Parties woo working women with pledges to increase childcare

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Indy Politics

Labour and the Tories tried to capture the votes of millions of working women yesterday with rival pledges to increase availability of childcare for mothers wishing to go back to work.

In an initiative designed to woo the family vote, Tony Blair promised to provide cheap childcare in every primary school and "after-school clubs" for all children up to the age of 14.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, pledged to make childcare costs tax-deductible. He promised parents more flexibility about how they spend their child tax-credit and said nannies, au pairs and even grandmothers would qualify for the cash under a Tory government.

The Prime Minister, visiting a school in Hackney, east London, made it clear that improving child care would be a key plank of Labour's third term as Margaret Hodge, the Children's minister, gave "a guarantee" to all working women of "high quality" childcare in "good-fun, safe and happy environments".

Mr Blair said: "We have got the money set aside already to do this. The school day does not necessarily fit the parents' working day so if both parents are working it is a real stress and struggle for them. This is a chance to give them childcare through the day in the proper way. This is about trying to take the burden off parents. It is building on what is already there to make sure that between the hours of 8am and 6pm there is universal, affordable childcare for children between the ages of five and 11."

The plans for childcare in schools would allow parents to use it from 8am to 6pm. "Breakfast clubs" would provide a healthy start to the day in all primary schools by the end of the next parliament. A third of secondary schools would have after-school clubs for children between 11 and 14 by 2008. The school childcare clubs, which cost parents "a minimal sum", would continue during the school holidays.

But Mr Howard tried to trump Labour's claim to be the party of the family with his own set of proposals to appeal to working families. He pledged to make childcare costs tax-deductible and launched a consultation to establish the amount that could be deducted.

"Seven out of 10 mothers with dependent children work," he said. "That's why childcare is such a live issue today. Many women choose to stay at home. And many more would like the chance to stay at home during the first year, but feel forced back to work by money pressures. It would better if parents had more choice."

Mr Howard said he would maintain the present level of maternity pay but give families more choice about how they claim it. Although there was some confusion yesterday about the details, he said mothers could claim up to £150 a week for the first six months and less for the second six months. Mothers and fathers would also be able to share paid maternity leave, so they would have the option to each take three months off to care for the baby.To help reduce the shortage of childminders, grandmothers would be able to go on fast-track refresher courses which would allow them to qualify to look after children within 12 hours.

THE STATE OF PROVISION

Childcare

Now: Approved nurseries and childcarers qualify for payments under the child tax credit. Approval scheme for other forms of childcare - such as au pairs - to be brought in next month. Relatives do not qualify for payments. One third of primary schools have after-school facilities.

Labour plan: Plan to extend before- and after-school care to all primary schools between 8am and 6pm.

A third of secondary schools to open from 8am to 4pm for 11- to 14-year-olds by 2008.

Tory plan: Schools would have a choice about whether to establish after-school clubs.

Child tax credit would be reformed so there would be more flexibility on how to spend it. Nannies, au pairs and relatives who care for children would qualify for pay.

Maternity/paternity pay

Now: £102.80p a week for six months and then six months unpaid. Fathers get two weeks' paid pay at the same rate.

Labour plan: Raise maternity pay to 90 per cent of salary for six months. Considering extending paid paternity pay.

Tory plan: Allow more flexibility in claiming. Parents could claim up to £150 a week in the first six months off. Parents could choose to share paid maternity leave. Tax credit for low income families at £94.50 per week for one child and up to £140 for two or more.

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