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No Shortage of Words on 'Tax-Free Childcare', Nor Sensationalism... Just One Question - What's Happened to the Mission to Explain?

21/03/2014 16:17 GMT | Updated 21/05/2014 10:59 BST

A few years ago, just after becoming Chief Executive of what was then the Daycare Trust, I took part in an ITV news website discussion with parents on childcare. At the time, uppermost in my mind were threats to children's centres and cuts to support for parents with childcare costs.

One viewer expressed his anger about the cuts to the free entitlement for three and four year olds. But he was mistaken - the government had confirmed that it would carry on funding the free entitlement. When I pointed this out, he said that we should be telling parents about it. Not only was it really important to them, but given the focus on cuts, they may think that the free entitlement had been cut and not take advantage of this important support.

This exchange has always stayed with me - as well as raising concerns about service and funding cuts, we should help inform and explain to families what services and financial support they can get.

Heaven knows what families will make of the media coverage of the government's announcement on 'tax-free childcare' - and how on earth they will understand what it means for them, in between claim, counter-claim, spin and the media tendency to look for controversy and sensationalism? Is it £2,000 back off the cost of childcare for all parents, or is it an au pair subsidy? Is it something just for "wealthy families" or is it for all families?

So, some facts behind yesterday's announcement:

1. This is not "tax-free childcare". A more accurate description is a 20% rebate for parents.

2. This isn't a £2k offer for everyone. Rather 20% of your childcare costs will be covered up to a maximum government contribution. So, you get £2,000 back if you spend £10k per year.

3. This offer isn't just for the wealthy or indeed au pairs. You get the support if you are in work and earn an average of £50 each week (8 hours at the Minimum Wage) - so from about £2,600 per year. As far as I know, not many people earning less than £10k per year have au pairs.

4. There was also extra money for low-income families - the government answered the calls of campaigning organisations like mine to cover 85% of childcare costs for families on Universal Credit. We're still waiting for the details, but the delighted reaction from organisations such as Gingerbread and Child Poverty Action Group demonstrated that yesterday's announcement was not just for "wealthy families".

None of this is to say that there aren't legitimate questions for debate and discussion. Here are some of mine:

1. Will families actually get the full rebate of 20% or will childcare providers increase their prices in response to this policy?

2. Will the announcements lead to provision of better quality childcare?

3. Should funding be prioritised according to the amounts people pay for childcare (which will favour higher earners) or according to their income (which will favour middle and lower income earners)?

4. Where will the money come from?

My real fear is that families who dip in and out of this debate will be left mightily confused looking at the media "analysis". I hope that as the dust settles following the Budget, the media will examine the proposals in more detail and offer their readers much more clarity about what the new childcare support will mean in practical terms for families.