Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. If I wasn't an elder lemon versed in the politics of childcare for 30 years, I might be taken aback by the negative and even angry reaction by some parents, particularly stay-at-home mothers, to the childcare subsidy scheme announced by Minister for Children Katherine Zappone in last week's Budget.
But many of us have vivid memories of earlier attempts by several governments to grasp this nettle. We remember in particular the savaging of finance minister Charlie McCreevy when, in 1999, he introduced individualisation in the tax code. This was a reform long called for by workforce equality campaigners, particularly for women who worked outside the home. But resistance from women in the home caused consternation at the time and resulted in the introduction of a home carer tax credit. The furore over it chastened policymakers, discouraging them from making divisive distinctions which placed a monetary value on women's work in and outside the home.
As a result, Child Benefit has reliably provided the safe and politically neutral solution for successive governments by indirectly supporting childcare costs. Over three decades of increasing participation of women in the workforce, these costs have long been a source of grievance and an unaddressed policy issue. Any move by government to compensate parents through the tax system for childcare costs inevitably runs into "what about me" claims of the stay-at-home parent who provides this service free and as a matter of choice.
So the dilemma was usually solved or dodged by governments opting for Child Benefit as a cash payment to mothers, regardless of whether they worked. It was less complex and less controversial; a universal cash payment direct to the mother and linked to the children of the family. Expensive and often criticised for not being means tested, Child Benefit has steadily increased to a figure of €2bn last year. But Budget 2017 is the first targeted scheme to fund childcare and make it affordable.
Regrettably, welcome for the scheme was blurred by claims in the media of inequity and discrimination or disregard for women who look after their children in the home. It's a tricky and legitimate argument which ministers struggle with. It also raises the divisive and thorny issue of what's best for children.
By supporting women in the labour force with their childcare costs, are we prioritising or preferring that option for children? Psychologists row in and then the dispute is whether 'outsourcing' childcare to professional crèches is in the best interests of children? Would they not be better off at home in the care of their mothers or grandmothers? By introducing a subsidy, is the State favouring women 'abandoning' their children to join the workforce? Before long, Éamon de Valera's Constitutional genuflection to women in the home in Article 42.1 is thrown in for good measure. At which point, one reaches for the remote in despair.
It would assist the debate if childcare was liberated from the traditional 'women's issues' agenda. These days it is an issue of the workforce, of child welfare and of the proper functioning of families.
Maximum choice is what Irish parents seem to want. So, rather than squabbling and unhelpfully dividing mothers, providing high-quality options for families and children should be the pathway we can all agree upon.
First and foremost, the new policy is about children; giving them the best start in life regardless of their background. International research confirms high-quality childcare brings significant benefits for children and those benefits are greater for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. So it makes sense that the majority of the funding for 2017 is targeted at lower-income families. The scheme targets families living below the poverty line and who experience educational disadvantage.
The policy is also about employment and reducing poverty. The best poverty beater is a job. Affordable childcare allows poorer families to access the labour market. It doesn't force them into the workforce but it gives them choice. According to the CSO, 19pc of people in jobless households are in consistent poverty compared to 8pc of households with one person working and 0.5pc of households with two people working.
To her credit, Ms Zappone has ventured into choppy political waters by increasing State subsidies for childcare, but only for Tusla-registered providers. The scheme will be open to all childcare providers registered with Tusla, including centre-based childcare providers like crèches, preschools and day care centres, but also to childminders. If the State is to subsidise childcare, it is reasonable and correct that services are quality assured. Over 4,500 services are registered with Tusla. It seems only a small percentage of childminders are registered with Tusla, but officials anticipate that many will register in the coming months so as to be included in the scheme.
It is disappointing that such a policy breakthrough was met with resentment by some stay-at-home parents and their advocates. But these families are supported directly by the Government by the home care tax credit, which has been increased to €1,100 per year, and the minister has said she supports an increase in the earnings threshold for this.
It is interesting to note that 96pc of eligible children avail of the ECCE (free preschool scheme) and many stay-at-home parents avail of this. And of course, Child Benefit still applies to all. By targeting lower-income families initially, the minister is hastening slowly and, in my view, sensibly. The subsidy will not cover the full annual cost but it is a genuinely good start. Inevitably there will be calls to increase the subsidy to bring more families into the targeted scheme next year. On top of all this, there is a universal payment for all families with children under three years.
From September of next year, there will be a universal subsidy of up to €80 a month (€960 per year) towards childcare costs on a pro- rata basis.
The move shows what can be done by an individual minister maximising her influence in a key area of public policy. Like free education, or the electoral gender quota, the new childcare subsidy is a long-awaited game-changer for Irish society.