Many families find it a struggle to balance their budgets, especially with childcare costs so high they can cancel out the wages of one parent. Liberal Democrats in the coalition government have taken important steps to support parents with childcare costs despite the challenging economic situation. We extended free early years education to 15 hours a week for three and four year olds, and introduced 15 free hours for four in 10 two-year-olds - those from the most hard-pressed homes. We are also introducing Tax Free Childcare to save working families up to £2,000 per child per year from September.
This is just the beginning of our childcare ambitions. In the next parliament, Liberal Democrats want to start a dad revolution by tripling paternity leave to encourage new dads to spend more time with their child in those vital early weeks and months after birth. Most fathers want to spend more time with their new baby - and we know it makes a positive difference for children when they do.
We also want to extend free early years education to all two year olds. We know that pressure to budget for childcare costs doesn't just start when a child is two years old, and that the costs can prevent parents from returning to work. We are committed to bridging that gap so that free childcare is available for working parents from the end of paid parental leave. On average, this will save working parents the equivalent of £2,670 a year.
For many families the childcare balancing act begins soon after baby comes home, with the question of who takes leave and for how long remaining a financial decision. While the majority of people in the UK believe that childcare should be shared between mums and dads, until recently the law gave little flexibility for new parents to do so.
I'm delighted to have been able to change the law and introduce the long-standing Liberal Democrat policy of Shared Parental Leave. This means that - while mums still have to take at least two weeks of maternity leave immediately after birth - working couples can split up to 50 weeks of shared parental leave and up to 37 weeks of pay after that. With each parent able to take up to three separate blocks of leave, families now have a real choice in how they spend the first year of their child's life.
This new system means that couples can decide for themselves how to share time off after their baby is born. This could mean more time together at home as a family in the early weeks, or dad taking additional leave a few months later on, for example when mum returns to work. For some couples it might make sense for dad to take most of the leave. Shared Parental Leave is an important step towards the wider cultural change we need - where fathers feel empowered to take time off to look after their children and not be held back by outdated stereotypes. As a new(ish) mum myself I know how crucial a role dads play in their children's lives.
Liberal Democrats have been the driving force behind increasing childcare support over this Parliament. Our progressive future childcare plans will ensure that every child, whatever their circumstances, gets the best possible start in life.