Howard puts forward childcare plans

Contributed by editor on Nov 12, 2004 - 11:09 AM


A package of plans designed to help parents cope with the rising costs of childcare have been unveiled by Folkestone and Hythe MP and Conservative Leader Michael Howard.

Under proposals now 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.

And the feasibility of an incoming Conservative administration increasing maternity pay during the first six months of a child's life, reducing pressure o­n mothers to return to work, is also under consideration by party chiefs.

Announcing the new approach to childcare in a keynote speech at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, Mr Howard stressed 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.

Mr Howard explained that the six principles governing childcare should include recognising that parents want to decide how to run their lives; that choice will vary from family to family; that circumstances vary so flexibility is the watchword; that all the costs cannot be loaded o­nto employers; that many families rely o­n grandparents for help; and that over-regulation must be avoided.

Mr Howard also indicated that under a Conservative government, schools would be allowed to vary their hours, improving flexibility for parents. And he said new ways would be examined to ensure that the childcare element of the working tax credit can be paid automatically in cash to qualifying parents - so they can choose how to spend it. "They will be in the driving seat. They can spend it o­n the childcare they want - not the childcare ministers think best. It might be an au pair or even family and friends," he said.

At the same time, shadow ministers will consult o­n whether the cost of childcare can become tax deductable; and more flexible arrangements for statutory maternity pay are also being examined.