Andrew Tettenborn

Stay-at-home parents don’t need free nursery places

Rishi Sunak visits a nursery in Hartlepool (Credit: Getty images)

Except for households blessed with rather generous incomes, most mothers these days have to work to keep a family decently fed and housed. Some kind of subsidised childcare is therefore an unfortunate necessity. The government recognises this, and has just introduced a new scheme. When fully up and running, it will give parents working full-time who earn less than £100,000 a free 570 hours a year of child-minding or early education for each child between nine months and four years. Plus it will (in effect) also hand them a basic rate tax deduction if they want to spend a further £10,000 per year on it. This will be over and above a free 570 hours available to any parent of any child aged three or four.

Generous? On the contrary, not nearly enough, says a body called the Early Education and Childcare Coalition (EECC) in a report produced this morning. Free childcare needs to go to all children up to their fifth birthday without exception, whether or not the parents are working. Furthermore, the report says steps need to be taken, presumably by way of further subsidy, to reduce childcare costs to 5 per cent of average household income. Anything else, they say, unfairly deprives the poor of the advantages of early education.

Parents at home are entirely free to undertake the ordinary tasks of bringing up their offspring

This is an idea any government needs to approach with great caution. Not simply because it comes from a group of organisations with progressive axes to grind such as the Fawcett Society, the Rowntree Trust and the National Children’s Bureau. Or that it has perhaps predictably already received the enthusiastic support of the UN nomenklatura in the form of the chief executive of Unicef UK.

For one thing, it’s hard to see how this is a responsible use of taxes paid in large part by those on far-from-plutocratic incomes. There is big money involved here. The government currently spends a shade over £4 billion a year on early years childcare, a sum due to hit £8 billion under the new dispensation. The EECC’s plans would doubtless add another few billion to that. With working parents there is a rationale for subsidising childcare: whatever you think of the benefits to society or the economy of having as many mothers working as possible, not providing the subsidy would make supporting a family much more difficult. But this does not apply to non-working parents. No doubt they would welcome support of this kind, but if they are at home they do not need it: they can already look after their children without distraction.

Of course, we are told that all this is backed by the public: 71 per cent want children to have early years education in all circumstances, 67 per cent think investing in childcare benefits the country, and so on. But surveys like this are nearly always self-serving and depend on the question you ask. If you slanted them in a different way, for example by querying whether taxpayers should subsidise parents who can bring up their children at home but prefer to subcontract the job, or whether childcare support should go to those most in need of it, you may well get a different answer.

But there is a rather more serious point behind all this. A decent society obviously sees children as a communal charge and, in the last resort, accepts that it has to provide them with a state safety net. But if it is wise, it also emphasises that the primary obligation to see to their welfare lies within the family.

No doubt children are a joy – but their upbringing also needs to be seen as a very solemn responsibility to those who produce them. Parents need to be told to take this enormously seriously, and to accept that it invariably requires large personal sacrifice and effort on their part. By all means come to the aid of mothers who need to be able to leave their children to work in order to be able to put food on the table. But parents at home are entirely free to undertake the ordinary tasks of bringing up their offspring, playing with them and introducing them to the world. This they need to be encouraged to do. Paying them comparatively substantial sums, in essence, not to do this but instead to outsource the job sends them entirely the wrong message.

Indeed, the suggestion that such parents should be paid not to bring up their children personally, and that denying them the right to such payments unfairly disadvantages their children, carries with it two other interesting implications. One is that the organisations behind the report to some extent share a progressive distrust of the traditional family, and think deep down that bringing up young children is something in many cases best led by professionals and experts (not for nothing does the report call for a the establishment of a ‘graduate-led workforce’ in childcare by 2028). The other is more brutal. If we say that working-class parents who spend most of their time at home, either because they do not work or have to put up with some dead-end part-time job, need to receive a subsidy to pay someone else to bring up their toddlers, the implication is clear: plebs like these aren’t really up to the job of parenting at all. Anyone in a working-class or just-about-managing family who hears or reads about this report might care to bear this in mind.