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Westlake Legal Group > Childcare

Childcare policy should support all parents with children – not just those who work in the labour market

It is good that the Conservatives are mulling childcare policy, which is a subset of families policy, on which the Party has had little to say or do since before Theresa May’s leadership.  That was back in the days when David Cameron was Prime Minister with a small majority, and wanted to improve life chances for children and parents.

It is not so good to read that they are considering providing more of it “free” – 15 hours of free childcare a week for parents of younger children, as a report would have it.  For, after all, nothing that government provides comes “free”: ultimately, taxpayers must pay the bill, unless politicians are prepared to mortgage the future on printing or borrowing.

So when Tories hear the word “manifesto”, “pledge” and “free”, they should reach for the delete button.  Especially since it is this kind of careless talk that costs progress, as the recent history of childcare policy in Britain will confirm.

The sum of it is that we have the worst of all worlds.  In other words, a system that pleases neither those who want more support for relatively informal care (that’s to say, childcare provided by parents, grandparents, other relatives, friends and members of other family networks); not those who back more provision for comparatively formal care (the “high quality, accessible, affordable childcare” of which we read so often).

The costs of childcare in Britain may or may not be among the very highest in the world (the figures are disputed), but reports that find us among the worst-off countries for family-friendly policies seem to be well founded.

The fundamental reason for these dismal outcomes takes us back to where we started.  Politicians – and particularly Conservative ones – have ducked discussing what childcare policy, and the families policy of which it is necessarily a part, is really for, especially when it comes to money.  Do we want to encourage parents to work in the labour market?  Or support the choices which they choose to make, including caring for those children at home?

Or, as our history and culture might suggest (the RSPCA was established earlier than our main children’s charities), are we disclined to believe that the costs of raising children should be supported at all?

Our own answer is that there is nothing much wrong with the traditional doctrine of what was until fairly recently the Inland Revenue doctrine: namely, that “the taxable capacity of those with children to maintain [is] lower than that of the childless taxpayer”, and that there is therefore a solid case for family allowances of some kind.  There are two main practicable ways in which this principle might be recognised.

The first is to build on the present system of child benefit, which has been capped for higher earners.  This is because child benefit isn’t really a benefit at all: it’s a transferred tax allowance, paid to “purse rather than wallet”.

The second is to revive the order which child benefit replaced – namely, those child tax allowances; and let what should properly be called the social security system support the family costs of those who don’t pay tax.  Most of those on the right would set the latter at a low level, many of those on the left at higher one.  But the principle behind such a settlement would be clear.

Since child benefit is paid to all parents with children, regardless of whether or not they work in the labour market, it would make sense for any system of revived tax allowances to be transferable.  This would presumably have the side-effect of supporting marriage in the tax system, but that would not be the aim of the policy.

Either way, such a system would be clear, simple – and, admittedly, expensive, because it would aim to support all parents rather than some.  But by putting money into the hands of parents, in effect, it would help to drive the demand for childcare of all kinds, formal and informal: that money could be used to pay other family members and friends; those formal high-quality settings, such as day nurseries; those less formal ones, such as childminders, and so on.

Or it could simply be spent by the parents themselves.  We apologise if such a system is too straightforward for politicians to get their heads round.  But this choice-based ideal is where any Conservative policy worth the name should be seeking to travel to.

The alternative, short of abandoning support for children in the tax and benefit system altogether, is to carry on down the present road of supporting some parents rather than all – with all the distortions that this implies, as chronicled elsewhere by our columnist Ryan Bourne and others.

