The coalition risks following the wrong path on childcare reform

Global experience shows that increasing subsidies to parents, rather than investing in services directly, is a costly and ineffective approach.

As part of next week’s Budget, the Chancellor is expected to announce reforms to the funding of childcare. While action on childcare is welcome, it is likely the changes will see a greater proportion of childcare funding flowing via parents to purchase childcare, rather than invested in services free at the point of use. The experience of other countries with a similar market-led system is that rather than leading to cheaper care, pumping more money into the market via parents leads to greater cost inflation, with little change in affordability. If the government really wants to go big on childcare, it should invest more money in services, rather than benefits.

What is going to be announced? Since the 're-launch' of the coalition in January, there have been numerous hints in the media. Despite widely-reported disagreement between the coalition partners, it appears the government has settled on offering greater funding to better-off parents via some kind of tax relief, combined with additional money tied to Universal Credit for poorer families. Beyond the previously-announced extension of the free Early Years Entitlement to the 40 per cent of poorest two-year olds, there is little sign that the coalition is looking to expand the free offer, preferring instead to give money to parents.

While it is good that the government is looking at greater childcare funding, we have to ask whether this is the best use of extremely scarce resources. The coalition hopes that putting more money in the hands of parents will lead to greater purchasing power in the market for childcare, with increased competition and innovation among providers acting to keep prices low and stable. But will this actually be the case?

In order to answer that question, we should look to the country that has been most committed to this style of funding. Australia enacted wide-reaching reforms to childcare over the last two decades, combining a mixture of de-regulation and increases in childcare benefits, whilst at the same time effectively shutting off direct funding to childcare providers.

What happened to prices? The Australian Bureau of Statistics collects robust inflation data on the cost of childcare. Looking at how prices evolved before and after the reforms provides a stark picture of the dangers attached to the changes being considered here in the UK.

In the ten years before the 1997 reforms, the price of childcare rose on average by 5.2 per cent a year, around a fifth higher than the general rate of inflation. But in the decade after 1997 relative cost inflation rocketed, with childcare prices rising by 7.2 per cent annually, more than two and a half times wider inflation. In 2008, rather than reverse course, the Australian government doubled down on their inflationary approach, increasing the value of the tax rebate offered to families. If anything it appears this worsened childcare costs – In the year to March 2012 prices rose by almost 10 per cent.

What is it about childcare that leads to this outcome? Why doesn’t parental purchasing power manage to keep costs low? Simply put, the market for childcare does not function like most competitive markets. It is inherently localised, risky for those looking to set up a business and vulnerable to severe cost pressures from staff outlays and rent inflation. Like many other public goods, it is better to let the state pool these risks and offer long-term and sustainable funding to keep costs low, rather than leave it to the market.

Will this experience be repeated here in the UK? All the signs are that the UK, which already has internationally high childcare prices, is set for further inflationary pressure. The sector in general is unprofitable, with a quarter of childminders operating at a loss last year, meaning prices may need to rise just to keep many businesses afloat. And surveys of the UK market suggest that the qualifications profile of staff in the sector has risen in recent years, but with little change in real wages. Having a higher-skilled workforce in the sector is welcome, but is likely to exert cost pressures in the near-term. All this will be compounded by the changes that will be made next week.

Throwing more money into a system that is struggling to stay afloat, as the coalition is planning to do, may look good on paper, but without controls on prices there is a real risk that the instant benefit families feel after next weeks changes will soon be eroded by price rises. Providers will see their existing set of users have a greater ability to pay, and, because of the difficulty of turning a profit in the sector, will understandably look to raise prices. Far from being a gold rush for the sector, these changes are more likely to re-enforce the status quo. At a time when there is little money around, this risks being a highly wasteful use of public resources.

What the childcare sector and parents really needs is higher and more sustainable funding for providers, with a greater number of hours offered free or at low cost to parents. It would be wrong to claim this comes cheap. Indeed, countries that have followed such a route, like Denmark and Sweden, tend to spend a larger proportion of GDP on childcare and early years provision. But by controlling the cost to parents directly, and offering a longer-term and more predictable source of funding to providers, there are real efficiency gains to be made under such a system.

All three main political parties realise the importance of childcare, and accept there is a role for the public sector in making it affordable. This is welcome. But how we go about funding childcare, either via parents or through providers and price controls, needs to be rigorously debated. We currently have a mixed system in the UK, with some free places through the Early Years Entitlement and some subsidies via the benefits system. It appears the coalition favours the latter. It is important that we realise the dangers of such an approach, and look towards a much more sustainable future for UK childcare.

David Cameron is pictured during a visit to a London Early Years Foundation nursery in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle