Tiddlywinks & welfareDecember 4, 2008 at 8:45 am | Posted in British Politics, New Labour, Working Class Britain | 1 Comment
Just over a week ago, parents & staff staged a demonstration outside a Sheffield nursery which is facing the threat of closure. Tiddlywinks children’s centre in Arbourthorne needs another £11,500 to break even, and if the city council won’t provide the money, its 28 staff and 120 children will all have to find a new place to play. There are at least seven other children’s centres in Tiddlywinks’ predicament, many of which serve the most deprived communities in the city, and their closure would erect yet another barrier to poor families providing for themselves & their kids.
Under New Labour, this kind of thing isn’t meant to be happening: billions have been poured into the SureStart programme, the government keeps expanding free childcare places and Gordon Brown made nursery education one of the centerpieces of his party conference speech. So why on earth are some of these places being driven to the brink of extiction?
Recessionary pressures aren’t helping, of course, but a large part of the problem is in the way the government structured its funding. Each 3-4 year old was guaranteed 12.5 hours of nursery education per week, and anything above that was to be supplemented out of a parent’s own pockets. However, because of the cost of childcare, many parents in deprived areas (Arbourthorne’s unemployment rate is almost twice the national average) still can’t afford to send their kids on a full-time basis, and nurseries have to lower their prices just to get any children to stay beyond the time they get for free. In many cases, this leads to meagre revenues, lower standards and, eventually, the threat of closure.
It’s a problem which has become all the more relevant upon the release of the government’s proposals for reforming the welfare system. As we’ve already noted, all lone parents with children over the age of one will be included in either the ‘Work Ready’or ‘Progression to Work’ groups, which means a person’s benefits will be ‘conditional’ on a claimant following the orders given to them by some private company.
Indeed, ‘Conditionality’ is the big buzzword of this report (by my count, it’s used 285 times), but it needs to cut both ways. If unemployed families are going to be corralled back into the workplace, or are to be given the training needed to get them into the workplace, they will first need sustained, affordable, full-time supervision for their kids. True, the government’s increasing the number of childcare places it pays for, but that’s going to be little help if the nurseries in their neighbourhoods are closing down. If parents don’t have a children’s centre nearby, or if the one closest to them has already reached its capacity, they’re going to find it much harder to meet their new obligations. As Professor Gregg’s report (page 17) concludes:
The Government is already doing a lot to address this issue, such as the provision of universal affordable childcare for children aged 3-14 years, early education places for all three and four year olds and a Sure Start children’s centre in every community by 2010, as well as providing assistance with childcare costs through the Working Tax Credit. If the Government can deliver on these policies then it will remove one of the key barriers to work faced by a large number of parents. However, it will be essential to ensure consistent delivery of these aims on the ground. (emphasis mine)
And if it can’t deliver those aims ‘on the ground’, then the whole system of ‘conditionality’ is rendered completely bankrupt.
There are several problems with these welfare reforms, but chief among them is that the government seems to blithely act as though it has removed childcare as an impediment to working. It hasn’t. And if it doesn’t ensure it has done so before these welfare reforms are introduced, it will have succeeded in creating yet more penalised parents and more perpetually disadvantaged kids.