A woman’s choice of work is a thorny issue

The coalition government yesterday promised a helping hand to working parents, proposing a scheme that means they will be allowed to claim back up to 20 per cent of childcare costs.

This tax relief will be introduced in 2015 and would cover children up to the age of five. It could save families up to £1,200 per child every year.

I’m sure that this will be broadly welcomed by most people. After all, every little helps and I know from experience how crippling monthly nursery bills can be. You can kiss most of your salary goodbye if you have more than one child in full-time care – and that is a pretty common situation.

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But, as is always the case with childcare stories, there is another point of view.

The government wants women to go out to work to get the economy moving, but what about the mums who don’t want to get a job, who want to stay at home and look after their own children?

Under this new scheme, households where a parent does not work won’t be able to claim the money.

There is growing anger from some of these mothers who believe that they are getting a raw deal.

Mothers at Home Matter is a pressure group aimed at giving stay-at-home mums a voice. Anne Fenell, who is bringing up five children, is a member of the group. She says “Everyone is looking for childcare solutions to help mothers go out to work and anything that helps families meet economic challenges is good.

“But, still, for children the best carer is usually their own mother and the government should not stack economic incentives against that basic family model.”

Women like Anne may be angry that many high earners are no longer entitled to child benefit and perhaps the insinuation that mothers who have given up their jobs and careers are not valued by society.

“The message from the government has been ‘get back to work’, she said. “It’s ‘are you lazy, are you not contributing?’”

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Of course, there is no right or wrong here. I have worked part-time and full-time, and, for a mercifully short time, I stayed at home to look after my two daughters. I take my hat off to any woman who wants to be a full-time mother. It’s an incredibly hard job and I don’t think they get the recognition they deserve.

Surely every mum has the right to decide what is best for her family without being penalised financially?

But, equally, is it right that they complain about the tax breaks given to mothers who want – indeed, have to – work?

We have the highest childcare costs in the world and it’s a thorny issue for most working mothers and fathers. We are light years behind many countries where helping working parents is an absolute priority. Take Sweden, for instance. It has long had a glowing reputation for its generous childcare facilities and it’s ranked as one of the best places to raise a family.

Every child is guaranteed a place at a public pre-school and, because it’s heavily subsidised, the parents end up paying as little as £100 a month. The state spends £5 billion on childcare every year – that’s more than its annual defence budget.

And now it has gone even further, with nurseries increasingly offering overnight and weekend care for the children of parents who have to do shift work.

Some little ones spend up to three nights a week away from their parents. They arrive in time to have their dinner, change into their pyjamas and get tucked into bed.

I know this service must be an absolute godsend to many hard-pushed mums and dads, but I really can’t imagine a more heartbreaking scenario than a virtual stranger reading my children a bedtime story. I simply couldn’t leave my daughters with carers overnight. It was bad enough leaving them during daylight hours when they were babies.

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And not everyone in Sweden agrees with this move towards 24-hour care. Some women feel they are pushed into leaving their kids in childcare, because of a social stigma against stay-at-home mums – a group which is in the minority in Sweden, with just over 78 per cent of women with children under seven going out to work.

But whether it is Scandinavia or Scotland, this is a complicated issue wherever you are.