Obviously, there is more to families policy than childcare – or at least the demand-side business of what to do with the tax and benefit system.  There is parental leave.  There is regulation, and the degree to which it distorts the childcare market.  There is flexible working – and more.  But since Team Johnson is looking at the demand side, it is worth the rest of us taking a squint too.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Neil O’Brien: How we can win support from younger voters – and turn our present strength into an enduring majority

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

It’s time to look to the future. Brexit isn’t quite over yet, but the Prime Minister has landed a great deal, and he has got off to a fantastic start, with a blistering series of popular announcements on the police, schools and hospitals. We’ve soared in the polls, while Corbyn deflates like a sad balloon

But let’s not stop now. Let’s work to turn our present strength into an enduring majority. In particular, let’s think about how we do better among younger voters.

In elections between 1950 and 2010, the Conservatives were on average eight per cent behind Labour among younger voters, but nine per cent ahead among older voters. But in the last election, we are were 35 points behind among the young (18 to 24-year-olds) and 36 points ahead among over-65s.

For me, the most concerning thing wasn’t being behind among the very young, but being behind among everyone under age 47. That meant we were behind among people with jobs, kids, bills… responsibilities – all things which tended to make people Conservative during previous years.

Doing better among younger voters isn’t about gimmicks: it’s about having answers to the big issues facing young people and young families.

Some of this is about action on issues younger voters care about. For example, we have a great record on the environment. We have the lowest emissions since 1888, and are one of the first countries in the world to set deadlines to end coal use, to go to all electric cars and net zero emissions.

But a lot of it is about doing things that will benefit young people directly.

Let’s start with housing. Declining homeownership explains a big chunk of the age gap in voting that has opened up. Looking at middle income people aged 25-34, the home ownership rate fell from two thirds in 1996, to just a quarter by 2016.

I’ve written elsewhere about the long term action we need on both supply and demand to drive up home ownership: building upwards and regenerating brownfield sites in our cities; rebalancing the economy to spread growth beyond the south east; getting away from the kind of piecemeal, tacked-on development in our towns and villages which maximises opposition to new housing; and making sure developers pay for the cost of the new infrastructure that’s needed with new housing.

But it’s also about building the tax reforms we’ve made since 2015. Those rebalancing tax reforms have led to the first sustained period for some time in which we have seen growth in home ownership, not just growth in the private rented sector.

But a plan to fix the housing problem over the coming decades isn’t enough. As well as a long-term solution, we need to provide immediate help. Many young people feel they’re on a cruel treadmill, unable to save because they are paying high rents. There are many who could afford a repayment mortgage (in fact it would be cheaper than renting), but they can’t save up for a deposit. So let’s create deposit loans: like Help to Buy, the government would take a repayable stake. But unlike Help to Buy, the purchaser would not have to provide a deposit up front.

There are a further group of people who might be able to save up a deposit over time, if only their existing rental costs were lower. They are the sorts of people who would have been helped by council housing in earlier generations – but (perversely) wouldn’t get it today, precisely because they’re working, so don’t qualify.

We could fund the creation of a huge number of cheap rented homes for young working people by transferring the remaining local authority housing stock into charitable housing associations, unlocking huge value.

Another part of our offer to younger people has to be about the cost of education. We have to be bold, not tinker.

Let’s cut the cost of going to university in half. And let’s pay for it by driving down the number of low value, mickey mouse courses which aren’t good value, either for students or the taxpayer. At present, one in ten graduates isn’t earning enough to pay back a single penny of their loan even ten years after graduation. And thanks to the LEO dataset, we now have a good idea of which courses they are, at which universities.

We need to build up technical education and apprenticeships. In Germany 20 per cent of the workforce has a higher technical qualification, but in Britain it’s just four per cent, while we rely heavily on importing electricians, plumbers, technicians and engineers from the rest of the world.

Tony Blair set a target for 50 per cent young people to go to university, but no such target for technical education.
We spend six times more per person on university students than technical students. We should become the champions for the 50 per cent who choose not to go to university too. We are introducing the new T levels, have brought in the Apprenticeship Levy, and are driving up number of Higher Apprenticeships. But there is much more to do.

But if we are serious about winning over younger voters we also need to talk about the pressures of life with a young family. Childcare costs are a huge worry for many.

