The tricky balance between sustainable childcare and growth


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Good morning. Several of you have asked what I make of Matt Hancock appearing on I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out Of Here! As ITV continues to make it next to impossible to watch its programming on a PlayStation — the way I get live telly on my TV — my knowledge of ITV programming is fairly limited.

My general view is that I’m glad my MP is not doing I’m A Celebrity. In any case, today’s email is on childcare policy.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Follow Stephen on Twitter @stephenkb and please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to

The kids aren’t alright

One long-running UK public policy failure is that the British state spends close to the OECD average of 0.7 per cent of GDP on childcare — but gets very far from the OECD average in terms of results. The UK has some of the highest childcare costs among the 38 member countries of the OECD. Its employees are relatively unskilled and poorly paid.

The overall number of childcare providers in England has dropped by more than 11 per cent in the two years to June, as rising numbers of registered childminders are driven out of the profession into higher paid work.

A new policy paper by the Conservative MP Miriam Cates for the Centre for Social Justice, Parents Know Best argues that the best way to fix UK childcare policy is to start again from scratch. Instead of voucher schemes or subsidised formal childcare, the state should just give parents the cash directly so they can stay at home with their young children or use grandparents or other forms of informal childcare. The CSJ’s preferred route to achieving that is a UK version of “Family Credit”. It is similar to some of the measures proposed by Liz Truss during her short time as PM.

On the Labour side, Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, also wants to rip it up and start again, but in a very different way. Her big idea is that, given the UK already spends a lot on childcare, the state can move towards a better universal standard of support for parents by spending the money differently. Instead of the present convoluted thicket of childcare policies, Labour wants to implement universal “wraparound” childcare from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school.

There are some areas of consensus here: work done by the consultancy Public First for the Cates/CSJ paper finds that 61 per cent of parents with young children believe the current system is too complex. But there are some important differences, too. Essentially, the CSJ is arguing that childcare policy in the UK has focused too much on getting parents back into work and that the state should spend more on supporting parents who stay at home. Meanwhile, Labour’s plans are explicitly part of their growth strategy and are designed to get parents back in the labour market sooner.

The politics of this are complex. Getting more people back into the labour market quickly appeals to, well, wonks like me, who are fond of pointing out that the UK has had derisory rates of growth in the last decade. Given the consequences of the hard Brexit, restrictive planning regime, plus our ageing population and rising social care liabilities, the country needs a serious change of approach in order to avoid another miserable decade of growth and an ever-rising tax burden.

But it’s less clear that it appeals to most parents: according to Public First’s work for the CSJ, the Cates approach of giving money to families rather than providing universal childcare is more popular.

Against that, the amounts of money involved, while large enough to fund a more ambitious government-backed childcare programme than the one the UK has today, are fairly small beer for families at an individual level. You are not going to be able to achieve the promise of Parents Know Best without increasing tax or making cuts elsewhere.

The really positive change though is that childcare policy is being debated within and between the political parties in terms of what it should do — not, as it has generally been in the past decade, solely as a series of electoral bribes that have led the UK to the unlovely position where childcare costs both the state and households.

Now try this

I’ve just finished rereading Joshua Cohen’s brilliantly funny novel The Netanyahus — Jon Day’s review is here.

Top stories today

  • Mind the gap | Jeremy Hunt will on November 17 set out plans to raise taxes and cut spending to find savings he thinks should total about £50bn to fill what Treasury officials say is an “eye-watering fiscal black hole”. What are his options?

  • Net zero progress ‘vague’ | UK government emissions data are so poorly reported that parliament cannot assess whether the public sector is on track to meet its decarbonisation targets, a group of MPs has warned.

  • Getting down under with the masses | Former health secretary Matt Hancock has signed up for I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! and had the Conservative whip removed. Writing in the Sun newspaper today, Hancock defended his decision: “It’s our job as politicians to go to where the people are — not to sit in ivory towers in Westminster.”

  • Volt from the brink | Britishvolt has secured a lifeline deal that will give the battery start-up enough money to last until early December, pulling the business back from the brink of bankruptcy.

  • Sunak and the City | Rishi Sunak has delayed a showdown with the Bank of England, as the government postponed the publication of plans to allow ministers to over-rule City regulators.

  • Claim against Home Office | The government has acted unlawfully in implementing its post-Brexit settlement scheme, putting the residency rights of millions of Europeans living in the UK at risk, a group has claimed to the High Court in London.

  • People ‘need the tools’ | In an interview with the Guardian’s Pippa Crerar, Emily Davey, wife of Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey, has revealed that she has multiple sclerosis. She warned of a health emergency with thousands of people suffering from mobility issues still failing to get the support they need after the Covid-19 pandemic.

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