The case for universal childcare lies in our collective social responsibility

We need to be clear that care for children is a social responsibility that we all have – because children form the bedrock of our society, whether we choose to have them or not.

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IPPR’s report, The Condition of Britain, which was launched yesterday proposes a £2.5bn childcare package, funded in part by freezing child benefit for school age children. The report, wide-ranging in its scope, embraces principles such as contribution and reciprocity at the heart of the welfare state, an emphasis on early intervention and social insurance as well as social security, and a commitment to growth.

An effective universal childcare offer has the potential to encapsulate all of these issues. It spells out an increase in working women contributing towards the cost of welfare, an emergent role for state and society in shaping outcomes for children at an early stage in life, and new space for women at the centre of a British growth agenda.

But the most compelling argument for universal childcare isn’t that it gives women greater choice and financial freedom. It isn’t even that universal childcare results in improved financial outcomes for the state – with a reduced benefits bill and increasing tax receipts, although this is a case that IPPR have made and evidenced in the past. Neither is it that it is the best intervention which safeguards children from a risk of child poverty when a single income is affected.

The most compelling argument for universal childcare which builds a mandate for a Labour government must instead be an ethical one – rooted in our shared values and in the renewal and strengthening of shared institutions. We need to be clear that care for children is a social responsibility that we all have, and a social cost that we are all expected to contribute towards – because children form the bedrock of our society, whether we choose to have them or not.  They eventually grow up to be active participants in British society, fellow taxpayers and citizens, and they pay towards the cost of our social care, our health and our pensions when we grow old.

It is then startling that we find ourselves in a position and in a society where parents alone are expected to shoulder the burdens of childcare. This is a viewpoint which points both to the recent triumph of neoliberal individualism in British society over conceptions of the common good and of shared interest, as well as to neoliberalism’s inability to shape improved life-chances for parents and children alike through a recognition of the common interest we may have in those improved life-chances by virtue of simply being part of society.

This argument is a little unusual. Most people frame the case in support of universal childcare from the perspective of the parent’s freedom, choice and independence– not from the perspective of the child’s wellbeing; and many who are opposed to universal childcare often point in contrast to models of  ‘home care’ and frame their objections from the perspective of the child’s wellbeing (thus perpetuating the assumption that it is necessarily better for the child that one parent is always around, for example).

But the child’s wellbeing and parental wellbeing are decoupled at our peril, and there is little evidence to suggest that ‘stay-at-home’ parenting necessarily results in better outcomes for children. Often the situation is much more complex. Parents’ networks of support often form the basis of effective childcare; we see this in the parenting role that grandparents, uncles and aunts often have or in the way friends or neighbours often help each other out in caring for children. In the many extended households across Britain and the rest of the world, childcare is a responsibility which has been historically shared by siblings, friends, grandparents and parents alike.

There is no reason for why the state should not itself bolster such networks of support, or replicate those networks where there are none. Where it does so, both the quality and affordability of those networks and of childcare must be a priority. The IPPR report proposes a cap on childcare costs alongside subsidies for childcare itself, as well as proposals for the development and training of early year providers. There is, of course, a risk here whereby a future Labour government may find itself attempting to square a circle – delivering high-quality childcare that is also affordable seems almost too good to be true.

So these new measures come with not just with risks, but also with cost. The centre-left have long been committed to assisting parents in its support for the introduction of child benefit – a straightforward cash payment from state to parent for the support of the child. The proposal to freeze child benefit for school age children for five years is a controversial measure and will continue to meet resistance (rightly) from campaigners given that child benefit is a vital source of support for many parents and families. But reprioritising away from direct payments towards a universal childcare offer does reflect a new vision for a modern British welfare state. It suggests a move away from a transactional culture and ‘top-down’ approach to parenting and families (which imply the government’s responsibility to support children and families can be easily dispensed with by a weekly-cash payment and an inflexible 15 hours a week) towards a more active and invested role in children by the state. That, surely, can only be a good thing - because as long as government policy continues to tell parents they are alone in the project of raising children, we fail not just those parents – but also their children.

An ethical and political argument for universal childcare most importantly asks us to go back to first principles. Who should government work for, and for what purpose? The idea of a contributory principle and reciprocity which underpins the IPPR report has its roots in the ideals of an agreement between members of a society – ‘a social contract’ that citizens have signed up to whereby they have rights but also responsibilities to each other. Where government’s role and responsibility is to look beyond the individual to the society itself – universal childcare has a distinct advantage over child benefit. It allows for the provision of that support in local institutions – the nursery, children’s centres, the library and the school – and marks the start of a progressive vision for a state that looks beyond delivering specific outcomes for specific individuals and also strives to build cohesive communities and bridge difference to create a common life in shared institutions.

The universal case for universal childcare can be summed up in this way - if we are bound by a ‘social contract’ to support and to care for the citizens of today through providing effective health, education, social care, then we must also be bound by a social contract to care for the citizens of tomorrow. 

Reema Patel is the national secretary of the Fabian Women's Network and tweets @ReemaSPatel.