Successive governments have built up a rather a confusing array of policies: the 15 and 30 free hours offers, Tax Free Childcare, the Childcare Element of Universal Credit, not to mention other benefits for children like Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit. Each has complex rules on eligibility and requires a certain amount of bureaucracy to claim.

We could be incremental, and refine and build on existing policies. For example, one frustration with using the 30 free hours for working families is that it only covers 38 weeks a year, following school terms. So how much you pay yo-yos up and down wildly each month. We could make it year-round, so it is more generous and predictable.

Or we could think more radically. As Conservatives we think people are best placed to make their own decisions. For example, when two police women were prosecuted for looking after each others’ children in 2009, conservatives saw it was an example of socialist meddling gone mad.

One way to simplify this alphabet soup of complex policies would be to bring back the tax allowances for children which Labour abolished in the 1970s. Tax allowances for children existed between 1909 and 1977, and gave a higher personal allowance for people with children, on the conservative principle that you should be able to provide for your own family before you pay tax. Rather than taking money off people, and then getting them to jump through hoops to claim it back, we could go back to just leaving it with people in the first place.

There are lots of other things we could do. But as we move into the post-Brexit era, it’s time to look to the future.
Let’s make sure that in our next manifesto, we think big for younger people.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

James Frayne: The new Prime Minister won’t triumph on Leave votes alone. Here’s how he can win some Remain supporters over.

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

It’s not impossible that the Conservatives will need to fight both a general election and a referendum in the next year. It was therefore vital that the Party picked a candidate with a record of successful campaigning – and who believes in the Brexit cause. Jeremy Hunt ran a decent campaign and deserves a serious job, but Party members have chosen the right candidate.

While I’ve been making the case for Boris Johnson’s appointment on these pages for two years, his arrival in Number Ten complicates the Conservatives’ electoral strategy – and the Party must be considering how best to adapt it. They should be exploring full, Clinton-style triangulation.

I stress “explore” because the truth is, we don’t have a clue about where public opinion is at the moment. It would be an understatement to say the polls are a mess. We only know a few things: that the public remains completely divided on Brexit; that the broad Conservative base (activists plus regular voters) has fractured since the Government missed its own self-imposed Brexit deadlines; that there is a risk this broad base will remain fractured if the Government doesn’t deliver Brexit “on time” (although this timetable is probably more flexible than people have said), and that, until recently, the Party has been polling strongly amongst working class and lower middle class Leave voters in the Midlands and North – more so than amongst Remain voters in large cities and across the South.

Everything else is clouded in doubt. As Johnson arrives with his Eurosceptic reputation, we don’t know, for example, if the Southern and urban Remainers who have reluctantly stuck with the Conservatives will now peel off in great numbers to the Lib Dems; we don’t know if Johnson’s record will be enough to keep Midlands and Northern working class and lower middle class Leavers onside, or whether they will be watching the antics of Hammond, Gauke etc and now proclaim “they’re all the same”; we don’t know if there are particular, non-Brexit policies that will appeal to these Remainers or Leavers, and we don’t know if middle class Labour voters are getting sick of the failure of Labour to deal with anti-semitism within the Party ranks. We don’t know any of this and it is hard to say when we will. Not, presumably, until Christmas when Boris Johnson has been Prime Minister for a while (itself an assumption).

But while there is great uncertainty, the Conservatives cannot just sit patiently on the sidelines and watch the action unfold before coming to a decision on their broad governing and campaigning strategy. They have to deliver Brexit  – but they also have to prepare and execute a programme that is going to be good for the country and, yes, let’s be realistic, for their own electoral prospects.

So what should they do? With the polls so messed up, all anyone can do at this point is to sketch out a governing and campaigning hypothesis on the basis of careful thought – and put it to the test.

For five years at least,  I have been advocating a strategy that focuses hard on working class and lower middle class voters in provincial England. I emphatically would not junk this approach; these voters will likely form the basis of the Conservatives broad base for the foreseeable future.

