1 June 2015

Why are the Tories funding more free childcare?


After an election‎ win, when the champagne has been quaffed and the naysayers pilloried (although the Tories didn’t think they were going to win outright either), there is always that awkward moment when ministers realise that they will actually have to implement what was promised in their manifesto. A scheme that might have seemed like a good idea at the time, back a few weeks ago when Labour and the Tories were neck and neck in the polls, must now be translated into action.

It is even worse when a Prime Minister, emboldened by his victory, wants to hit the ground running and “action this day” orders cascade from Number 10. This is how the government finds itself announcing, as it has done this week, that the pledge to double the amount of “free” childcare to 30 hours a week is to be brought forward by a year to this September. Of course, such provision is not free at all. The bill is picked up by other taxpayers.

‎The response of many “hard-working parents,” a special subset of the government’s favoured hardworking people, will be “so what?” We pay our taxes, indeed the country has just passed the point at which taxpayers start earning for themselves and their families. The average British taxpayer has been working for the government since the start of the year, which is an incredible thought considering that today it is, theoretically, summer. Shouldn’t parents get something extra back?

Perhaps Number 10 is also concerned that the emphasis in the first three weeks since the election has been on welfare cuts for the poorest and the looming EU referendum which, although it excites Eurosceptics, leaves many voters cold. Perhaps the Prime Minister needed a nice, theoretically family-friendly, policy to remind middle-ground Britons that the Tory party is not just about Europe and welfare crackdowns.

However, as Tim Montgomerie put it: the latest childcare move is a profoundly unconservative policy. The problem is that it yet again extends the remit and reach of government, costs money the country doesn’t have and distorts the market for those who pay for childcare out of their own pockets. Nurseries have already warned that it will push up prices as they scramble to try in the next few months to make the government’s numbers add up.

Inevitably, the line being pushed by ministers is that this is “the right thing to do.” (I look forward to the day when a politician asked by an interviewer why a particular course of action is being pursued because it is the wrong thing to do.)

But ‎this is too often the problem with the current crop of politicians. Just because an idea sounds warm and cuddly – care for children, free, more of it, who could object? – it gets into the manifesto of the governing party and makes it all the way to implementation, with no-one prepared to suggest holding it right there because the idea is unaffordable and statist.

In their manifesto‎, the Tories even went so far as to say that they have a plan for every stage of your life. I really hope it was just rubbish campaign rhetoric and not an indication of serious intent. One does not have to be a libertarian to find the thought of the government involving itself ever more closely in our lives, nationalising toddlers, and mapping out a plan for us all from cradle to grave, decidedly creepy.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.