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Time for Parenting...

...because raising children is a full-time job

Summer 2005 Newsletter

From the Chair; A Family Party?; The politics of motherhood; A New Arrival - starting a local group

A Family Party?

In the run up to the election it was perhaps difficult to ascertain which party could best claim to be the party of the family. Politically unattached mothers cannot be blamed for feeling confused. In the end most commentators agreed there was little to choose between the main parties on matters of 'childcare' policy.

It could be said that the Conservatives missed a golden opportunity as they failed to provide a real alternative to Labour's view of family life, which hinges on the provision of more childcare places. And this was despite the fact that a number of surveys have in the past clearly indicated that mothers would favour measures to help them look after their own children. Polly Toynbee from the Guardian called it 'a clever act of bravado for the Tories to pretend to out-trump Labour on childcare, of all things'. She also said that, 'Childcare and nursery education are here to stay, whoever is in power.'

The Tories failed to woo voters from the Labour camp and one can't help but wonder whether a more innovative approach to issues affecting families might have reflected in a better result for Michael Howard. On the other hand, young mothers are far less likely to turn up at the polling booths than, for example, pensioners, whose votes they couldn't afford to ignore. According to Alice Thompson in the Telegraph, nearly 80 per cent of the over 65's voted in 2001, whilst fewer than two thirds of mothers with children under 11 voted. Perhaps in the end it was just a matter of mathematics.

Opposition failure

So exactly how did the two main opposition parties try to woo mothers? Theresa May, Shadow, said the Conservatives believed parents not government know what's best for families. They claimed that childcare is over-regulated and pledged to tackle red tape, to make it easier for people to become childminders and to help childcare professionals to deliver the kind of 'flexible' approach to childcare parents really want.

Perhaps the most generous offer from the Tories was en extra £50 per week for anyone eligible for childcare tax credits but not already drawing them. To get it, as with childcare credits, parents had to be in work for more than 16 hours a week and with a joint income of under £58,000. It would have been available to put towards the cost of informal childcare and therefore brought more flexibility and parental choice. However it was not to be introduced until 08/09.

FTM comment: In 1997 and 2001 the Conservatives promised to introduce transferable tax allowances and it is not clear why this promise was dropped.

Sandra Gidley, Spokesperson for Women and Older People, speaking for the Liberal Democrats, wanted to give new mothers a choice between spending longer at home with their new baby or receiving a higher weekly sum for a shorter time. Some of the allowance would be transferable to fathers if this suited families better. They would scrap the Working Tax Credit, which they consider inefficient. They would invest in Early Years centres nationwide, not only in deprived areas. They promised to reduce class sizes - a proposal which was popular with voters. There was also mention of a citizens' pension so that women would receive a pension in their own right instead of being penalised for spending time with their families (interview in Home and Family magazine).

Labour victory

Following its re-election, Labour is now able to put into action its delivery of proposed measures targeted at working families. Margaret Hodge, now replaced by Beverly Hughes as Minister for Children, Young People and Families, had emphasised from the beginning the importance of the Sure Start schemes, saying that Labour aims to have a Sure Start Children's Centre in every community by 2010, making 3,500 centres in total. (Interestingly, according to Lucy Ward in the Guardian (May 18th), the figures just don't add up, since it is planned to increase the number of schemes fivefold to 2,500 in the next three years, but the cash to fund them is only doubling.)

Maternity pay of £106 per week is to be extended from six to nine months by 2007 and with a goal of 12 months by the end of the next Parliament. In the Telegraph, following the Queen's speech, small business leaders said the increases in maternity provision could be 'too much to bear'.

The Parental Rights Bill includes extending flexible working hours so that parents can better balance their work life with children. One in four women aged between 50 and 59 is thought to be providing unpaid care for an ailing relative. They are now being referred to as 'sandwich mothers', squeezed between caring for teenage children and frail parents, and will now win the right to cut their working hours to fit round their families. This perk was previously only available to parents of children under 6, but will now be extended to include people looking after the sick and disabled and parents of teens.

A separate Child Care Bill will place a new duty on councils to offer 'affordable and flexible' childcare for the under 14's. Local authorities will have to offer a minimum number of places.

The Government proposes extending the number of free hours of nursery education from 13.5 hours to 15 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year instead of just 33 weeks. They aim to make better use of schools so that they stay open for longer. 'The promise is that by 2010 all schools will be open from 8am to 6pm all year round, providing wrap-around care.

This is not about extending the hours children have to be in school,' said Hodge in a pre-election interview with Home and Family magazine. 'It is about providing good quality, affordable and accessible childcare so that parents can balance their lives between the children they love and the jobs they need.'

As Philip Johnston said in the Telegraph, 'The rationale behind this expansion has hardly been challenged. If the other political parties questioned it, they would merely invite a kicking from Labour for not doing enough for children.'

The biggest teachers' union, the NUT, said at its annual conference in April that it is worried by plans for more centres for children under 4, especially those based in schools. Some delegates at the conference suspected the whole 'educare' idea to be 'a ruse' aimed at having more lower paid, less well qualified staff. It wants schools themselves to be free to decide whether they can develop out-of-hours services.

FTM comment: The needs of children are ignored in this whole debate and more needs to be done to assess the impact on young children of such long hours in daycare.