11/11/2004

Labour and Tories present childcare plans

With the party machines gearing up for the general election, both the government and the Opposition have today been courting working families with the launch of their respective proposals for childcare provision.

The Prime Minister has today guaranteed that all parents of primary school children will have access to "affordable childcare" over the lifetime of the next Parliament.

According to Tony Blair, a third of secondary schools will run breakfast and after-school clubs from eight to six o'clock all-year-round by 2008. At least half of parents will be able to access the service well before the target date, he added.

Parents will be charged for the service at similar levels to today – between £2.50 and £3.50. But where parents are on low income they will be able to claim the childcare element of the Working Tax Credit to help cover up to 70% of these costs.

In a speech to the Daycare Trust, Mr Blair said: "This is not about children being abandoned in schools for 10 hours a day, all-year-round.

"It's about providing a service that engages children, helping them to flourish through sports, play, music while meeting the needs of working parents."

Education Secretary Charles Clarke will publish detailed plans in the early 2005.

Mr Blair added: "We must ensure the best possible start in life for all our children who are our strength and our future."

According to Downing Street, virtually all 3 and 4-year-olds are in part time nursery education – as there are 500,000 new childcare places, 500 Sure Start programmes, help for 350,000 low income families with the cost of childcare.

The Tories have also announced their own plans to help parents cope with the rising costs of childcare.

Under proposals being examined by the Shadow Cabinet, all parents could be able to offset the costs of childcare against tax, while existing rules could be changed to make it easier for grandparents to qualify as childminders.

In addition, the childcare element of the working tax credit could be paid in cash to qualifying parents, to be spent as they choose - perhaps on a nanny, au pair, or family and friends who help look after their children, the Tories said.

The shadow cabinet is also considering plans aimed at increasing maternity pay during the first six months of a child's life, so reducing pressure on mothers to return to work.

Party leader Michael Howard said that families - not government - should decide how to run their lives, and signalled that regulations covering families and childcare should be "more flexible".

"We can ensure that regulation is a light touch - so that nurseries and playgroups aren't driven out of business or more expensive than they need to be. We can help support informal care more effectively. We can ensure that childcare is more flexible…and that's what these proposals are designed to do," he said.

(gmcg)

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