The Chancellor George Osborne was today accused of patronising stay-at-home mothers as he sought to defend his plan to give tax breaks worth £1,200 per child to families where both parents work.
The measure, which was announced in the Budget in March, will offer support from 2015 to families where both parents work, as part of a £1 billion-a-year package of help with nursery bills.
The move has come under fire for being unfair to stay-at-home mothers and there has also been concern that high earners will be eligible for the scheme, and that single parents could lose out.
Mr Osborne toured a nursery today as he launched a consultation on the tax-free childcare voucher plans but he came under fire from pressure groups who accused him of stigmatising and patronising stay-at-home mothers.
Mr Osborne told the World at One that he had "huge respect" for mothers who stay at home but said it was for "lifestyle reasons".
Laura Perrins, of the pressure group Mothers at Home Matter, who challenged the Deputy Prime Minister during a radio phone-in earlier this year, told the Telegraph: "Saying stay-at-home mothers have made a lifestyle choice is pejorative and patronising. They are contributing to the economy, to society, to everything. Staying at home is not a luxury, it's not a hobby. Women who chose to stay at home make huge sacrifices."
Mr Osborne said: "This Government is on the side of people who want to work hard and get on in life. Tax-free childcare will help working parents by giving them more choice and better access to the quality, affordable childcare they need.
"We want to make the new scheme work in the way that is best for parents, so today we are asking for their views, and I'd like as many parents as possible to tell us what they think."
The vouchers will be available to parents earning up to £150,000, so a couple with a combined income of £300,000 could claim them. By contrast, child benefit cuts have hit families where one parent earns more than £50,000.
Parents who claim universal credit will benefit from a separate scheme under which the state will cover up to 85% of their childcare costs - rather than 70% as at present - though critics claim this is less generous than the help on offer to working families.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which represents childcare providers, said the plans were unfair to stay-at-home mums.
"In the recent More Affordable Childcare document the Government gives a ringing endorsement of those parents who choose to stay at home and look after their children, saying they have 'the Government's full support'," said Mr Leitch. "However, when it comes to practical support that's where it stops, with the Government giving priority to a 'get back to work' policy.
"This tax break does nothing to support those who choose to sacrifice their salary and put their careers on hold to stay at home and look after their young children.
"We are disappointed that this £1,200 tax break will be dependent on both parents working and flies in the face of pre-election rhetoric where several MPs spoke of ensuring support for families in this way. To now offer this money to a couple whose dual earnings could reach £300,000 but not to a couple earning a fraction of this amount who choose to have one parent stay at home seems perverse.
"We would prefer the Government to properly fund universal childcare provision for all families, regardless of income. Instead, this seems to be more about dangling a £1,200 carrot to tempt mums back to work rather than providing real childcare choices."
Katie O'Donovan of parenting website Mumsnet said: "Mumsnet users have been calling for help with the ever-rising cost of childcare, which is a serious impediment to many mothers returning to work after children, for some time, so we welcome the additional funding going into this scheme.
"However there is concern that single-parent households might lose out whilst some very high earning two-parent households will benefit.
"A couple could earn £300,000 a year and still benefit. That doesn't seem sensible and is inconsistent with other cuts, such as those to child benefit and to childcare tax credit. Another concern is that the current workplace vouchers be phased out rather than summarily scrapped, which would lead to some parents of older children being left worse off."
Labour families spokeswoman Sharon Hodgson said: "Only David Cameron's Government could be so out of touch that they expect families to be grateful for help with childcare in 2015 when they've already seen costs spiralling and support taken away.
"This Government has hit hard-working parents. Families with two children have already lost up to £1,500 in childcare tax credit.
"This Government promised to be the most family-friendly ever, but hard-working parents have lost out while millionaires get a tax cut."
Additional reporting by the Press Association