Richard Reeves

The family comes first. It is jolly decent of Gordon Brown to pay for my summer holiday in the South of France

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It is jolly decent of Gordon Brown to pay for my summer holiday in the South of France. And the cause of his St Tropez socialism? Childcare. The tax breaks now becoming available to parents paying for childcare mean that, between us, my partner and I can save two grand a year – coincidentally, the cost of our Mediterranean sojourn.

Children and parents are at the top of the Government's agenda. And forward-looking businesses are falling over each other to be family-friendly. The combination of tax breaks, tax credits, higher child benefit, free pre-school education, as well as expanded maternity, paternity and parental leave mean that parents have never had it so good. It is doubtful, however, that the same can be said for children.

The debate about childcare has a looking-glass feel to it. In the drive to make Britain a child-friendly nation, it often seems there are no losers: the economy will be more productive, communities will be strengthened, children's opportunities will be widened. Motherhood and apple pie will be on the menu every day. The endless conferences and seminars on childcare, and the repetitive 'win-win' that progressive policies apparently represent, might give people the impression that they were inside the film Groundhog Day.

We need to ask, and answer honestly, some tough questions. How do we really want young children to be raised – by their parents or by professional childcare workers? Why should parents – especially affluent ones – receive tax handouts partially paid for by the childless? What are the real costs to business and national competitiveness of high levels of support for parents? And are we prepared to pay it?

Childcare is costly. If parents do it themselves without state or corporate support, it costs them in terms of lost current and future earnings. It may also cost them personal and professional development opportunities, status and intellectual stimulation. If the state subsidises childcare, taxpayers pay through higher taxes. If firms shoulder the load, they pay through lower profits – or their shareholders pay through lower returns. To put a price-tag on the care of children is not to belittle it. It is a price worth paying, but we need to be candid about who is paying, and why.

There is mounting evidence that children under the age of three are best cared for by a dedicated, loving, committed individual. Of course, professionals can fit this bill, but parents are surely the carer of first resort. Yet state subsidies are thrown at those who choose to leave their babies in someone else's hands. This is entirely the wrong approach, at least from the perspective of children's wellbeing, although probably not misplaced if the goal is to maximise economic productivity.

Dawn-to-dusk childcare, based around schools, is symptomatic of the official attitude. The 'problem' is that school hours are shorter than the typical working day. But rather than restructuring our working lives or labour market, we alter children's pattern of life. They are expected to adapt to the needs of the market economy while still in short trousers. Far from creating a family-friendly economy, the direction of current policy seems to be the creation of economy-friendly families.

If we take the view that children bring collective benefits to society – such as the provision of a future workforce – then it is perfectly reasonable to use tax policy to support childrearing. How generous this help should be is a decision that we must take as a nation. But we are in danger of deluding ourselves that we can enjoy a Swedish welfare system with US levels of taxation.

But if the case for some state support to families is strong, it is less immediately clear that businesses should cough up, as they are increasingly expected to. At a personal level, there is a potential backlash from employees without children against increasingly generous provision for parents. And there is good evidence – not least the work of Catherine Hakim, an economist at the London School of Economics – that generous parental leave policies can damage competitiveness. Given the reliance on the business case for all workplace improvements, this is seen as enough reason to back off from more parent-friendly measures at work.

It is possible that we're collectively willing to trade some degree of competitiveness for some degree of corporate support for parents. But the choice is not presented in this honest way. Proponents of family-friendly policies insist there is a win-win for all organisations – that investing in parents will also improve performance. Opponents insist that performance will suffer, and this fact alone makes their case.

Providing children with a good start in life is a vital issue that's being addressed in a banal, shallow and thoughtless way. There are real choices to be made, actual trade-offs, difficult decisions. There may even be – dare one suggest it? – a degree of sacrifice involved in raising happy children.

Parents, government and business all have a part to play. And all will lose something along the way. But if we don't believe the gains of a stable, loving start for our children are worth the costs, we have lost the right to call ourselves a civilised society.

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