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Paul Goodman MP: Childcare - choice, information and social justice

Goodman_paul_7Paul Goodman is a great friend of ConservativeHome - posting throughout the leadership contest on behalf of the Davis campaign.  David Cameron appointed Paul to the Treasury team as Shadow Minister for Childcare and he posts on his new brief below...

Our opponents propogate two myths about the Conservative Party and childcare...

  • The first is that we're authoritarians, who believe that all mothers should stay at home.
  • The second is that we're libertarians, who believe that childcare can simply be left to the market.

Obviously, these myths are mutually inconsistent.  They're also untrue.

These are early days in David Cameron's leadership.  But they're not too early for us to communicate our convictions and ideals to voters, or to counter myth with truth.  We not only recognise but welcome the choice which many modern mothers make - to pursue their aspirations by working in the labour market.  (Others, of course, work in the labour market mainly or entirely because they need the money.) And we not only acknowledge but believe strongly that childcare is about more than markets.  It's also about the life chances of children - about ensuring that they’re well cared for, well fed, well raised, well introduced to the world around them, and ultimately able to fulfil their potential.

When David asked me to serve as Shadow Minister for Childcare, he told me that childcare will be a vital issue at the next election.  Although it’s far too early to set out detailed policy, I want to describe the present situation as I see it, and explore three key principles on which our childcare policy should be informed: choice, information, and social justice.

The childcare status quo could be described by setting out a long list of facts and statistics.  It's probably more useful - and certainly more straightforward - to try to describe it from the point of view of parents, as reported to voluntary sector groups that specialise in childcare.  So let me quote an anonymous parent from Greenwich whose words are reported in the Daycare Trust's document "Talking about childcare - conversations with parents and children from low-income parents".

The parent says:

"They need to make it so that all walks of life can understand it…they need to simplify it for everyday people…not everyone's a brain box…I'm not that intellectual when it comes to reading or problem solving."

I suspect that these words capture the flavour of childcare for many parents from different backgrounds in Britain today.  Juggling the demands of work and home and family, perhaps relying on a relative or neighbour for childcare during working hours, or relying on that relative or neighbour to take your child to a nursery early in the day, or to collect that child later in the day; struggling with costs; searching for information about childminders or breakfast clubs or playgroups; negotiating one's way through the tax credit system; looking for childcare outside work hours - all this is breathtakingly complex, and especially formidable for single parents or parents from disadvantaged groups.  The words of that parent from Greenwich convey a sense of childcare as a maze.

I believe that the three principles of choice, information and social justice can act as a guide to negotiate that maze.  First, choice.  It's obvious that the first providers of childcare are parents - but, like many obvious facts, it bears repetition.  Parents know better than governments what's best for their children.  It follows that they must be free to make the childcare choices they want.  Gordon Brown is uneasy with this simple truth - and with choice.  The childcare system which he's built up since 1997 gives more support to parents who work in the labour market than those who don't: for example, parents who don't work in the labour market can't access the childcare tax credit.  Brown's system also gives more support to formal than informal carers: informal carers can't usually access the childcare tax credit either.  (Theresa May produced imaginative proposals to improve access to this tax credit in our election manifesto last year.)

These are snapshots of some of the problems caused by the way in which Brown is increasing childcare demand.  His complicated cats-cradle of tax credits and benefit payments and funding streams provides more help to some families than others on much the same incomes.  As the detailed work of CARE has demonstrated, one-earner couples are clearly disadvantaged by the present system.  Patricia Hewitt effectively conceded this when she said during the last Parliament when Minister for Women:

"If I look back over the last six years I do think that we've given the impression that we think all mothers should be out to work, preferably full-time as soon as their children are a few months old".

Other European countries have found simpler and fairer ways of increasing childcare demand.  Finland, for example, offers a homecare allowance worth up to 40 per cent of average female earnings to parents of under-threes.  Norway pays a similar allowance to parents of under-twos.  France has its allocation parentale d'education.

So much for the childcare demand problems exacerbated by Brown.  What about the supply problems?  During the last Parliament, David Willetts cited some of the restraints which prevent new childcare facilities from opening up and new people from entering the childcare workforce: planning laws, health and safety, the way in which VAT is levied, the 17-page form which you have to fill in if you want to become a childminder.  If these and similar problems aren't tackled, further increases in childcare demand will be swallowed up by higher prices – and British childcare is already expensive, with occupancy rates that have actually fallen.  Conservatives are natural pruners-back of red tape, rules and regulations.  We should have a gleam in our eye about the opportunities that the next Conservative Government will have to cut childcare red tape, increase supply and at least stabilise the price of childcare.

But most parents, of course, don't simply want childcare choice.  They want informed childcare choice.  This is where the second principle that I want to set out - information - comes in.  Parents often find it hard to get reliable information about childcare locally and nationally - perhaps especially about the effects that different sorts of childcare have on children.  This territory is contested, often bitterly.  The traditionalist corner argues that daycare damages children's life chances.  Daycare organisations, unsurprisingly, argue the opposite.  As the research continues to roll out, conclusions must be tentative.  But the evidence I've seen indicates that high-quality daycare is good for older pre-school children.

This raises the question of whether the dash for childcare quantity under Brown has been accompanied by a rise in childcare quality.  High-quality childcare means a higher-status, better-qualified, better-paid childcare work force.  This is a desirable goal, but it comes with a price tag.  Building a higher-status workforce means spending public money – and there are always limits on the spending of public money.  The point was put forcefully last year:

"Given the scale of the cost, and the competing demands on the public purse, it is not realistic to think that we can provide universal and high quality care to all families free of charge."

The speaker was Ed Balls, now the Labour MP for Normanton, and one of Brown’s main advisers.  During the early part of this Parliament, we’ll be examining how the next Conservative Government will simplify childcare information; untangle the knot of current childcare funding streams; provide high-quality childcare, and learn from successful childcare provision in other European countries, in which formal education often starts later.

But childcare choice - even informed childcare choice - is not enough.  Conservatives don't believe that choice floats values-free in a moral vacuum.  For us, choice is not an excuse for making selfish decisions, but an instrument for achieving social justice.  Brown sees childcare as playing a part in the struggle against child poverty.  Brown didn’t invent that struggle:
Shaftesbury, Wilberforce, Disraeli and MacMillan were fighting it long before he was born.  But improving children’s life chances is obviously a point of consensus between us.  However, while we’ll always agree with Brown about battling against child poverty, we will often disagree with him about the means.

Brown’s main means is central control from Westminster and Whitehall, backed up by targets, with a heavy emphasis on state provision.  We’re committed to retaining SureStart: indeed, Theresa May and Tim Loughton advanced plans to improve it before the last election – SureStart Plus.  But it must be conceded that the Government’s own research shows that SureStart’s results are disappointing.  So we will also want to examine, in the wake of the current Childcare Bill, how government can enable the private and voluntary sectors to play a larger role in raising the life chances of children.  And since good life chances are inextricably connected to what happens in childrens’ early years, my colleagues will be looking more widely at ways of improving our families’ policy.

These are huge challenges.  We’ll only be able to meet them if we engage voluntary organisations, businesses, think-tanks, faith communities, interest groups, party members and (most importantly) parents in our policy review of childcare.

Your contribution is valuable and your views are welcome...


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