However, for positive and negative reasons, under Boris Johnson, this needs adapting. Positively speaking, these working class and lower middle class voters are, assuming that the Conservatives deliver Brexit (or are seen to die trying), temperamentally more positive towards Johnson than Theresa May.

And not just on Brexit; Johnson instinctively understands the importance of the NHS and schools, he understands public concerns about rising crime, he is unembarrassed about being English or about English history (something that has not been sufficiently explored) and he doesn’t obsess about political correctness. These voters aren’t “locked down” – far from it – but Johnson starts in a good place with them. More needs to be done to keep this voters onside, and I will be setting out some ideas on how in the coming weeks.

Negatively speaking, there’s no denying that Johnson starts in a terrible place with Remain voters full stop – and particularly those from urban, liberal-minded, middle class backgrounds. These are the people that associate – wrongly, but there we are – the Brexit cause with racism and intolerance. He is in a more difficult place than May with these voters, and it would be a disaster for the Party if vast numbers of them peeled away. Johnson needs a high-impact, high-visibility, immediate strategy for these voters – showing that he is the same person that ran London in an inclusive, centrist way.

Which brings us back to Clinton’s triangulating strategy of the mid-1990s. Back in those days, Clinton created a campaigning and governing strategy designed to appeal both to partisan Democrats and to floating voters that leaned Republican. Early Blair did the same, and this is what Johnson’s team should be considering. The Conservatives should deliver Brexit whatever happens, develop a longer-term strategy to turn the Midlands and the North blue, but also launch an assault for liberal-minded Remainers.

What might this entail? The Government is going to have to look again at increasing NHS spending – given the side of that bus, further NHS spending (with reform) is going to be hard to walk away from. It should look to develop a suite of environmental policies that incentivise good behaviour and that wrestle the issue away from the very hard left. The Government should also launch, along the lines of the GREAT campaign, a global PR campaign to encourage the best qualified workers to move to a modern, tolerant, post-Brexit Britain. And the Government should look at making it easier for new parents, at a time when they’re financially stretched, to secure loans for childcare. There will be many other alternatives, but you get the point.

The Conservatives must continue their transition towards becoming the provincial workers party, but the creative energy in the short-term should be directed South.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

James Frayne: What polling does and doesn’t tell us about voters and the environment

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Conservative Party politicians are prone to temporary policy cause obsessions. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen them obsess briefly about, amongst other issues: free schools, the gender pay gap, social media, childcare, foreign aid and housing. (To list them like this is not to dismiss their relevance).

The enthusiasm which they responded to Greta Thunberg’s visit to the UK, their timidity in the face of Extinction Rebellion’s direct action, and their unwillingness, as Natascha Engel described in her resignation as Shale Commissioner, to seriously promote Shale Gas extraction in England, strongly suggests they’re about to become obsessed with policy development on climate change. If so, what does this mean for the Party electorally? What do the polls say about the environment as an issue?

Let’s look at how seriously people take the issue overall.

YouGov’s most recent headline tracker of the public’s top issues puts the environment reasonably low down the list, behind leaving the EU, crime, health, the economy and immigration, but above housing, education, welfare and defence. While it’s still something of a niche issue overall, many will be surprised that it is even this high and, crucially, the issue has risen slowly but consistently over the last couple of years.

A poll for “Stop Climate Chaos” in Scotland also suggested, in a not-perfect exercise, that many people have become more concerned about climate change in recent times. So it’s an issue that’s on the up. (Incidentally, only a tiny number of people had heard, in early March, about “The Green New Deal”, inspired by US environmental activists. Also, incidentally, British adults put “pollution, the environment and climate change” much lower down their list of priorities than adults in other European countries).

