22 August 2023

Landlords (for once) aren’t to blame for the childcare crisis


One very depressing way to bring home to yourself the real impact of this country’s growing list of self-inflicted policy failures is to spend a little time working out how it has, or would have, impacted on you personally.

This is easiest with housing. Just look up some properties you like, check their Zoopla history, adjust for inflation, and voila! Just like that, you can see just how much better someone on your salary would have fared in the housing market ten, twenty, thirty years ago. Have a stiff drink handy.

But you can do it with all sorts of things, and one which I find particularly sobering is the collapse in childminding. 

When I and my younger brother were very small (the youngest had, considerately, not yet arrived), our family hit a rough patch, as many do from time to time. Both our parents worked full time, and my mother additionally took private shifts at a hospital on top of her role as an NHS nurse. Staying at home to look after two small boys was out of the question. 

Happily, there was then a simple solution. She placed an advert in the local paper, and a housewife whose own children had left home answered it. Job done. That lady went on to help raise all three of us for the better part of the next two decades – she and her husband rejoice, I’m sure, in the honorary titles of aunt and uncle to all three Hill boys.

Today, such an ad hoc arrangement would be illegal. 

In order to take care of my brother and I, our mum-away-from-mum would have needed to be a fully registered, professional childminder – raising two sons of her own is, in the eyes of the state, no qualification at all.

She would need also not only to pass background checks, but comply with onerous record-keeping regulations and, worst of all, deliver an Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum. This last is thanks to Labour, which legislated for it in 2006. It is of a piece with the Opposition’s current thinking, too: Bridget Phillipson, the Shadow Education Secretary, wants to make childcare a graduate profession.

Parents who stay at home to raise their own children are not required to teach the EYFS. Why then, if providing a caring home environment is acceptable in that case, is it not acceptable for non-parent childminders to do the same?

(Indeed, will it always be acceptable? It isn’t impossible to imagine this supposed inequality being used to try and impose the EYFS on stay-at-home parents at some point, as and when the Treasury wants to roust the last of them back onto the GDP treadmill.)

Perhaps my ‘aunt’ would have done all that; she and her husband did go on to be foster parents, once my brothers and I were old enough that they could take their eyes off us for five seconds.

But the broader picture speaks for itself. When my mother was looking for help in the early 1990s, there were over 100,000 registered childminders; today, that number stands at less than 30,000.

There has, as Reem Ibrahim notes on ConservativeHome today, been an expansion in places at nurseries and other institutional providers. But to what extent does this really reflect ‘changing preferences of parents’ versus the old story that larger businesses are better equipped to handle the costs of excessive regulation?

Successive governments have baked in dysfunction. Excessive regulation pushes up costs and pushes providers out of the market; attempts to regulate prices then either render the remaining businesses unviable, or force them to make up the difference by hiking prices in areas which have not yet been capped.

Add to this structural difficulties posed by our school system, which starts earlier and means childcare businesses can’t subsidise provision for labour-intensive toddlers with income from older children, and you have yet another sector in a more-or-less self-induced crisis.

Now, after 13 years in office, the Government does seem to be waking up to this, and yesterday announced plans to loosen some of the rules around childminding and introduce a start-up grant for new people entering the profession. But the announcement by the Children’s Minister Claire Coutinho was somewhat bizarrely framed as an attack on landlords.

Now then. Having only just left the private rented sector, I am wary of appearing to have made a sudden pivot to a pro-landlord posture. Only last month I wrote a (partial) defence of them for this site; now I’m doing another. All I can say is both were justified by the news cycle.

But seriously, how is the Government zeroing in on a housing-related diagnosis for one of the few crises gripping Britain today which seems not to be merely a reflection of the housing crisis?

Yes, landlords will be making life more difficult for some childminders, at the margins. But in how many cases where landlord-says-no is the actual explanation restrictions on the terms of the landlords own mortgage, or insurance? Or regulations on buildings where children are cared for professionally (as opposed to by their own parents, when the regulations don’t apply)?

But even if the Government fixed all that (and there is no mention of any actual policies in the Coutinho story), it wouldn’t fix what ails childcare. If the Government wanted to do that, it would need a two-pronged approach. 

First, make a decisive break from Labour’s statist, maximalist vision of what childcare is. 

Formal education in this country already begins earlier than in many of our European neighbours – there is no need to hamstring the childcare system in order to try to force that age downwards. Ministers should make a firm decision on when schooling begins, and before that allow childminders to provide merely a caring home environment – the same standard we expect of stay-at-home parents.

Doing this would create space to substantially reduce the regulatory burden on childminders, encouraging more to sign up. It would also (perhaps with the help of specific directives) make it easier to set up less formal childcare arrangements – for example, a group of parents with part-time jobs sharing care across the working week.

Second, and in support of the above, the Government could change how childcare is funded. Instead of laying on a certain amount of free childcare for sanctioned providers, parents could receive cash or a voucher, which could be more freely spent within the professional childcare system or serve as income substitution for parents who wanted to spend more time at home.

That would be a dramatic break from Labour’s vision of every baby under the watchful eye of a graduate. But there’s no reason it wouldn’t work, and it might even be popular with parents – Phillipson was apparently very worried at one point that the Government might make at-home parenting easier.

However, we seem instead stuck with the usual state of affairs: Conservative ministers whose imaginations are entombed within Labour’s view of the world, and seem unable or unwilling to envision any serious break from the status quo, no matter how manifest its shortcomings.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.