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Jill Kirby

Jill Kirby: Childcare policy should start with children

Childcare Minister Liz Truss is right to point out that the last Labour government spent far too much money on childcare subsidies. As she explains, the distribution of these subsidies, combined with a huge increase in bureaucracy and regulation, skewed the childcare market and reduced parental choice. But the solutions Miss Truss proposes, drawing on a new report by the left-leaning think-tank IPPR, appear to be based on a narrow set of assumptions propagated during the Labour years, from which the coalition badly needs to break free.

The first and most damaging of those assumptions is the belief that non-parental childcare is in the interests of the child. The priority for any formulation of childcare policy should instead be: will this be good for children's wellbeing? Sadly, this question is very rarely asked. The growing child is simply viewed as an impediment to work. Yet giving birth to a child, or becoming a father, and nurturing a new life, is the most important  project any human can undertake, and should be the most life-changing. The child's need for attachment, protection, love and understanding will drive out mundane concerns, and rightly so. Looking after a baby or infant should therefore be seen as the highest human activity, not a task to be delegated to others as quickly as possible.

Thanks to the work of a number of MPs on both sides of the House, political attention is now being drawn to the work of charities focusing on parent-infant attachment, and who recognise the need for early intervention in families where babies are not thriving. But this understanding does not seem to permeate the world of childcare policy. Fearful of starting the “mummy wars,” politicians and journalists are reluctant to cite research showing that children benefit from parental care, and that babies who spend a lot of time in daycare are more likely to present behavioural problems later. The cognitive benefits of daycare may be considered to outweigh the emotional drawbacks, particularly where pre-school children are concerned, but these benefits will only be gained if the daycare environment offers more enriching activities than the child would receive at home. In other words, if you have decent housing, don't spend all day watching telly but are willing to talk to your child and take him out and about, you will do your child more good by caring for him yourself. Bearing in mind that both you and the child will be spending time in the company of the person you love most in the world, surely this should be viewed as a privilege, not a chore?

None of this means that a government should tell parents to stop work and go home to look after their children. That should be for parents to choose. But it does surely mean that the decision to bring up your own children should be celebrated rather than sidelined. And any discussion of childcare should cover a full range of options, including the one that will most enable children to thrive.

The second false assumption still pervading childcare policy is the idea that most parents would actively prefer their children to be cared for by others. There is no evidence to suggest that this is the case, and much to contradict it. Liz Truss asserts that the cost of childcare is a key reason given by parents not returning to work. In fact, it is one of a host of reasons, including concern that the child is too young to be in daycare, and that it is too soon for a mother to be back at work. When working mothers are asked about their preferences, the majority cite financial pressure as the reason for working and express a clear desire for more time at home with their children if only they could afford it. In a survey (PDF) last year by polling organisation Britain Thinks, 81% of 2,000 adults questioned said that ideally one parent should stay at home to look after children. This rises to 84% among 25-34 year olds – i.e. the generation of parents currently having children. Politicians and opinion formers clamouring for more childcare are out of touch with majority opinion.

The third and final Labour myth which the coalition has apparently swallowed is that there is such a thing as “affordable, high quality childcare.” High quality childcare is expensive, because it requires high adult:child ratios, well-paid staff and a homely location with both indoor and outdoor activities. Reducing the regulatory burden will, as Liz Truss rightly argues, free up the market and thus help to drive down the cost of care, but it won't improve its quality. Indeed, the coalition's main proposal for a reduction in red tape is to reduce adult:child ratios so that childminders can take on more children.

The only way to make good quality childcare “affordable,” to parents who don't earn enough to pay for it, is for taxpayers to subsidise it. As the Centre for Social Justice pointed out last week, for a low-paid mother of more than one child, it's cheaper for taxpayers to pay her to stay at home, and look after her own children, than to subsidise both her job and her childcare through the tax credits system. If taxpayers are to pay a mother to go out to work, we must be very confident that her care is worse for the child than the care provided by the state – and, if that's the case, that the money could not be better spent in showing her how to be a good mother.

So what should we be doing to solve this problem? Conservatives of a libertarian disposition will assert that people should not have children unless they are prepared to pay for them. In their view, no parent should be given a subsidy or tax break by other taxpayers, but should stand alone. The drawback to this approach is that it not only fails to recognise the needs of young children within a family, it also ignores the demographic importance of maintaining birth rates to meet the needs of an ageing population.

But it is quite clear that governments in recent years have extended the state's remit for the care of children to unsustainable levels. Beyond the prevention of abuse or neglect, why should the state get involved in providing and regulating childcare? Rather than subsidising the use of daycare, the government should spend the money on genuine tax allowances (not tax credits) to recognise the cost – and social value – of raising children whilst also holding down a job. Such allowances should be based on the number of adults and dependent children living together in the family, with parents able to choose which income(s) to set the allowance(s) against, for maximum relief.

Families providing their own childcare would then be on a level playing field with those who buy care from childminders, nannies or nurseries. There would be a clear incentive for at least one parent to work, in order to claim the allowances; it would also incentivise parents to live together and raise their children together, because this would enable them to pool their allowances. Because no government subsidies would be directed to childcare providers, there would be no justification for an inspection regime beyond basic safety; no more “nappy curriculum.”

A free market in childcare and a level playing field between parental and commercial care. Surely this would be a perfect liberal-conservative solution? But the coalition must first break the chains of outdated Labour beliefs, so that it can develop a fresh, modern and compassionate childcare policy.


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