The cost-of-living crisis, like so many of the most serious problems facing the country, arises in large part from structural causes. but is being met by a Government that seems incapable of thinking in such terms for any length of time.
Boris Johnson is not breaking new ground with this failing; every government in recent times has, for example, preferred counter-productive short-term demand boosts to trying to address the root causes of our chronic housing shortage.
But what previous generations of politicians managed to get away with (more or less) in good times will not necessarily fly in really bad times.
Take latest drive to try and bring down childcare costs as an example.
Bringing carer-to-child ratios, qualification requirements, and so on down to something closer to the systems that prevail in neighbouring countries seems perfectly sensible. Both Bright Blue and the TaxPayers’ Alliance has set out the case for doing so, highlighting the different ways each regulation pushes up the overall cost of provision.
It would scarcely be the only area (rented housing springs again to mind) where an insistence on gold-plated standards combines with limited supply to produce less-than-stellar outcomes. And it would be welcome to see the Tories using their majority to return to an issue they had to retreat on under the Coalition, when Nick Clegg stymied Liz Truss’s reform effort.
Yet the fact ministers were trying to tackle this almost a decade ago shows that this is another problem with deep roots. The solution is probably not going to be conjured in a Cabinet meeting to brainstorm a hodge-podge of suggestions for cutting household costs without offending the Treasury.
Were the Government stepping back and taking a more strategic view of the question it might ponder the fact that many European providers are able to cross-subsidise the resource-intensive work of looking after very young children with the proceeds of caring for older ones, who in this country are already in school.
It might also, when the Chancellor was out of earshot, reflect on whether or not the childcare system should be so ruthlessly focused on freeing up parents to re-enter the labour market.
Why could the resources not, as some have suggested, be made available on a more flexible basis, to support stay-at-home parents or care by friends and relatives?
Or is Whitehall so safeguarding-brained as to demand those expensive CRB checks and qualifications from them as well? After all, it does seem to have a real aversion to these informal alternatives. As Ryan Bourne noted in a recent column:
“Yet governments have sought to professionalise and formalise the sector through heavy regulation, constraining supply, while then subsidising demand. This has brought a whole host of dissatisfaction, as well as rising market prices.”
Or if we’re taking inspiration from overseas, Johnson could consider Miriam Cates’ proposals to reform the tax system so that it recognises the reduced ‘taxable capacity’ of families with children, as in France or Germany?
The prohibitive cost of raising a family is a vast challenge. Really tackling it would involve a sustained and coordinated push on multiple fronts: against the vast coalition of interests opposed to new housebuilding; against the Whitehall fixation on workforce participation; and indeed against the attitude that sees ‘paying for other people’s children’ as an imposition on the taxpayer rather than the rightful duty of the State.
We have little reason to expect that any such plan will be forthcoming, because there is scant interest that Johnson really thinks in such terms.
But an extra subsidy here and the cutting of a bit of red tape there will not give families the sort of help they really need.