Great idea, shame about the resources

Next week’s budget should give more financial help to
parents to pay for child care.

Gordon Brown quickly did what no chancellor had done before
him. He recognised the importance of child care to the country’s economic
success, the elimination of child poverty and the issue of social exclusion. The
national child care strategy was born.

Several years on, however, the strategy is dangerously
ailing. And the potent tonic it so badly needs is unlikely to be administered
by Brown in next week’s budget. The Cabinet Office’s performance and innovation
unit is reviewing the strategy and will report in July. In the meantime, Brown
is expected to use the integrated child tax credit to widen the band of those
eligible for help with child care costs.

Under the working families tax credit, 1.5 million people
can receive up to £135 for one child and £200 for two or more. In practice, the
average subsidy is £35-£40 per child. According to the Daycare Trust, a charity
that campaigns for improved provision, in 1997, when Labour came to power,
there was one child care place for every nine children under eight years old.
By 2000, the ratio had improved to one in seven where it has remained ever

Professor Hilary Land, of Bristol University, in Meeting
the Child Poverty Challenge
, points out the major flaws in the strategy: it
is area based, (places with childminders, for instance, can range from 82
places per 1,000 children to only 33, in some rural areas), unnecessarily
linked to parental employment and market driven.

She praises some government measures such as the creation of
45,000 day care places in 900 neighbourhood nurseries, funded for three years.
But Land points out that in targeting areas of deprivation the majority of the
impoverished are missed, who, paradoxically, live in areas of affluence. She
also raises the issue of sustainability since parents will never earn
sufficient to pay the market price.

Costs have spiralled – £65 for a nursery place ten years ago
can now cost as much as £200. During the past 10 years local authority
provision has shrunk from a third of all places to only 6 per cent.

What can put the strategy back on track? Hilary Land argues
for free universal child care provision, an idea I would endorse so long as
quality is ensured. Certainly, wages in the sector have to improve, employers
propelled to do more and parental subsidies increased massively. Mr Brown, to
his credit, identified the problem – has he now got the guts to pay for the

Meeting the Child Poverty Challenge by Hilary Land,
the Daycare Trust, 0207 8403350

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