Swinging sixties: How the childcare generation game could swing the next election

Parents don't want more childcare places, they want financial help to mind their children or have them cared for by grandparents, writes Political Editor Harry McGee.

IN March this year, politicians arrived from all over Ireland for canvassing duties in the Meath and Kildare North by-elections. Many discovered to their shock that they hadn't just landed in another constituency, but another country.

What they witnessed were vast housing estates emptied of their people during the day; harassed young working couples rising early to beat the traffic; large chunks of family income being spent on childminders and crèches.

It wasn't that childcare wasn't on the political agenda before then. It was. The number of working mothers with children in pre-school or primary school has effectively doubled over the past 12 years to more than 400,000 (some 60,000 of them are single parents). The Government has spent €500m on the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme (EOCD) which has so far created 25,000 childcare places.

But the by-elections had a catalysing effect for the parties on this issue. Informed by Kildare and Meath, political responses zeroed in on the wider availability of affordable childcare in crèches and with childminders.

But the picture that emerges from the Irish Examiner/Lansdowne poll today is a dramatically different one, that suggests that the imperative for a decisive majority of parents is that their children be cared for by them or by other family members.

Over half of all parents with dependent children under the age of 14 have dedicated one parent to full-time childcare. But the family connection does not stop there. One of the most intriguing findings of the poll is the role played by other family members. Extended family members (predominantly grandparents) play a role in the care of children in one-in-five families. This rises to a third where both parents are working full time with children under five, even higher when the children are of primary school age.

Overall, a little over one in five use paid private childcare, but this rises to almost 70% where both parents are working and the child is under five. The latter group is comparatively small in size - some 24,000 according to the CSO survey - but most live in urban areas or in their hinterlands (and many of these will be the big swing constituencies).

Notably, the poll bears out the findings of the CSO survey on childcare, conducted in 2003, which, for the first time, identified the extent of the role played by extended family members. And while this arrangement obviously leads to cost saving what the poll clearly shows is the choice is not governed by economic considerations alone.

One of the most eye-catching findings is that this arrangement is seen as a positive choice by many parents. Asked about their ideal arrangement, the most common choice for those whose children are now looked after by grandparents, uncles and aunties was that very arrangement closely followed by the care of parents themselves.

By marked contrast, only 6% of the 'other family member' group identified childminding or crèche as an ideal choice, which strongly suggests that few perceive their present arrangements as an option that has been solely forced on them by the prohibitive cost of private care. People seem perfectly happy with this situation.

In an ideal world, when it comes to the conflicting choices of family versus career, there is only one clear winner.

A clear majority across all sectors would ideally look after their own children, either full-time or part time. But of course that is tempered by the real world. And in that world, the number of women working will increase, either to continue their careers or because both parents need to work out of necessity.

The stark evidence from the poll, however, is that the race to make more private childcare places available may be misplaced (a paltry 3% regarding a crèche as ideal is hardly redolent of a massive desire or demand). If one was looking for policy pointers, the findings strongly trend to more family-friendly initiatives, increased maternity and parental leave; more flexible working arrangements; early education initiatives, and more financial support for both working and stay home parents. Even when both parents are working, many want their child to be looked after by themselves or grandparents.

And that is not to say that the poll will result in the childcare issue being relegated to the footnotes of party manifestos. As a point of fact, the poll galvanises its central importance, both for parents who stay home and for those who work.

In the Irish Examiner/Lansdowne political poll conducted in September, childcare was the fifth most important issue. Here, among parents of children under 14, it is the number three issue after cost of living/'rip off' Ireland and health. (The 'issues' question was asked early in the questionnaire to avoid the likelihood of distortion or bias). In households where both parents are working it is the second most important (and with childcare costing an average 17% of monthly income, it is also a major factor of the top issue: cost of living/rip off).

Moreover, only one in 10 believes childcare has been adequately provided for, or is reasonably affordable. Overwhelming majorities believe the State should both provide tax relief to working parents and make payments to parents who stay home.

