The Conservative Manifesto proposed to pour more public money into the NHS, schools and policing. One would have thought that with all this cash swilling around, more thought and time would have been expended on childcare.
James Frayne is at last receiving some of the recognition that he deserves, and pointed out in a column for us two years ago that “C1 and C2 women often don’t want to work full time – and the 30 hours commitment is a poor use of money if you’re interested in helping them – but childcare costs are a massive burden for households that often rely on 2 (or one and a half) incomes at a time when they are still relatively young and poorly paid”.
There are a mass of these voters in the Red Wall seats that collapsed last week, but no party has yet made a convincing childcare offer to them.
Labour and the Coalition’s policy legacy is a series of complicated schemes aimed at some mothers who work in the labour market. It pleases neither those who want more support for relatively informal care (that’s to say, childcare provided by parents, grandparents, other relatives, friends and so on); not those who back more provision for comparatively formal care (the “high quality, accessible, affordable childcare” of which we read so often)
Jeremy Corbyn proposed extending this “free” childcare further; the manifesto committed to extending “wrap-around childcare at school and holidays for working parents”.
There is Downing Street interest in acting on the supply side – in other words, removing some of the regulatory barriers that prevent new providers from entering the childcare market. But what is really required is action on the demand side: a reshaping of the present complex schemes that almost no-one understands into a simple retail offert than anyone can understand.
As Anne Fennell of Mothers at Home Matter wrote on this site recently, that would mean “taxation which falls fairly on those who stay home and those who work; for childcare subsidies to follow the child, with parents able to choose whether they use it to stay home, or give it to a grandparent, childminder or external care setting and for child benefit to be distributed fairly”.
That suggests either building on the present system of child benefit, which has been capped for higher earners; or else reviving the order which child benefit replaced – namely, child tax allowances (and letting what should properly be called the social security system support the family costs of those who don’t pay tax). It would also make sense as Anne argued for any system of revived tax allowances to be transferable.
Childcare policy at least on the demand side is presented as complicated when it could be simple – with a choice-based offer neutral between different sorts of families that all could understand.