Why's the state obsessed with subsidising childcare when most mothers of young children want to stay at home
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has promised an end to the 'nightmare' of high child care costsBut Kathy Gyngell asks whether he has considered that not every mother wants to rush back to work after giving birth
01:10 GMT, 6 November 2012
Nick Clegg has promised to end what he calls the ‘nightmare’ of high childcare bills by subsidising the cost of nursery places.
The Deputy Prime Minister believes it is absurd that hundreds of thousands of women feel it is not worth returning to work after having a baby because the cost of childcare is prohibitively high.
So he has put forward a series of measures for consideration. Perhaps, he suggests, the Government should think about increasing the State-funded free childcare allowance for three and four-year-olds from 15 hours a week to 25. I have to take issue with Mr Clegg.
Nick Clegg has pledged to end the 'nightmare' of high child care bills, but Kathy Gyngell takes issue with the Deputy Prime Minister
I wonder whether in the clamour to throw ever more money into the insatiable maw of childcare provision he has addressed the controversial notion that some mothers may actually want to stay at home and raise their pre-school infants themselves
Twenty-five years ago, when it was considered a betrayal of all the feminist sisterhood had fought for, I abandoned a well-paid and prestigious career in television — I was features editor on TV-am — to be a full-time mum.
I had not intended to relinquish work. Indeed, I had employed a nanny to look after my first son so I could race back to the studio to pursue my absorbing and lucrative career.
But I had not reckoned on the anxiety, the palpitations, the sheer distress I felt at leaving my year-old baby in the care of someone else. I managed to juggle work and home for 11 months, but I was so racked with sorrow and yearning that, in the end, I capitulated.
I gave up work to look after my first son, then remained at home when my second was born. That my boys have grown into two well-adjusted, talented and fulfilled young men is not, I flatter myself, entirely unconnected with the fact that I decided to bring them up myself.
I was fortunate. At the time, my husband Bruce was a well-paid TV executive, and although I was widowed 12 years ago, as a young mum I was not compelled to work because we did not need the income from a second salary. Many women are not so blessed.
There are millions of hard-pressed families in the ‘squeezed middle’ who cannot manage on one income.
But there are also many who would prefer to remain at home looking after their pre-school age children if they could afford to.
And my fear is that Nick Clegg — perpetuating the myth propagated by the last Labour government that all mothers should go back to work and indeed want to do so — is trying to dragoon them all back into the workplace with this new initiative.
Denmark and its working mother-of-two Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, pictured, is apparently the inspiration for Mr Clegg's vision
What Mr Clegg has failed to address is the question at the core of the debate: is it in a child’s best interests to be cared for outside the home
Denmark, run by Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, herself a mother of two daughters, is apparently the source of his inspiration. The country is certainly a brave new world of enforced gender equality.
Christine Antorini, its Minister for Children and Education, makes Labour’s equality evangelist Harriet Harman seem positively reasonable. Ms Antorini has described being asked to stay at home to care for your own children as ‘the biggest punishment’ there could be.
Her policies, which devote a greater proportion of national income to childcare than does Britain, ensure that 90 per cent of women return to work after childbirth. Her view is that it is no longer ‘normal’ to want to stay at home.
But before Mr Clegg gets seduced by the Danish model for childcare, perhaps he should question whether it is one we should aspire to here in Britain — because even the Danes are beginning to ask if their model is worth the cost.
For although Danish women have been pushed into paid work for decades, analysts believe widespread take-up of childcare is actually the reason for a deterioration of women’s position in the labour market.
The irony is that rising female employment — far from pushing women into professional and managerial occupations — has been associated with a growing number of women occupying less well-paid and lower-status jobs in the service sector.
And the same thing is happening in the UK, too.
Nor is it beneficial to children to be herded off to a nursery where there is a high turnover of often poorly- qualified, badly-paid, inexperienced and hard-pressed staff who cannot possibly have the same interest in the well-being of their charges as their own mothers do.
It is a controversial view, but I believe it amounts to cruelty to force a mother to abandon her newborn to the care of another. It is cruel to the parent — and also cruel to the child.
Countless studies have found that small children need to form a bond — inalienable and constant — with one carer.
When they are being looked after, en masse, by a succession of different ones it is more likely, research has shown, that they will have behavioural problems later. An infant’s need for attachment is much more likely to be met by its mother than by a parade of transient carers in a nursery full of babies and toddlers.
Working mother combining her job with looking after her baby (file picture). Kathy Gyngell questions whether Mr Clegg has considered that some women would rather stay at home and take care of baby than rush back to work
So what is the solution
I don’t believe the Government should tell parents to stop work and stay at home with their children.
That would be a retrograde step, and as wrong-headed as forcing all women back into the workplace after giving birth. Every mother should simply be given the right to choose.
So rather than subsidising day-care, the State should spend the money on tax allowances for all mothers.
This would have two benefits. It would recognise the cost and social value of raising children and give mums who want to stay at home a financial incentive to do so.
If allowances were based on the number of adults and dependent children living together in a family, parents would then be able to decide whether to set their tax allowances against nurseries or childminders — or whether simply to use them to enable them to stay at home.
The system would be more equitable than the one Nick Clegg is proposing and would lead to a more compassionate, forward-thinking and family-oriented childcare policy.
The statistics, after all, are unequivocal. Three years ago, a YouGov poll found that only 1 per cent of mothers actually want to go out to work full-time while their children are pre-school age.
Surely political expediency, if nothing else, would suggest that the Government should consider the views and preferences of the other 99 per cent