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Sunday 29 January 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Shutterstock/Katy Spichal
The Government’s reaction to our childcare crisis divide and conquer
By pitching different segments of the electorate against each other, the Government can effectively wash its hands of the problem.

LIKE THOUSANDS OF other working parents throughout the country, I was on the edge of my seat listening to Leo Varadkar speaking on Claire Byrne Live last Monday evening. The subject was childcare. The costs. The lack of Government subsidisation. The absence of State investment in the sector. The lack of any real appetite on the Government’s part to take ownership, or any kind of real lead, on the issue.

As both childcare workers and parents spoke poignantly about their own experiences, it painted a grim, yet all too familiar picture.

Parents who wanted to go out to work but couldn’t afford to.

Parents who struggled to go out to work, and simultaneously pay childcare.

Childcare workers who clearly loved their jobs but couldn’t actually live, or indeed provide for their own children, on the wages that they were being paid.

What was very clear is that, under the current system, there are absolutely no winners. The only party here who is doing well is the State – as it provides no tax relief to working parents, and yet benefits from the huge percentages it draws from the salaries they manage to somehow earn from traipsing in and out of work every day. As it draw taxes from the corresponding childcare workers who are paid between €9 and €15 an hour to love, educate and provide a home from home for between three and eleven children at a time. And as creche owner’s pay full commercial rates on their businesses without any real recognition of the essential role they play in maintaining the social fabric of society.

A skilled exercise in political manoeuvring

Surely this Minister, who has gained an early reputation for tackling difficult issues head on, would be moved into action by the dysfunctional picture that was laid bare before his eyes? Who couldn’t be?

And yet, what followed was a skilled exercise in political manoeuvring which any seasoned politician would have been proud of, but which did little to provide any hope for those of us left at home. Whether intentionally or not, the various affected parties were somehow carved up before our eyes into opposing camps, with what can only be described as a surgeon’s precision (excuse the pun).

However subtlely, it was made clear that to help any one group was to inherently prejudice another, and in this day and age, what Government can be seen to stand behind that kind of discrimination? Nice move, Minister. But not one that is particularly helpful to me or my kids.

An approach as predictable as it is unhelpful

We were told that to provide tax relief on the income tax paid by working parents would disadvantage those who choose to remain within the home. Which completely ignores the basic fact that those who remain within the home do not earn a wage, and therefore do not pay income tax. And so, by any real measure, are not comparable to those who do.

Yes, no doubt there is an income earner within that home, but the fact of the matter remains that in order for two parents to go out to work, childcare is an unavoidable expense which should be set off before their earnings are taxed. And so, in effectively pitching stay-at-home parents against their counterparts who work outside the home, the waters become muddied, and it suddenly becomes an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ debate.

These two groups can already find themselves regularly at odds with one another given that the question of childcare is such an incredibly personal and emotive issue. Pitching us against one another in such an inherently sensitive debate, is as predictable as it is unhelpful to all those concerned.

Isn’t greater investment in early childhood education a good thing?

We were also told that any such relief would have to be thought through very carefully to ensure that creche and pre-school owners did not effectively soak up that relief by immediately hiking up their fees. Again a very effective tool to turn parents against the very people they know and trust to look after their own children. An argument which ignores the fact that even if this did happen (and it may not), there are very few parents out there who would object to the people they entrust with the care of their children on a daily basis being better paid.

And is this scenario not preferable to the current one, where neither party win out? If this resulted in greater investment in early childhood education, would that be such a bad thing?

Pitching parents against non-parents

There was also the stock argument wheeled out that if the Government chooses to help struggling parents or childcare workers, that any money they divert in our direction, will have to inevitably come from taxes and charges levied elsewhere. The clear implication being that the provision of assistance on our front, would inevitably negatively impact those who choose not to have children.

And so another emotive, unnecessary division is created within the electorate. ‘Why should I be forced to pay more tax in order to fund your childcare?’, etc. etc. etc. But the fact remains that in order for the human race to survive, like it or not, women, including working women, need to continue to have children. How could actually recognising and providing for that fact somehow prejudice the rest of society?

And in any event, society as a whole already collectively pays for first, second and third level education and nobody whinges about that? Why are the under fives considered so different?

Creating divisions means people are distracted from the Government’s failure to act

Hope is a dangerous thing. As are headlines – which suggest that things might change, and real provision might be made to help women who wish to work outside the home to do so. Whilst the Government are not ‘ruling out’ tax breaks on childcare costs, it was clear from Monday’s debate that they equally were most definitely not ‘ruling it in’. It was acknowledged to be an election issue, but if you try to create enough divisions, enough fear, enough bad feeling within the different affected segments of the electorate who really should be aligned in their views, suddenly the Government become excused from doing anything significant to help anyone.

The Inter Departmental Group has been established to look at this ‘from all angles’ and is due to report back to Government before the summer. Let’s hope that somewhere within that group, the voices of those that are actually affected by this issue, are heard.

Unfortunately for our kids, they don’t have a voice. Let’s hope those of us who are charged with their care, both inside and outside the home, are listened to, and that the real issue here doesn’t get clouded in never ending debate and ‘careful consideration’.

Claire Micks is an occasional writer. Read her columns for here.

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