I awoke this morning with an unfamiliar feeling: a desperate, sickening yearning for the glorious few weeks of Liz Truss’s premiership. Before she was summarily removed, Truss had floated a plan to give parents money to spend on childcare as they wished. The policy was one of those rare instances when a libertarian brainwave actually promises to make people more free.
Now, however, the Tories are clamping down. According to the morning headlines, Jeremy Hunt’s Budget will guarantee thirty hours a week of free childcare for one- and two-year-olds, “part of a government drive to encourage more people back to work”, reports the BBC. Work, we learn, is the natural condition for human beings, like making honey is for bees. Family is an eccentric hobby, to be properly reined in.
The move will be presented as a populist reform, to help parents struggling with their responsibilities. But the model Hunt is expected to offer, unlike the Truss proposal, is a one-size-fits-all model in which parents are expected to work full-time and entrust their children to registered providers. Is that, in fact, what the public wants? The British Social Attitudes Survey has found that only 6% of British people think the best childcare arrangement is for both mum and dad to work full-time.
Only a minority are attached to a 1950s male-breadwinner model; there are, of course, any number of ways — part-time work, flexible work, career breaks — in which both men and women can share responsibilities. What very few people really want is for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to shepherd the country’s toddlers en masse through the gates of the kindergarten. But that is where this is heading: with free childcare on the table, choosing to look after your own progeny makes you either rich or a mug.
The CBI, which successfully led the lobbying for this reform, has published a blackly funny press release on the subject which assumes that taking your little one to Wriggle and Rhyme at the public library is an unutterable burden, whereas stacking shelves or updating spreadsheets is a liberation of the human spirit. Literally “thousands” of people, they lament, “are prevented from taking on more hours of paid employment due to childcare issues.” As the CBI notes, employers have made extra efforts in recent years to accommodate parents. On the Hunt reforms, companies can relax: once the baby turns one, it’s not an employer’s responsibility to accommodate a worker’s needs.
Of course, as Hunt will argue, the present situation is unworkable. Rent is so high and pay is so low that parents can’t afford childcare, and can’t afford to work less and stay home. That is why a responsible government would be fretting night and day about how to return some reality to our fantasy-land housing market, and would be nerving itself for a contest with the interest groups who stand to lose from a higher-pay economy.
The Hunt solution, usefully, requires no confrontation with such difficult problems. It just requires increasing the size of the state, and separating boys and girls from their parents at just the point where they most desire each other’s company. Yes, for some people thirty hours’ free childcare a week is exactly what they want. But for most, it is a second- or third-best arrangement.
There are also fears about the quality of this universal childcare, too. The condition of Britain’s schools and care homes doesn’t inspire confidence; nor do the warnings of the childcare providers themselves. Their trade association, the Early Years Alliance, says the proposed method — reducing carer-to-child ratios — risks “severely compromising the safety and quality of care”.
Perhaps the most misleading narrative in British politics is that the market and the state are at loggerheads. In fact, they are in an unnervingly intimate relationship, and their occasional lovers’ tiffs are a distraction. This proves it. Under Hunt’s plan, the market will gain – £28.2bn a year is the CBI’s upper estimate — and the state will act as the guarantor and scoop up the extra tax revenue.
It’s always said that nobody, lying on their deathbed, regrets that they didn’t spend more hours at the office. But Jeremy Hunt is deeply worried on your behalf.