Labour should adopt universal childcare, suggests thinktank

A universal state-funded childcare service delivered through children‘s centres is set to be one of the themes of a major report into the condition of Britain to be published this week by centre-left thinktank the IPPR.

Such a move would be seen as a way of cementing Labour‘s commitment to the family. The study is being closely followed by Jon Cruddas, the head of the Labour policy review and one of the staunchest advocates of the left’s duty to the family as the bedrock of society.

The report will assert Britain is not broken as David Cameron once claimed, but warns family life and structures are under a new pressure from economic turmoil, fragile social bonds and a state that hasn’t caught up with its changing needs.

Cruddas is also sympathetic to the IPPR emphasis on a decentralised state, a theme that is likely to emerge in an industrial review for Labour being conducted by Lord Adonis.

The IPPR report, which will argue prioritising universal childcare, rather than expanding tax credits and benefits, would represent Labour’s shift to the family.

This commitment would be advanced through community institutions, such as children’s centres, that bring children and parents together, rather than “resting on redistributing income through individual cash benefits, or vouchers”. Such cash transfers do not get to the root of family problems, the report will argue. The interim IPPR report, due on Thursday, is designed to give a portrait of Britain under stress.

The thinktank hopes the report will come to be seen to be as important to the left’s thinking as the IPPR’s Social Justice Commission in 1996, a report that shaped many of Tony Blair’s public service reforms.

In seeking out the concerns of the British people over the past six months, the IPPR says all “messages inevitably came back to the family, including fears about whether children will any longer fare better than parents, and whether social care for the oldest generation is adequate”.

The left, the IPPR report will admit, has “sometimes shied away from the family for fear of being judgmental or exclusive”.

The report will say it is clear that families do not feel that politics is speaking to their concerns or meeting their needs.

Although a commitment to universal childcare would be expensive in an era of tight public finances, the IPPR is set to argue community-based universal childcare is more efficient than other ways of delivering childcare and acts to mobilise the energies and resources in civil society.

It will argue that tax relief for childcare rightly asserts the importance of supporting parents to work, but “rests on a market mechanism that risks pushing up prices while neglecting the importance of institutions that bring people together. Equally a marriage tax break might recognise the importance of supporting relationships”, but both reduce this to “a monetary transaction and neglects the diversity of modern families and different forms of commitment”.

By contrast affordable childcare, the IPPR report argues, would ease the pressures of time and money faced by families across the income spectrum, all over the country. The market is incapable of meeting this need, while the state has not caught up with the dynamics of modern family life.

It will point out currently childcare is expensive and children’s centres are retreating – a part-time nursery place now osts over £100 a week, having risen by 77% over the last decade. As many as 400 children’s centres are thought to have closed or merged since 2010.

Long working hours are also squeezing family time – nearly half of fathers (44%) work more than 45 hours or more a week, higher than in most other European countries. A third of parents say they wish they could spend more time with their children.

Elderly relatives often face isolation as families stretch – one million older people regularly feel lonely, including one in five of those in their 80s and 90s.

But the report rejects suggestions that society is broken, pointing to falling crime and anti-social behaviour since the mid-1990s. The number of young people committing offences has more than halved since peaking in the mid-2000s. There have also been big falls in reports of vandalism and graffiti and of teenagers hanging around on the street. Despite the scale of the recession, unemployment has not hit the levels seen in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The report also says two thirds of adults believe that “people in their neighbourhood pull together to improve the local area”. And half of adults say they do some form of voluntary or community work at least once a month.

But it says that society is also facing deep pressures, mainly due to long-term economic changes.

“There has also been over-confidence in the capacity of market mechanisms to meet public needs – whether in relation to childcare, social care, housing or affordable credit. And a naivety about the power of capital to dominate and squeeze out what matters in life – like time or relationships”.

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Labour should adopt universal childcare, suggests thinktank
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