23 Sep 2013

Labour pledges more free childcare for working families

Twenty-five hours of free childcare funded by the state. Labour is promising to help working families beat the cost of living crisis – with a higher tax on banks to pay for it.

“There are no uncosted spending commitments”: that is the mantra at Labour’s conference in Brighton on Monday, as shadow chancellor Ed Balls set out his plans to help working families with the cost of childcare.

He promised to fund an extra 10 hours of childcare each week, for single parents, or both parents in a couple holding down jobs. That would mean a total of 25 hours for all three and four year olds – which Mr Balls said would give parents more choice over the way they balanced their children and working lives.

He accused the coalition of failing to help millions of families whose wages were falling as prices were going up. Government policies, he said, were “protecting the privileges of the few, while the many work hard and don’t see the benefit.”

Instead he promised a new set of priorities under Labour, and said the childcare pledge would be met by increasing the banking levy by another £800m a year.

The levy – essentially a tax on banks’ balance sheets – was introduced by the coalition with the aim of raising £8bn over four years, but Mr Balls claimed it had not brought in as much revenue as expected.

He insisted the childcare pledge was a “clear and costed commitment” and a sign that Labour intended to make a difference to those struggling to make ends meet, even in the current economic climate.

Pitch to families

Together with Sunday’s pledge to extend opening hours at primary schools to 8am-6pm, it is part of Labour’s pitch towards those crucial “squeezed middle” voters, who feel they are bearing the brunt of the coalition’s austerity cuts.

Alison Garnham, from the Child Poverty Action Group, enthusiastically welcomed the proposal. “The move up to 25 hours would be a major help for parents wanting to access part-time work”, she said.

She described it as a crucial step towards the goal of universal childcare provision. “For single parents and for couple families who want a second earned income, this is the most effective way of reducing child poverty rates”

Mr Balls also promised a new compulsory jobs guarantee for young people and the long term unemployed, with a paid job which people would have to take up, or lose their benefits.

And he said employers would be urged to pay their employees the Living Wage, warning there would be higher fines on those who exploited workers.

Checking the figures

But Labour is also setting out to prove its economic credibility, with an unprecedented offer to get its tax and spending pledges audited by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

The OBR is an independent watchdog which currently investigates government fiscal policies, but Mr Balls said that voters also wanted to know how Labour’s sums added up.

He warned that the party was prepared to take tough choices to deliver its goals. “But it can be done – if we get people back to work and strengthen our economy, cut out waste…and make sure difficult choices are not ducked, but are rooted in our values, in fairness and in common sense.”

There are no uncosted spending commitments. Ed Balls MP, shadow chancellor

The chairman of the OBR, Robert Chote, said it was up to parliament to decide what the organisation’s remit should be, although there were a number of practical issues to consider if it were to take on the Labour party brief.

“We would need to ensure that we had adequate internal resources to do the job, as well as guaranteed access to the neccessary data and analytical expertise within Whitehall, as we have when scrutinising the Government’s policies”, he said.

There was one suprise announcement, as Mr Balls revealed that a future Labour government would review the future of the high speed HS2 rail scheme.

He told the conference there would be no “blank cheque” for the project, which is already set to cost more than £50bn, and suggested the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Spin cycle

But for all its efforts to focus on the future, Monday’s proceedings threatened to be overshadowed by acrimony about troubles past.

Former Labour spin doctor Damian McBride, who has a new book to promote, has accused the party leader Ed Miliband of unfairly blaming him for the toxic infighting of the Gordon Brown years.

Mr Balls, who was a key figure in the Brown administration, insisted that any “negative, nasty briefing” against colleagues was a thing of the past, and denied that he had ever taken part in any such thing.

“That’s not something I’ve ever done”, he said. “I think it’s the wrong way to do politics”. Other senior Labour figures have rallied behind Ed Miliband, in an effort to depict him as part of a new generation with an entirely different political culture.