Spring Budget - step forward on childcare but eligibility criteria a problem
- government risks giving with one hand while taking with the other if children from the lowest income families are excluded from new childcare
- bigger stick but no big ideas on employment support for parents
Responding to today’s Spring Budget, Child Poverty Action Group’s Chief Executive Alison Garnham said:
Some of the Chancellor’s plans are welcome but some are worrying. Many of the childcare changes announced are a big step forward but the stringent job-search requirements for parents on universal credit (UC) are concerning and overall the package is far short of what struggling families needed from the Chancellor as they face another year of high inflation.
"There was no mention of the UK’s 4 million children in poverty and no extra, direct financial support for kids but without that investment, child poverty will continue to damage young lives and drag on our national growth. The Government must expand free school meals eligibility, remove the two-child limit and benefit cap and increase child benefit. Any less and the effects of poverty will stalk millions of children from cradle to grave.
Ms Garnham welcomed the expansion of before and after school childcare provision, the lifting of the cap on fees that can be reimbursed to parents on UC, and the switch to payment of costs upfront rather than in arrears for parents on UC. Ms Garnham also welcomed the expansion of free places to children from nine months to two year olds but added:
Any new investment in early years childcare is welcome and long overdue but the eligibility criteria for these new places will exclude low-income parents in jobs with low or variable hours and those preparing for their return to work. As the Chancellor indicated, childcare is about education as well as enabling work but an earnings barrier undermines that critical child-centred function by blocking kids in the worst off families from accessing places. The Government should be looking to provide free childcare for every family that needs it.
More before and after school care will be great for working parents and is something we’ve been calling for, but the strength of this policy will depend on what is included in the provision and adequate funding for schools and local authorities. It’s also important that there is a statutory framework in place and that the additional funding is ring-fenced. We hope government will bring forward the detailed plans needed very soon.
"Today’s childcare announcements are largely very good news and the kind of serious investment in public infrastructure we need. But the government is at risk of giving with one hand while taking with the other if low-income children are excluded. To achieve the sea change families deserve, we need the detail on how the Government will ensure there are enough free childcare places for every parent that needs one. More money for childcare workers will improve the quality of early childhood education and care, but increasing child-adult ratios will drive quality down.
Stringent job-search requirements:
Ms Garnham criticised the new stringent job-search requirements on primary carers of children in families claiming UC despite these families already having one parent in work.
For a Budget billed as back-to-work, this was more big stick than carrot and we need to see the big ideas that will help parents get the decent jobs that make work pay. The government can and should help people to work when they’re able to but the Chancellor’s approach risks pressurising parents into low-paid, low-skilled, precarious work – at a time when three quarters of children in poverty are in working households.
It’s especially concerning that job-search requirements will be tightened for parents of young children on universal credit with no recognition of the constraints on them as primary carers, a shortage of funded childcare places during job preparation and of funded training opportunities, no help with initial back-to-work costs like transport and no funding for the extra job centre staff and the training they need to give individualised advice. The Government is right to want to help people get better off through work but it also has to recognise that parents have caring responsibilities that can limit their work options. It’s time the DWP invested in real employment support with skills training and help with work-related costs - in place of quick-fire appointments where too often parents get little more than a question on how many jobs they’ve applied for.
If it wants to help parents get ready to work, the Government should bring in a universal credit work allowance for second earners in families*and invest in providing individualised employment support in job centres.
Notes to editors:
Spokespeople available for Budget reaction via CPAG’s press office on 07816 909302.
*A universal credit ‘work allowance’ for second earners in households with children (often mothers who have been caring for children) would enable this group to keep a portion of their wages in full before universal credit starts to be withdrawn at a rate of 55p in the pound – as is the case for ‘primary earners’ in families on UC. Currently second earners entering work lose 55p in reduced UC from the first £1 they earn so the gains from work can be very low.