Anne Fennell: Why are the Conservatives, like the other main parties, against choice for families?

Anne Fennell is Chair of Mothers at Home Matter.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that all mothers in possession of young children must be in want of childcare. However little known the feelings or views of such a mother may be on her first entering motherhood, this truth is so well established that every manifesto pledge on care of young children and every family policy enacted by previous governments and the Treasury is directed to liberating the mother from the burden of caring for her child.

‘High quality affordable childcare’: all parties are promising it in various degrees. The Conservatives wish to extend wrap-around childcare at school and holidays for working parents. Labour promises an extension to 30hrs a week for two to four year olds and to extend provision for one year olds and the Lib Dems promise to deliver the best start in life for children by extending childcare provision at 9 months.

All these so called ‘family friendly policies’ are offered to mothers only if they agree to hand over care of their children to external settings and get out of the home. Care, which was once done for love and supported through family tax allowances, is now only recognised and supported if it is a traded commodity and measured as growth.

High quality long-term committed stable child care is a mother at home or a father or a grandmother – even a childminder in a home setting, but none of these qualify for any support. Economic pressures aside, spending more time with their children is what the vast majority of mothers want, and I daresay if one year olds could speak (some scream at the nursery door at being wrenched from their mother) is what they would prefer too.

But their voices are ignored at best or at worst misrepresented in political debate and policy circles. One freedom the ordinary mother no longer has is to choose to care for her own children: Mothers say choice is ‘virtually eradicated’ (Netmums: Great Work Debate) . 88 per cent of mothers with very young children said the main reason for returning to work was financial pressure’, according to the Centre for Social Justice.

And yet there is a clamour for childcare and a desperate need to help families struggling with debt, rising rents and living costs. Families are drowning and asking for a helping hand. They are not asking how they got into the river: they are too busy swimming to survive, and ‘affordable childcare’ appears to be a way to enable the mother to work to plug the income gap.

But is ‘affordable childcare’ the answer to relief from poverty? It is not – and unfortunately families will find out all too late that both parents are working very hard for very little extra disposable income. What they will have lost is family time; time with their children, which they cannot recover.

Nearly half of all families with children are caught in a tax trap. For these families, there is very little they can do about their finances. Even if a man could double or treble his gross income it would not significantly improve the family’s net income. This is because his income is subsidised by tax credits and benefits (now Universal Credit) but, for every extra £1 he earns, he loses 20p to tax, 12p to NI, 44p to Universal credit leaving him with just 24p.

So, for example, if the family needed a new car and it cost £3000, he would have to earn £12,500 to bring home the £3000. It is not surprising that it falls to the mother to give up her caring role and plug the income gap, and that there is a demand for affordable childcare.

But even if the childcare were fully subsidised, the mother would still be caught in the same trap. She cannot bring home the £3000 by earning £3000. She loses 65p in every £1 she earns, and would need to earn £8.5000 to bring home the £3000. She will have to work near to capacity away from her children for a rate of reward for effort amounting to exploitation as bad as anywhere in the world and passing largely unnoticed.

The problems families face today stem from the introduction of independent taxation in 1990, which shifted tax policy from treating the family as a household unit with allowances for a dependent spouse and children to taxing it as individuals disregarding whether they have family responsibilities or not. The tax burden for many single income families has more than doubled, while for many single taxpayers without dependents the proportion of income paid in tax has barely increased. The UK is one of the only countries in the world that does not recognise the family in its taxation system. Tax credits were introduced to compensate the family for the loss of family allowances, which were stripped away in the 1990s.

The independent taxation system with no transferable allowance heavily penalises the single income family, whilst childcare policies introduced by the Coalition further discriminated against mothers at home. In 2008, 38 per cent of families with children in which someone worked full time and their partner did not work were struggling to get by; by 2015 this figure had risen to 51 per cent. (Joseph Rowntree Foundation)

Treating the family as a unit should be the first principle of taxation of families. Some injustices arising from not doing so include: households on £30,000 where a parent stays at home are taxed double the amount as those where parents work; some families are financially better off apart than together by £12,000; some families caught in recent Child Benefit tax changes will be in the poorer 50 per cent of the population while some of the richest families continue to receive it.

What we need is a party to champion choice. The answer to families’ problems do not lie solely in one size fits all ‘affordable childcare’. There are alternatives. Mothers at Home Matter campaigns for an economic level playing field for parents who stay at home; for taxation which falls fairly on those who stay home and those who work; for childcare subsidies to follow the child, with parents able to choose whether they use it to stay home, or give it to a grandparent, childminder or external care setting and for child benefit to be distributed fairly.

We need a taxation system that gives families the option of being taxed as a household and preferably with a transferable allowance to recognise the cost of raising children. But at the very least we need to recognise that an individual’s income is not a measure of how well off the family is. Net household income is a better measure.

The Conservative Party, traditionally recognised as the party of the family, is in a position to give choice back to mothers quietly grieving to be missing their child’s first steps and discoveries and to give mummy back to the child who quietly grieves “where is my mummy?”

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Author: Anne Fennell


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