By Paul Goodman
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The attention-seizing half of childcare policy is the demand side – the recognition by the state that having children affects one's capacity to pay tax, and the response by government that follows in terms of measures. Attention is seized precisely because each possible solution is controversial – touching on instinctive and powerful beliefs about the role of the state and women in particular.
Some say that tax relief should be introduced for childcare. But it wouldn't help mothers (and it is usually mothers) who don't work in the labour market. Others believe that tax allowances should be transferable. But this wouldn't help mothers who do work in it. Others still want higher child benefit, which reaches both groups. But it isn't restricted to taxpayers and reaches those on welfare. Others still believe that having children shouldn't reduce one's tax bill.
For the moment, these fiercely-fought arguments are academic.
Deficit reduction must take priority. Whether the state shouldn't or shouldn't recognise the costs of having children in the tax and benefit system, there will be no new grand schemes to do so. Child benefit and tax credits will remain, albeit in a pared-down form. The former looks slowly to be whittled away, since the Treasury has always resisted the recognition of the costs of children in the tax system – thus decreasing incentives to earn.
This leaves the attention-repelling half of childcare policy – the supply side. Because it touches less on those powerful and instinctive beliefs it usually receives less attention. I have written previously on this site about the disadvantages that private, voluntary and independent providers wrestle with. Elizabeth Truss has championed an equivalent of Michael Gove's free schools policy.
What else could the Government do?
In the Times (£) this morning, the Norfolk MP champions freeing childminders from red tape. As she points out, Labour "introduced a raft of regulations, such as Ofsted inspections and a compulsory curriculum with 69 targets to be achieved by a child’s fifth birthday. The result? There are now only 55,000 childminders. In Germany those looking after fewer than three children aren’t regulated at all".
Truss suggests that Ofsted could regulate nurseries and local authorities childminders with a larger number of children – leaving those minding a smaller number free of red tape. David Cameron is looking to raise the party's ratings with women, and George Osborne to boost the economy's performance. They could do worse than look at Truss's Times piece.