There is one thing that the new Conservative Government’s childcare policy is not. It is not conservative.
And if ever there was an example of ‘tergiversation’ it is childcare policy. You’d be forgiven for believing Dave still had Nick (Clegg) breathing down his neck, dragging him to daycare photo opportunities, pushing the mums back to work and dads into paternity leave. But no – he doesn’t even have a Labour Opposition snapping at his heels with patriarchal jibes.
Dave adores childcare. It represents what he thinks of as modern conservatism – that liberal left feminist orthodoxy dominated by that wonderful gender equality doctrine that he’s signed his party up to, freeing women to work and making childcare affordable.
Never mind that it encourages a culture throughout society in which parents become increasingingly insensitive to the nurture of their babies, infants, children, and teenagers , to their own instincts, and parental responsibility. No, Dave’s all right with his happy family and no doubt a nanny.
This childcare policy is not conservative; it is socialist and dehumanising. It is also economic madness. It’s pure Alice in Wonderland when you think of poor old Iain Duncan Smith being forced to slash child benefit to scrape together £12 billion of welfare cuts to pay for it.
Yes, the cool £7 billion plus and rising of childcare subsidies is being taken from our taxes for an investment that Paul Johnson of the Institute of Fiscal Studies says is without a clear “rationale or evidence base”:
“Beware areas of spending with quite such unanimous cross-party support. It does not always lead to the best policy,” he’s said. Dave wasn’t listening though.
Good money has followed bad. Last year’s new tax-free childcare scheme at £2,000 per child (which needless to say has nothing to do with any rebates through the tax system, rather a direct payment to ‘working parents’ – the definition or work for both parents being £50 earned a week) followed on the 85 per cent subsidy towards childcare spending given to all parents on universal credit whether they really work or not.
Far from the tough image of welfare to work US style, childcare is there to support parents not deemed to be up to their parenting burden – getting their kids onto Alan Milburn’s imaginary social mobility ladder.
Some hope, given the quality of the care.
We can now add the new Childcare Bill, promising even more – a doubling of free childcare available to all working parents of 3- and 4-year-olds to 30 hours a week, available to up to 600,000 families and worth around £5,000 a year apiece, including the £2,500 they can already save from existing free childcare offers.
Apparently, there is not a moment is to be wasted in passing on these benefits to working families (on £50 a week) though no one seems to know how they will be funded.
Oh, and in case you had forgotten, if the Government’s main motive is to help parents move into work, there is no evidence it will. As the IFS made clear, remarkably little is known about the impact of childcare policies to justify their growing levels of taxpayer support.
Nor is there any consistent evidence from other countries that childcare support has large effects on parental labour supply.
The truth that Dave won’t countenance is that his childcare policies are a mass of contradictions, good neither for mother or child. Only for childcare evangelists.
Even where the motivation is child oriented, childcare is far from the panacea it is made out to be.
Babies’ and infants’ prime need is for their mothers and home, not for day or nursery care, underfunded and over subsidised or not. No one needs a culture of childcare dictated by the government that leaves young mothers believing that it is their only choice, and therefore it must be all right when it is not. And that is exactly what we have got right now. Talk to any young woman.
If Dave was a true Conservative, which he is not, he would get rid of this increasingly inhumane and bureaucratic system. He would instead restore generous child allowances through the income tax system, rewarding the responsibilities of marriage, perhaps with a limited means-tested childcare rebate for those seeking to enter the labour market on low incomes.
Ryan Bourne at the Institute of Economic Affairs has suggested deregulating the sector entirely to allow informal childcare to flourish. I have come to agree with him. We need a completely neutral system whereby parents can decide: a) whether they want to look after their own children or go to work; b) what type of care they want for their children if they do go to work – grandmother, sister or dad, a childminder friend down the road, or a nanny share; and c) to stay at home and look after their children themselves and not be penalised for it.
If parents want a pre-primary education of their children aged 3 to 5 that is fine. There is little evidence of its later educational impact but it has social benefit – a lifeline for the lonely stay-at-home mum and her children to meet other families. Fifteen hours a week of nursery education is ample for any 3-5 year-old and it would be far far better to provide less of better quality, rather than more badly.
The truth, however, is that present policy is not designed with infants’ and mother’ needs at it heart. The quest – realised or not and whatever it costs in every sense – is to increase maternal employment and gender parity; to push parents, through choiceless subsidies, towards formalised care and all that means.
As Ryan Bourne pointed out to me a while back, with the regulatory burdens involved, this amounts to increasing demand and reducing supply. And then, as he said, “people wonder why it’s so damn expensive?”
Well, we are about to get more of this lunacy. Bad economics making for bad child development and an even worse prospect for the next generation of children.