Childcare in the UK is a shambles. Today's call from the charity Working Families and the Childcare Voucher Association to keep open childcare vouchers - even as the new tax-free childcare scheme comes into effect - doesn't help. Unusually though there is a simple fix that a brave government not obsessed with Brexit, could grab with both hands...
First though, let me set the scene. The UK has some very good childcare. Great nurseries, the best nannies in the world, and lots of under-appreciated childminders. The funding, though, is a disaster. British parents pay more for their childcare than pretty much everyone else. I blame those clever folk at New Labour. The original plan was to make quality affordable childcare available to all. A big ambitious goal that rapidly became too expensive. So the new aim for the government's childcare policy became helping parents, but women mainly, get back into work - a bit less ambitious although still quite good. But no good at all if you keep pretending it's about the former when really it's about the latter...
As part of the new mix, we have the ludicrous extension of free childcare to 30 hours and the phasing out of childcare vouchers to be replaced by a new Tax Free Childcare scheme. Here's what you need to know about childcare vouchers:
• Real money (kind of) ends up in the hands of working parents
• They spend it on the nurseries/childminders who provide the flexibility and support that they need to carry on working
• And over 600,000 parents use them. Beautiful.
But also a nutty way of helping working parents:
• Why is there a need for a third party sitting in the middle making a margin? Much better for the government to give the money directly to working parents (as long as you don't talk about the administration of it all!)
• And whilst 600,000 parents might sound like a lot, it's a fraction of the working parents who SHOULD be eligible
• Perhaps most importantly, there is no employer link. Employers do not offer childcare vouchers to be "family-friendly" as their defenders claim. They do it to make savings. It's unsurprising, therefore, that employees do not see any link between a childcare vouchers and the benevolence of their employer.
There are loads of good commercial reasons for employers to be family friendly. Not being able to hide behind a childcare voucher scheme will be very good in the long-term as it forces companies to work out what their working parents and carers actually need to combine career and family successfully.
So what's the problem? The new scheme does not go nearly far enough. It is limited to registered childcare; that's nurseries and childminders to the rest of us. It should be available for parents to spend on whatever care and support they actually want. We all lead complicated lives and in these times of flexible working more people than not have a mixture of different care arrangements.
Informal care; au pairs; nannies; the friendly, life-saving granny who lives nearby - they should all be included. It should also include working carers who have a responsibility for one of their own parents. Now that would be an amazing example of joined up governmental thinking and might just go part of the way to fixing the social care crisis developing before our eyes.
And if you're worried about how to administer it all - which I am - then just leave it to those law abiding teams who run payroll. That would be a win win win!