Cristina Odone is the Head of Family Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.
Thousands of parents with prams, push chairs, and babies in a sling joined the March of the Mummies last Saturday. Organised by the colourfully named Pregnant But Screwed group across 11 cities, the protest against the current childcare system boasted eye-catching banners (“When things are sh*tty, we change them” ran the slogan over a pair of child underpants) and – in honour of Halloween – a smattering of fancy dress costumes.
For our team at the Centre for Social Justice, it was a gratifying sight: the march was perfectly timed to coincide with the publication of our report on childcare – “Parents Know Best: giving families a choice in childcare.”
The report is framed around a landmark survey, conducted in collaboration with Public First pollsters, of 1500 parents across the country. They echoed the sentiments that fuelled Saturday’s protesters: they, too, find the current child care support system inadequate. They, too, believe that raising a child in the UK in 2022 is more difficult than ever. They, too, reject the notion that holding down a job and raising a family are incompatible.
But unlike the pram-pushing marchers, who called for government to reduce the cost of formal childcare, 61 per cent of the parents with young children we surveyed preferred to have their own childcare budget. Choice was their mantra: they wanted to decide how best to balance work and childcare in the early years. Perhaps surprisingly, this was even more true of Labour-voting parents of young children (62 per cent).
Mothers and fathers were clear: let government give them the funds that would allow them to pay for the childcare of their choice, whether that be delivered by grandparents or friends or, indeed, the parents themselves, finally able to care for their own children for longer. Raising a child should not mean automatically handing them over to a formally sanctioned carer or facility.
It’s a bold ask – and very different in spirit from the spoon-fed support we get from Government at present. The complicated and patchy childcare system gives the state control over who and how families look after their young ones; parents just have to obey the rules and be grateful for the subsidies coming their way.
Yet the system is patchy, with only 59 per cent of Local Authorities reporting enough childcare places available for parents working full time. It is also so confusing to ordinary parents, that take up for certain elements – such as Tax-Free Childcare – is low enough to leave a significant £2.4 billion under-spend.
Two-year-olds growing up in more disadvantaged families, when parents are on Universal Credit or other means-tested benefits, and their income is below the stipulated threshold, can receive 15 hours of free childcare.
All three and four year olds in England are entitled to 15 hours of free childcare – no matter what their parents earn. But the Government doesn’t trust parents to choose the right kind of care for their child, so this entitlement (or “universal provision”) may only be used with a Government-approved provider. The Government explicitly rules out relatives — including grandparents, who, our survey found, are actually the number one choice of child-carer for the majority of parents.
Some parents are entitled to an additional 15 hours of free childcare, but to qualify for this both parents in a two parent family, or the one parent in a single parent family, must expect to earn at least the National Minimum Wage on average for 16 hours per week for the next three months. (Families earning over £100,000 are not eligible for this entitlement.)
Here, again, the Government is forcing its own priorities on families: work over raising your own child. And yet our survey found that 47 per cent of parents would reduce their working hours to spend more time with their children if they could afford to.
Neuroscience, too, suggests that the Treasury’s agenda is faulty: the first 1001 days of a child’s life are key; this is when they need to attach to their parent in order for healthy cognitive development. Children whose attachment has been disrupted have poor outcomes – including academic failure, fragile relationships, anti social behaviour. Investing in the early years makes sense; rushing parents back into their job quickly after childbirth does not.
It is striking that the parents we surveyed understood this far better than policy makers seem to: 81 per cent of parents with children under four believe that we should be helping parents stay at home for several months with their newborn, rather than prioritise their quick return to work.
It’s not just the Government infantilising parents that grates. The cost of childcare has families despairing, all the more so in our straitened times. Uk parents face the highest childcare costs of any OECD country. An average family will spend more than a fifth of their income on childcare, and our respondents agreed that it has become harder to raise a family over the last decade (this includes a whopping 71 per cent of Labour voters with children under four.)
The way the Treasury taxes families doesn’t help either. The UK taxes individuals, not households. In practice, a one-earner household with four children has to earn nearly £80,000 to have the same standard of living as a single person earning £27,000.39.
HMRC doesn’t allow parents who are not working, or parents earning less than the income tax basic rate threshold, to transfer their personal allowance to their partner. This effectively discriminates against those parents who wish to make certain choices about how they divide work and childcare responsibilities as a couple. No wonder so many parents are having fewer children than they want: caring for our young ones has become a luxury, not a given.
We continue along this path at our peril: a shrinking population won’t be able to support the 10 million more OAPs we shall have within the next 20 years.
What’s the answer? “Parents Know Best: giving families a choice in childcare” is self-explanatory. Who, better than their parents understands a child’s needs? Who is more motivated to see their child thrive? Government needs to trust parents to take responsibility for their own flesh and blood.
The CSJ suggests the Government take two immediate steps. First, it should undertake a formal consultation on pooling together current entitlements and Tax Free Childcare to fund a “Family Credit” that allows parents to fund their child’s care as they see fit.
Second, government should increase the Marriage Allowance to allow parents earning less than the basic rate income tax threshold to transfer 100 per cent of their personal allowance to their spouse, if their child is under 16. This allows families to have one parent stay home to raise their children.
Parents have told us that they want to be in charge of raising their children. The CSJ agrees: the time has come to trust families to look after their own.