But, predictably, the headline numbers mask huge differences of opinion based on politics, class and age. Hanbury Strategy’s recent poll for Onward showed that 18-24 year olds put the environment third in their list of policy priorities, behind Britain leaving the EU and health; on the other hand, over 65s put the environment near the bottom of their list, just above transport and defence. The poll also showed that Conservative voters were much less likely to name the environment as a major issue.

In a separate question in the same report, voters were asked if they would prefer that society or Government focused either on economic growth or prioritising the environment. This question forces too stark a choice in people’s minds, but the gaps between groups’ answers are interesting. Overall, voters narrowly said, by 51 per cent to 49 per cent, economic growth. However, 18-24 year olds chose the environment by 62 per cent to 38 per cent, while over 65s chose the economy by 64 per cent to 36 per cent.

Conservatives chose the economy by a significant margin, while Labour voters chose the environment by a similarly clear margin. (Another incidental finding, which builds this age point out further: a YouGov poll showed that a fifth of the population believe “the threat of climate change is over-exaggerated”. While nine per cent of 18-24 year olds agree with this statement, 32 pe cent of over 55’s agree).

That such differences between ages exist will not come as a surprise to anyone, but we should be wary, on the existing evidence, of either claiming that young people are obsessed about the environment, or that older people are dismissive of it – and careful about recommending very clear actions for campaign strategy.

After all, we haven’t yet seen young people’s commitment to tackling climate change through regulation tested by an economic downturn. After the financial crisis, Ipsos-Mori’s tracker showed that public interest in the environment tailed away significantly (although to be fair, I can’t find a breakdown of younger voters’ attitudes), in much the same way we’re seeing the reputation of “big business” rebound in the aftermath of the EU referendum as voters’ minds are focused on the prospect of large employers leaving Britain. Would things change in the same way if jobs were threatened now? It’s hard to say – but some Conservatives are making a huge leap of faith that young voters have fully embraced green activism.

As for older voters, the evidence suggests that older voters might draw a distinction between different types of environmental issues – taking climate change less seriously than what you might call “the local physical environment”. For example, almost all over 65s say they would support “a law to significantly reduce plastic waste and pollution within 25 years” – a higher figure than 18-24 year olds. And a similarly high number of older people say they view tackling litter as more of a priority than they used to.

My strong impression is also that older voters are also more likely to volunteer that they are concerned about issues surrounding food safety and animal welfare and protecting areas of natural beauty – although this is an impression borne of many years moderating focus groups rather than on any hard data. In a sense, this is the environmentalism that Michael Gove has been pushing from Defra.

What does all this mean? Honestly, I don’t think there’s even nearly enough research data out there to make serious conclusions as to how the electorate will react to the Conservatives embracing the green agenda more seriously. Far more needs to be done. Most will likely support Gove’s Defra reforms. While it is certainly reasonable to suggest that younger voters care more about climate change, there are clearly dangers in jumping into this debate by accepting the terms set out by green activists – who essentially argue that we can only protect the environment by slowing growth and insisting on massive personal austerity. Such a move will irritate the bulk of electorate and likely a massive chunk of younger voters too.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Onward, Hancock – and the delusion of leadership candidates retreating to their comfort zone

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Reading Matt Hancock’s piece in the Sunday Times a couple of weekends ago previewing Onward’s interesting new publication, Generation Why, and watching a clip of his speech at the publication’s launch, reminded me why I gave up talking to people in politics about football nearly 20 years ago.

A weird link? Let me explain. There comes a time when, despite theoretically sharing an interest in the same subject, you have so little actual shared experience of that subject that it becomes impossible to have any sort of meaningful conversation about it. You might as well be talking to each other in a foreign language.

As a youth of 16 or 17, playing at the bottom of the non-league pyramid, my favourite place to play was Heanor Town. For those that don’t know the East Midlands, Heanor is a small town in the North of Derbyshire. The football pitch was located at the top of the slope of the cricket pitch. While badly sloped, the pitch was impeccably cut whatever the weather (usually cold or freezing), the floodlights worked, and the dressing rooms had the intense smell of deep heat. Most importantly, the locals absolutely loved football and sport in general. Heanor was a football town.

