Published: Irish Examiner, 10 June 2005

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Between the islands of Awaji and Shikoku in Japan, lies a narrow stretch of water called the Naruto Strait. Just 1,300 metres wide, it stands between the Pacific Ocean to the south and east, and the much smaller Inland Sea, maritime gateway to the industrial cities of Hiroshima, Kobe and Osaka.

The Naruto Strait is a sort of plughole through which vast quantities of water are pushed and pulled day and daily by the ebbing and flowing tides. Because the strait itself is so narrow, there is a constant torrent of massive whirlpools.

As well as being a major shipping lane, the strait is a place that tourists come to get up close and personal to Japan’s fastest tidal flow.

Occasionally the large freighters get trapped and have to wait for the next high tide to move on. Travelling by small boat through the whirlpools is nerve-wracking, but with skilled handling, our captain takes us safely to the relative calm of the other side.

That never-ending, natural battle in one corner of the world mirrors the tension between the push for low taxes and the pull of higher social spending here at home, with government playing the part of ship’s captain.

In Ireland, our love affair with low taxes has lasted almost 20 years. It has delivered jobs, prosperity, infrastructure, and growth rates that are the envy of Europe.

Until now, we have been content to trade lower taxes for a level of public service provision that could at best be described as adequate. Yet our vision of what the public services could be still lags far behind what the growing economy has made possible. Like the large freighter, we are trapped in the whirlpools, caught between the practicalities of a consensus that leaves many people dissatisfied with how we do things, and a social contract that could help us to do them so much better.

If there is one issue that symbolises the tension and forces it is childcare – affordable, accessible, flexible childcare.

With the announcement of its proposal for a €1 billion childcare package, the Labour Party has raised the political stakes dramatically. Against the backdrop of the mandate the party leader has received to enter pre-election talks with Fine Gael, the first signs of clear blue water are appearing between the Government and a possible rainbow alternative.

Elections of course are won and lost on many issues. But this one more than most is certain to resonate to and through the next general election. The escalating cost of childcare has long been a financial pinch-point for working parents, and particularly for women trying to rejoin or get their first toe-hold in the workforce. The Government says it is on target to meet its commitments for higher child benefit payments for all families, and in supporting the creation of tens of thousands of additional childcare places, particularly for those on lower incomes. At €141.60, however, the rate of child benefit falls a long way short of the actual cost of childcare, typically €800 or more a month for each child.

But even if affordability wasn’t an issue, accessibility and flexibility still would be. Tales of 5:30 am rising times, long commutes to work, and children spending up to 13 hours a day in childcare, these were the stories that galvanised public opinion like no other issue during the by-elections in Kildare and Meath. All parties know the situation is no longer tenable. So what would each do?

Fine Gael is promising capitation payments for pre-schooling, planning exemptions for childcare facilities, after-hours use of schools for childcare, a tax credit of €5,000 for childcare costs, improved maternity benefit, and paid parental leave. However, the party hasn’t put a cost on any of this.

Labour’s €1 billion plan seems considerably more ambitious and much more specific. Among its proposals are a 40% subsidy for the cost of childcare, an additional tax exemption of €8,000 for childminders, a year’s paid parental leave, a year’s free pre-schooling for all three-year-olds, and abolition of rates on childcare centres.

The Progressive Democrats favour tax breaks for childcare costs, as well as the use of primary schools for pre-and after-school care.

Curiously, Fianna Fáil has not yet staked out a definitive public position, but some in the party are now urging much the same line as has been adopted by others.

All of the parties have made vague statements about encouraging more family-friendly work options and the need for employers to do more. When legislation on this eventually comes, there will hardly be much in the way of surprises. The Working Group on Parental Leave, which included the social partners, has defined the limits of what is and is not possible. On two critical family-friendly work options – paid parental leave and paternity leave – there was no consensus. Nor has either of the main opposition parties spelled out exactly what effects its policies may have an existing child benefit and childcare provisions, which makes it hard to tell how much “new” gold will be found at the end of the rainbow.

However, with childcare costs here now two-and-a-half times the EU average, and the OECD forecasting a requirement for 220,000 childcare places by 2010, the pressure to provide more money, and to make more imaginative use of it, has started to increase. Some costs will be borne by families, some by employers with the introduction of more family-friendly work practices, but the majority inevitably by the taxpayer.

Some idea of the things that would make a difference to parents can be gleaned from research by the North Meath Community Development Association in 2000. It found the most valuable supports would be playgroups (88%), crèches (70%), parent and toddler groups (88%), childminder networks (84%), parenting courses (81%), after-school clubs (70%), and summer camps (87%).

Given the potential cost differences of their respective plans, and the larger party’s explicit commitment to low taxes, some tough talking between Fine Gael and Labour is inevitable. However, the by-elections proved that there are issues on which the electorate is prepared to look beyond the whirlpools. By mid-2007, we will know which of the captains they believe as the deftest navigation skills.