The unjust wrath of 'stay at home' mothers

Parents who choose to stay at home rather than work are wrong to feel aggrieved at working mothers getting a small tax break on their childcare costs.

I don't particularly want to get involved in the row about whether the UK appreciates 'stay at home' mothers or not. But I'm not sure I can entirely accept the fury coming from the 'stay at home' mothers'lobby about the utter unfairness of working parents getting a tiny tax-break on their childcare.

It seems to me that if you don't pay income tax, you don't much need a tax-break. And if you've made a decision to stay at home and look after your children, why would you want a tax-break that helped you pay someone else to do it? I'd also add that being a 'stay at home' parent is hardly a subsidy-free zone.

'Stay at home' parents get National Insurance credits that non-parents and working parents don't get. If you are caring for a child under 12, you get Class 3 credits which go towards your state pension (details here).

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What's that worth? Well, if you had to buy those credits, they would cost you £13.25 a week (£689 a year). And if you were working and on an average wage of, say, £25,000 a year, you'd be paying £2,132 to get those credits. It's not exactly peanuts is it? I'd also note that all parents get help with childcare in the UK (which is nice given that it is the most expensive childcare in Europe).

Full-time mothers don't have to be full-time for long: whether they work or not, they get 15 hours of state-funded nursery care for 38 weeks a year as soon as their child turns three. That's worth around £3,600 a year a vital financial break to those who are paying someone else to look after their children while they work, and a nice craft and educational outing break for those who aren't.

There is a case to be made that we undervalue families in the UK by taxing people individually rather than as married couples (we don't let non-workers pool income tax allowances with their working partners, for example), but that's a different argument altogether.

I'll come back to it another time, but in the meantime, it seems to me that the state, far from insulting non-working mothers with alack of state-subsidised help, is pretty good to them.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.