give up work to spend time with their children would be entitled to childcare vouchers anyway).
Some critics of the new policy find it distasteful that the savings will apply to parents earning up to £150,000 (a joint income of £300,000 in two-parent families) but, while I accept it jars to think of the wealthy getting tax breaks to pay live-in nannies, it does serve a wider social purpose. For a start, the more women earn, the more money is likely to have been invested in their education and training and the more taxes they will have to pay when they return to work. If a woman is a qualified GP, engineer or pharmacist, it is better for society to reap the benefits of her expertise than not.
The most legitimate criticism of the coalition’s policy is not that it helps those at the top of the pay-scale, but that it fails to help those at the bottom. Although the government also intends to add an extra £200m to the new Universal Credit system, allowing families where both parents pay income tax to get 85 per cent of the childcare costs covered (up from 70 per cent in the current tax credit system), those who earn less than the personal allowance (which will be £10,000 by 2015) will slip through the net.
There are other flaws too: in the short-term the new system will only apply to children under the age of five, increasing gradually to 12 (the old scheme covered children up to the age of 16) and it won’t be introduced until after the next general election, even though the coalition managed to find £1.1bn to cover the cost of cutting the top income tax rate from 50p to 45p.
But to criticise the new childcare policy as a slap in the face for those who choose not to go back to work is the ultimate red herring and a gift to those who would prefer to see women denied access to power. Both stay-at-home mums and working mums make a valuable contribution to society, but so long as they pit themselves against each other, instead of presenting a united front, progress towards complete gender equality is likely to be faltering.