Published:

Childcare
Minister Liz
Truss is right to point out

that the last Labour government spent far too much money on childcare
subsidies. As she explains, the distribution of these subsidies, combined with
a huge increase in bureaucracy and regulation, skewed the childcare market and
reduced parental choice. But the solutions Miss Truss proposes, drawing on a
new report by the left-leaning think-tank IPPR, appear to be based on a narrow
set of assumptions propagated during the Labour years, from which the coalition
badly needs to break free.

The
first and most damaging of those assumptions is the belief that non-parental
childcare is in the interests of the child. The priority for any formulation of
childcare policy should instead be: will this be good for children's wellbeing?
Sadly, this question is very rarely asked. The growing child is simply viewed
as an impediment to work. Yet giving birth to a child, or becoming a father,
and nurturing a new life, is the most important 
project any human can undertake, and should be the most life-changing.
The child's need for attachment, protection, love and understanding will drive
out mundane concerns, and rightly so. Looking after a baby or infant should
therefore be seen as the highest human activity, not a task to be delegated to
others as quickly as possible.


Thanks
to the work of a number of MPs on both sides of the House, political attention is
now being drawn to the work of charities focusing on parent-infant attachment,
and who recognise the need for
early intervention in families where babies are not thriving. But this
understanding does not seem to permeate the world of childcare policy. Fearful
of starting the “mummy wars,” politicians and journalists are reluctant to cite
research showing that children benefit from parental care, and that babies who
spend a lot of time in daycare are more likely to present behavioural problems
later. The cognitive benefits of daycare may be considered to outweigh the
emotional drawbacks, particularly where pre-school children are concerned, but
these benefits will only be gained if the daycare environment offers more
enriching activities than the child would receive at home. In other words, if
you have decent housing, don't spend all day watching telly but are willing to
talk to your child and take him out and about, you will do your child more good
by caring for him yourself. Bearing in mind that both you and the child will be
spending time in the company of the person you love most in the world, surely
this should be viewed as a privilege, not a chore?

None of
this means that a government should tell parents to stop work and go home to
look after their children. That should be for parents to choose. But it does
surely mean that the decision to bring up your own children should be celebrated
rather than sidelined. And any discussion of childcare should cover a full
range of options, including the one that will most enable children to thrive.

The
second false assumption still pervading childcare policy is the idea that most
parents would actively prefer their children to be cared for by others. There
is no evidence to suggest that this is the case, and much to contradict it. Liz
Truss asserts that the cost of childcare is a key reason given by parents not
returning to work. In fact, it is one of a host of reasons, including concern
that the child is too young to be in daycare, and that it is too soon for a
mother to be back at work. When working mothers are asked about their
preferences, the majority cite financial pressure as the reason for working and
express a clear desire for more time at home with their children if only they
could afford it. In a survey (PDF) last year by polling
organisation Britain Thinks, 81% of 2,000 adults
questioned said that ideally one parent should stay at home to look after
children. This rises to 84% among 25-34 year olds – i.e. the generation of parents currently having children.
Politicians and opinion formers clamouring for more childcare are out of touch
with majority opinion.

The
third and final Labour myth which the coalition has apparently swallowed is
that there is such a thing as “affordable, high quality childcare.” High
quality childcare is expensive, because it requires high adult:child ratios,
well-paid staff and a homely location with both indoor and outdoor activities.
Reducing the regulatory burden will, as Liz Truss rightly argues, free up the
market and thus help to drive down the cost of care, but it won't improve its
quality. Indeed, the coalition's main proposal for a reduction in red tape is
to reduce adult:child ratios so that childminders can take on more children.

The
only way to make good quality childcare “affordable,” to parents who don't earn
enough to pay for it, is for taxpayers to subsidise it. As the Centre for
Social Justice pointed out last week, for a low-paid mother of more than one
child, it's
cheaper for taxpayers to pay her to stay at home
, and look after her own children, than to subsidise both
her job and her childcare through the tax credits system. If taxpayers are to
pay a mother to go out to work, we must be very confident that her care is
worse for the child than the care provided by the state – and, if that's the
case, that the money could not be better spent in showing her how to be a good
mother.

So what
should we be doing to solve this problem? Conservatives of a libertarian
disposition will assert that people should not have children unless they are
prepared to pay for them. In their view, no parent should be given a subsidy or
tax break by other taxpayers, but should stand alone. The drawback to this
approach is that it not only fails to recognise the needs of young children
within a family, it also ignores the demographic importance of maintaining
birth rates to meet the needs of an ageing population.

But it
is quite clear that governments in recent years have extended the state's remit
for the care of children to unsustainable levels. Beyond the prevention of
abuse or neglect, why should the state get involved in providing and regulating
childcare? Rather than subsidising the use of daycare, the government should
spend the money on genuine tax allowances (not tax credits) to recognise the
cost – and social value – of raising children whilst also holding down a job.
Such allowances should be based on the number of adults and dependent children
living together in the family, with parents able to choose which income(s) to
set the allowance(s) against, for maximum relief.

Families
providing their own childcare would then be on a level playing field with those
who buy care from childminders, nannies or nurseries. There would be a clear
incentive for at least one parent to work, in order to claim the allowances; it
would also incentivise parents to live together and raise their children
together, because this would enable them to pool their allowances. Because no
government subsidies would be directed to childcare providers, there would be
no justification for an inspection regime beyond basic safety; no more “nappy
curriculum.”

A free
market in childcare and a level playing field between parental and commercial
care. Surely this would be a perfect liberal-conservative solution? But the
coalition must first break the chains of outdated Labour beliefs, so that it
can develop a fresh, modern and compassionate childcare policy.

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