And so does all this mean that support for the Government has plummeted? No. Like the rip-off issue in the political poll in September, there seems to be no palpable slide. Excluding undecideds, FF still commands the same level of support (38%) unchanged from September, among parents who are likely to vote. However, support for both FG (25%, up two points) and Labour (16%, up four points) is higher.

But almost perversely, where both parents work and where childcare is the key issue, support for FF actually increases by three points. This may reflect anticipation of the childcare announcement in December's Budget.

There are straws in the wind that could influence the outcomes in marginal urban and extra-urban constituencies. FF support is markedly lower in Dublin (31%) and it also dips among parents with toddlers, and those who use crèches. By contrast, slightly over a quarter of parents in Dublin say they will support Labour compared to one in ten for Fine Gael (which attracts its strongest support in Connacht-Ulster and Leinster).

Another finding that leaps off the page relates to single parents. Some 22% say they will vote for Sinn Fein. This reflects the younger profile of single parents, the fact they are predominantly blue collar and more live in Dublin. Most are stay-home parents and grandparents (25%) play a bigger role in care of their children. Single parents are most unlikely to pay for childcare as they can't afford it. Single parents emerge as those who most struggle (against the grain, one in five single parents favours full-time childcare as the ideal).

The political parties stumbled on another country last March, but the poll shows the issues are more complex and nuanced than tax breaks and more places.

A unique features of the US Presidential elections in 2000/2004 was strategists for both candidates knew whoever won two key marginal States - Ohio and Florida - would win the White House. The race for a country was narrowed down to issues (some of them of no relevance elsewhere) that mattered in only two places. If you were looking for an Irish equivalent to Ohio and Florida, you sense childcare could be it.

How the parties line up:

Fianna Fáil

Will wait until December Budget to announce proposals. Party majored on childcare at itsthink-in in Cavan in September. But it will not adopt all of the National Economic and Social Forum's ambitious recommendations for extended paid maternity leave, high quality childcare, and free early education for three-year olds. Brian Lenihan has chaired working group on the issue. May focus on rise in child benefit rather than tax breaks (inequitable for low earners and stay home parents). A 30% rise in child benefit for under fives is mooted. Estimated cost: €1bn-€1.5bn per annum.

Fine Gael

Will unveil three-part childcare plan on Saturday.

Will centre on an increase in paid maternity life; financial support for parents at work and at home; and a commitment to improve quality and availability of childcare and early education places. Some tax breaks.

Estimated cost: €1.2bn plus.

Labour

Launched five-part policy last month. Included paid paternal leave of up to one year plus right to take career breaks. Also includes early years subsidy of €50 per week per child and €25pw for children in primary schools. There is a provision for one year's early education (five half days a week), to be State-provided. Detailed proposals on private childcare costs and availability. Childminders can earn €8,000 before entering tax net.

Estimated cost: €1.5bn.

Green Party

Launching policy document on November 16. Main suggestion is a €150 per month per child refundable tax credit to all parents, working and stay home parents. Family-centred policies will allow parents the option of staying home during the earliest years. Like other parties, this involves more paid parental leave. Also wants more work-place based crèches so parents can be near their children.

Estimated cost: €1.2bn.

PDs

Continued expansion of Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme which has provided 24,000 places since 2,000. An increase in number of children - from three to five - minded in childminder's home. First €8,000 of childminders' income not subject to tax. School buildings to be used for after-school care.

Estimated cost: €500m.

Sinn Féin

Archly critical of State childcare policies. Supported almost all NESF recommendations but yet to unveil a detailed policy paper but childcare will central theme of its pre-Budget paper, expected shortly. Dáil Leader Caoimghin Ó Caolain has said that the rights of children, and of women access to the labour market, must both be recognised. He has called for a modern childcare network to be established throughout the State.

Estimated cost: unknown.

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