When you talked to the locals about football, they didn’t just talk about Man Utd or Derby or Forest; of course, they did talk about them, but they’d be as happy talking about the last game against Kimberley Town, or Jeff Astle’s last song on Fantasy Football, or how Notts County fans moaned all the time. In short, when talking about football there was a shared understanding that you were talking about the game as a whole. It was expected that everyone knew practically everything there was to know about the game since they were a child – about players, fans, grounds, songs, old kits and all the rest.

When I arrived in London politics, full as it was with privately educated, mostly Southern staff that hadn’t played much, that shared understanding was totally absent. While many professed a love of the game, their entire way of speaking about it was alien. They’d talk almost entirely about the top of the game over the last few years since they became interested or – increasingly and weirdly – about football statistics. Nobody knew what the Anglo-Italian Cup was, let alone the FA Vase. And because nobody had really played at school, nobody knew what it was like to get hit on the thigh with a Mitre Multiplex in January. The Fast Show’s “I love football” sketch was no longer an amusing parody, but reality. Talking about football was a bizarre and depressing experience. So I stopped.

Which takes me back to Hancock’s article and speech. In giving advice to the Conservatives in appealing to the young, he wrote: “First, we need to get our tone right. Sometimes Conservatives can sound, as Ruth Davidson succinctly put it, a bit ‘dour’. Of course, it’s our job to be the pragmatists, but nobody wants to hang out with the person always pointing out the problems, rather than the one hopeful about the solutions…” At the event, he said:  “As well as delivering better economic prospects for people, we’ve got to sound like we actually like this country. We’ve got to patriots for the Britain of now, not the Britain of 1940. And enough about being just comfortable with modern Britain, we need to champions of modern Britain.”

Just as I found it increasingly difficult to relate to most of the privately-educated, metropolitan Conservatives talking about football, hearing this, I found myself similarly thinking that I have literally nothing in common with the same sorts of people’s views on politics. It’s as if we’ve grown up in entirely different worlds. Honestly, how can anyone think that the British people are collectively optimistic, happy-go-lucky, and modernity-obsessed? How can anyone seriously think that this is the best way to engage with people? How can they imagine themselves walking into the average pub, shopping centre or call centre canteen and connecting with ordinary people with such a case? 

Ordinary people don’t want to hear about 1940 or about life before large-scale immigration; most are happy with the people they live amongst. But they also emphatically don’t want to hear politicians droning on about how great the future is going to be and how technology and 3D printing is going to change everything for the better. It’s just not how they think about the world and not how they talk about it.

Look at what most working class and lower middle class people really think about things – those that make up the bulk of electorate. They think: that the economy is, at best fine, but that they see little of the benefits of growth; that long-term careers are a relic of the past; that good pensions have gone and that a long retirement is just a dream; that home ownership is increasingly unattainable; that the cost of living is too high; that their town centres are boring; that the NHS is over-burdened and under-funded and might fail them when the time comes; that crime is rising and police numbers are falling; that their savings will get raided to pay for social care; that childcare is ruinously expensive; and they think that politicians are out of touch thieves. While this is more prevalent amongst the old in provincial England, it’s actually common everywhere.

Why get so worked up over one little speech and an article? Because it’s clear that the Conservative Party is preparing to return to its recent comfort zone – using claims of a broad appeal to the young, which would be reasonable, to justify an appeal to the tiny number of successful, highly affluent, urban voters who are basically like those at the top of the Party. It’s dressed up as daring and confrontational, but is in fact just about following a path of least-resistance in the Party, while making those that make the case feel good about themselves. If Hancock is so sure this plays well, Heanor are home to Gedling Miners Welfare on Saturday. I’m sure they’d love to hear from him.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com