Mary Harrington

Why I’m no fan of the Tories’ free childcare promises

Why I'm no fan of the Tories' free childcare promises
Text settings

Why are our big three political parties so keen to out do each other in their commitment to separating children from their parents? Labour trumpeted its manifesto offer of 30 hours of childcare for all two, three and four-year-olds by promising a 'radical expansion of free childcare for all'. Not to be outdone, the Lib Dems say they will offer childcare from nine months for parents in work and 35 free hours a week for all two to four-year-olds. And the Tories joined the childcare arms race with their manifesto pledge to increase the amount of 'wraparound' childcare available via schools. For children, this effectively means continuing the school day into the evening and holidays.

Politicians come out with these offers proudly, shouting about their free childcare pledges from the rooftops. It's as if they want gratitude – and votes – for making it ever cheaper and easier for parents to spend more and more time away from their children. But as a mum who gave up work when my daughter was born, I'm not sure these offers are good news for children – or for their parents.

It's particularly disappointing to see the Tories jump on the bandwagon. As Phillip Blond argued recently in the Daily Telegraph, Conservative family policy is skewed toward separating children from the care of their parents, with a slew of subsidies available to working families.

In contrast, those with a parent who works part-time or stays at home are heavily penalised. Aside from the pitiful partial transfer of tax allowances for qualifying married couples (which Corbyn is proposing to scrap altogether), the overwhelming tilt, even of Conservative financial incentives, is toward chasing both parents out to work. And as we see in the 2019 election manifestos, a cross-party consensus supports this.

Splashing taxpayer money on nationalising the care of dependent children is surely a profoundly un-conservative position. It also runs counter to what studies show women actually want. As Belinda Brown and Geoff Dench showed in their study Valuing Informal Care, the majority of mothers with young children greatly prefer to care for their children themselves. And if not personally, then informally with the help of grandparents. So why have the Conservatives abandoned not only a commitment to supporting the family as a bedrock of society but even the idea that individual families might make different choices about how best to raise their children?

The answer is that in the modern Tory party all but the most vestigial social conservatism has been subordinated to the pursuit of economic growth. Family life simply gets in the way of this 'greater good', the God of GDP.

In a Conservative party that was actually conservative (or indeed paid any attention to what mothers want), what might family policy look like? It might look to (whisper) Hungary or Poland whose pro-family policies are widely supported by their respective electorates. At a smaller scale it could do as Brown and Dench suggest and make it easier for parents to either stay at home and care for their own children or else leave them with a family member.

In 2017, the government was already spending over £6bn on subsidising 15 hours of childcare for all over-three-year-olds. Whoever wins the election, that cost will only rise. But why should these funds only be available to pay childcare providers? Why not make the money available to parents who wish to look after their own children, or make the subsidy available to family members?

The only reason for refusing stay-at-home parents the support given to those who need childcare is if the Conservatives share the belief of Labour and the Lib Dems that families are best off outsourcing the job of raising their children. Far better, it is implied, to consign children to the care of trained professionals, where outcomes can be monitored and the idiosyncrasies of family life mitigated by standardised practice and regular inspection. Their parents can then take up their places as office drones servicing GDP, while their toddlers are warehoused in indifferent childcare with special ‘bite toys’ available to help them express their frustration and misery.

This aspiration, now apparently shared by all three main parties, may be presented as a feminist one. But we should see it for what it is: yet another encroachment of government into family life, in contravention of what mums and dads actually want and with no recognition or support for parents who wish to care for their own children. It is a nightmare prospect.

Mary Harrington is a writer and mother