Parents’ childcare preferences not being met says report backed by Tories

* Report backs scrapping of free nursery places at three and four to fund universal allowance
* Mothers should be paid to stay at home if they want to when their children are young, according to a report launched by the Conservatives’ shadow minister for the family.

State help for families has been channelled under Labour into tax credits to pay for nurseries and childminders but what most mothers want is to work part-time or not at all, particularly when their children are under five, the controversial review by two leading academics for the think-tank Policy Exchange argues.

It argues mothers should be paid an allowance to spend either on formal childcare such as nurseries, informal care like grandparents helping out, or on subsidising a parent to stay at home. It argues the current free nursery places for three- and four-year-olds could be scrapped to fund the new allowance.

Worries about their children’s welfare are a bigger deterrent to women working than childcare costs, the report concludes, suggesting that making childcare cheaper will not solve their dilemma.

Maria Miller, the shadow family minister who will help launch the report, said she would study the findings closely. She admitted such a universal care allowance could be expensive, but added: ‘Support for families in the first three years is really still a neglected area of policy: great strides have been made in some areas but many women are still feeling that they have got really little choice in how they structure their family’s life.’

The findings will reopen passionate debate between stay-at-home and working mothers, and have attracted interest from senior Tories who argue they should be promoting mothers’ freedom to raise their families as they wish.

The National Day Nurseries’ Association, however, warned yesterday that a universal care allowance would be a ‘risky prospect’ leading parents into low quality, unregulated childcare by untrained people rather than settings that helped a child develop. Ministers have also argued that allowing tax credits to be spent on care by grandparents would be open to fraud.

The Policy Exchange report lambastes government for skewing family policy towards getting women out to work and cherry picking evidence which suits them, rather than accepting that many mothers would actively prefer to be at home – and that where parents do work, informal care like grandparents is often preferred to nurseries or childminders.

Research carried out by the Women’s Unit at the Cabinet Office in 1999 showed that ‘one third of women believed home and family were women’s main focus in life and that women should not try to combine a career and children’, the report notes – even though two thirds thought a job was a woman’s best route to independence.

It found that if money were no object, only 5 per cent of mothers would still work full-time, while three-quarters would prefer a part-time job and the rest would not work at all.

Yet ministers ‘used the findings selectively to support predetermined policy positions – in particular policies promoting paid work as women’s central life activity’, the report concludes.

The top three reasons cited by mothers for not working, in another survey commissioned from academics by the then Department for Education and Skills, were wanting to stay with their children, thinking the children were too young or that they would suffer if the mother worked. Only 10 per cent said it was because ‘I cannot afford quality childcare’, the report argues, concluding that affordability of childcare is ‘rarely the main problem for parents … The crucial factor is parental values.’

Miller admitted, however, that a package enabling all mothers to stay at home could be prohibitively expensive. ‘All too often people talk about women having a choice but in actual fact many families don’t have the choice: financial necessity means that they have to go back to work. It’s very difficult to envisage the programme that is going to take away that financial necessity for large numbers of people.

‘But what is exciting about the Policy Exchange report is that they are really questioning hard this overcentralised approach. They are also questioning this spending on subsidised childcare without recognising the contribution made by those who decide to take more time out.’

Parents’ childcare preferences not being met
Leading thinktank proposes universal childcare allowance

Parents in Britain still pay 70 per cent of their childcare costs compared to the European average of 30 per cent. This is in spite of a decade of intensive reform and total spending of £17 billion from 1997 to 2006 on services for young children. Nevertheless, according to ‘Little Britons’, a comprehensive new report into childcare choice for the leading thinktank Policy Exchange, parents’ preferences for childcare are not being met by the options currently available. The Government’s basic aim has been to encourage as many mothers as possible into paid work – and for children to be placed in formal childcare settings – but women would actually prefer, in many cases, for their children to be cared for in their own homes, the report concludes.

* Full Report
* Executive Summary

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