Philip Womack

Why is the government making it harder to get an au pair?


You will have heard, I am sure, of the Conservatives’ recent largesse towards working parents, as their ‘free’ childcare policy has been much publicised. Fifteen hours a week for your kid, from nine months old to the grand age of four. You may not, however, have seen the new rules governing au pairs, which came into effect last month. Our dear, wise governors, while giving with one hand, have taken away with another; they have placed more obstacles in the way of those who need help with looking after their children. They’ve made it even harder to have an au pair.

Children, of course, have a tendency to grow past the age of four, at which point they trundle off to school down the merry lane in the sunshine, complete with their adorable little rucksacks. This doesn’t happen automatically. Last time I checked, minors can’t drop themselves off at the gates; they can’t wander whistling home, stopping to share a joke with the fishmonger as they pick up a lobster and a pint of beer, because it is not the 19th century. For decades, the dual-income family unable to stretch to a nanny (which now, at £36,000-plus a year for even a part-time one, would bankrupt most) opted for an au pair. An equal: someone who lived with you and helped out, in return for a room, food and modest pay.

She (usually a she) would be a young person who studied during the day, often English. She’d then pick up your children from school, fill them up with fish fingers and get them ready for bed. Everyone wins: the au pair by being immersed in a different culture, and having relative freedom at a young age while retaining home-like security; the children from having a quasi big sister around; and the knackered parents.

An au pair was paid ‘pocket money’, in recognition of the fact she wasn’t really an employee and was receiving bed and board. The going rate is around £700 a month, plus travel expenses (and the extra food, of course), so it’s still a stretch, but within the budgets of many. Au pairs could only stay with their host families for up to a year, so there was little chance of exploitation.

We’ve had some lovely au pairs. The children adore them, and we adore the fact that they adore them. It hasn’t all been rosy: one once texted me while I was driving my eldest to school demanding that we ‘keep the noise down’ in the morning. When I returned, she complained that I hadn’t replied to her immediately. I pointed out this would have been illegal, as I was on the road, and was tempted to sack her on the spot. But that aside, they’ve been wonderful.

So why change this agreeable arrangement? The government, scenting any opportunity to muscle into private contracts, has decided that au pairs must be paid the minimum wage. This is, of course, great for au pairs, who suddenly command up to £20,000 a year (dependent on their age and the amount of hours they are supposed to be doing: ours usually do 3.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. five days a week, plus more in the holidays).

Ah well, you’re probably thinking: surely you can deduct bed and board? Yet here’s the kicker. The government has deigned to allow us to claim back a whopping £9.99 per diem. If I let an au pair sleep in the broom cupboard and gave her one Pot Noodle a day, just under a tenner would probably cover it. Is that what the government wants: skivvies sleeping under the stairs? Have they gone mad? What do they think we can do? Send a letter up a chimney and pray Mary Poppins answers?

There are about 40,000 au pairs in the country: will the tax from their salaries really make a difference? No more informal contract, allowing for flexibility between both parties. Instead we have something that renders the phrase ‘au pair’ defunct, for it is now an employer/-employee relationship, with all the responsibilities that entails. And thanks to Brexit, au pairs from the EU can only stay for six months. Do those in power know how long it takes to find someone? The hours spent reading badly spelled profiles (‘Hello!! I hav always like children!!’) and responding to messages on the bizarre dating-style apps? I think they do not. Aside from stretching budgets even further, this all adds yet more bureaucratic buggery to our already red-taped lives.

I know what the effect of this new diktat will be: one parent will work fewer hours or give up work entirely. What that will do for equality and the economy, you can guess.

If the government really wants both parents to work, it needs to make childcare arrangements of all kinds easier and cheaper. At the moment, it seems neither party understands this. All I ask is that whoever wins the next election makes it fair to get an au pair.

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