7 November 2022

The last thing parents want from politicians is more childcare


After announcing her intention to build a ‘modern childcare system’ at Labour conference, shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson has clarified what this means. With a simple amendment to legislation, local councils will be allowed to open up new state childcare facilities – so more public spending, more mums working longer and more toddlers in state-run institutions.

The problem is, parents don’t want this. Tucked away in a government megapoll of parents, two-thirds of mothers with children under four told policymakers they would prefer to spend a lot less time at work and a lot more time at home with their children. This is their ‘ideal’ childcare arrangement, but politicians like Ms Phillipson think they know best. More state and less choice.

Most mums think we have childcare policy the wrong way round. Parents want the state to help them stay at home not shove them back into work. We’ve been getting childcare policy back to front and ignoring the views of parents for at least 30 years.

The problem is governments need cash, and for decades getting parents back into work has been an easy target for the Treasury. Get women into work paying taxes, hand toddlers over to a childcare worker (who will also pay taxes) and it’s double bubble for Treasury bean-counters. It’s a seductive way of appearing as though government policy is progressive when, in reality, it is state-sanctioned misery for millions of mums stuck in offices when they would rather be at home.

Political parties would be better off listening to parents rather than treating them like cash cows for state expansion. We spend upwards of £4bn on childcare bungs to parents on the condition they hand this money straight back to a nursery or a childminder. These payments can never be used to help parents step off the career ladder to spend more time at home. Stay at home mums are one of the most discriminated against groups – the tax system works against them to the tune of thousands and government handouts exclude them entirely. It’s time a modern system was built for modern mums.

The political wind might be changing with several Westminster thinktanks coming up with proposals to allow parents to keep the cash handed to them through their recycled taxes. These ideas are increasingly being discussed at the top of government too. It’s not more state we need, it’s more parents spending more time, doing a better job for their own kids. We all benefit from that, even if it’s unfashionable to say so.

Take the tax system, two earners are quids in compared to a family where one works while the other stays at home. These couples are penalised by thousands of pounds even if their income is the same as the two earner couple. You have to be very rich to look after your own children in modern Britain.

There are plenty of ways governments of left or right can support parents without a huge expansion of the state. Peers recently debated allowing parents to front load their child benefit payments – squeezing 18 years of payments into four if this is what parents want. Others are questioning why we don’t simply hand childcare cash to parents and let them get on with it. Before her defenestration Liz Truss was working on plans to make the tax system fairer for stay at home parents. Any of these schemes would make a difference, but roll them altogether and parents, particularly mums, will get closer to their ideal of spending time with their children.

The Government will probably soon stop asking parents about their ideal childcare arrangements. They consistently get the answer wrong. Instead it looks like a new universal childcare system might give them more choice to work longer and see their children much less. It’s the modern way.

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Frank Young is Editorial Director at the Civitas thinktank.

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