The details of Labour's new policy may need hashing out—but the moral imperative for them is clearby Stephanie Boland / September 27, 2018 / Leave a comment
Amid the discussion of green jobs and tackling prejudice—of general elections and “all options being on the table”—there was one policy in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at Labour Party Conference which will speak across the party’s base: extending free childcare.
Under the proposals, 30 hours of free childcare would be offered for all two, three and four-year-olds.
As economist Duncan Weldon points out on Twitter, there is much to be hashed out regarding the policy—not least how an already-stretched sector can bring down costs without affecting wages, or compromising on the quality of care. (Quebec’s system, in which childcare is universal but not uniform, is one potential model to explore.)
This year was the first that companies with 250 employees or more were required to report on women and men’s respective salaries.
Combined with the campaigning of BBC women—particularly the resignation of former China editor Carrie Gracie, who stepped down from her post citing pay inequality with her male colleagues—the concept of a gender pay gap, and what we might do to diminish it, has been the subject of increased scrutiny.
As ever, the usual bores have come out of the woodwork to suggest that if women suffer a gender pay gap, it’s most likely their fault. After all—they wag their wise fingers—isn’t the main factor here that women take time out of work to have children? And don’t those women—they say, arching their collective brows—choose to do that, of their very own volition?
As is so often the case with such infuriating finger-wagging types, they almost have a point. While the maternity penalty is not the exclusive cause of the gender pay gap, it’s certainly true that in families with a mother and a father, it’s the former who is more likely to take time out of work to look after her family, and subsequently more likely to work part-time afterwards—resulting in her taking a pay cut, while her partner may well enjoy a paternity “bonus” (the IPPR suggests that men with children earn around a fifth more than their childless counterparts).
Inevitably, this cut bites hardest on low-income women—who will also find it more difficult to buy their way out of caring responsibilities in order to return to work. One TUC report found that in London, the cost of childcare has risen an eye-watering 7 times against earnings over the past decade. For two-parent families, the UK has the highest childcare costs against the cost of earnings in the OECD.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that despite there being many factors that help decide which parents stay at home and for how long, increasing childcare support has a tangible impact on employment rates.
The Treasury also believe that it will have a positive impact on the gender pay gap, allowing mothers to return to work and make the best use of their skills. And remember, next time the “it’s her choice” chorus starts croaking: women’s increased participation is—surprise!—beneficial to economies in general.
That is, however, only half the story. In fact, the best case for putting state money into childcare isn’t that it liberates women or improves the country’s economic output. It’s that we need children.
Every person who contributes to society was raised by somebody: every teacher and politician, every nurse and data-entry manager, every accountant and laywer. That means that—however difficult it is to imagine when there’s felt-tip on your good jumper, or a screaming baby on the bus—children are a social good.
What’s more, we need a constant supply of these raised children—something which should be a particular concern with regards to our rapidly-ageing population.
But, croaks the chorus, why should I, a person who has decided not to have children, have to subsidise those who have? Don’t they already have the heart-rending joy of smiling mini-me faces gazing up at them, knowing that the grown-up in question is their whole world? Didn’t they know this would be expensive? Why should my taxes go to them?
To which you need only reply: who would you like to look after you in your old age? Because the answer to who will—irony of ironies!—be helping you eat, drink and clean yourself in your dotage is, inevitably, a child that someone else has raised.
As with so many forms of socially-beneficial labour—c.f. also housework and looking after everyone’s feelings—this work has long been done by women; and so the case for wide-ranging state-subsidy is de facto a feminist case.
But it’s also a case for everyone, however remote it feels from their own lives; in the same way that walkers should see the case for investing in the roads that goods lorries use, and people who rarely get sick see the case for the hospitals that keep their colleagues healthy.
The financial capacity for Labour to deliver on its childcare policy may still be in doubt. Part of the answer could be a large injection of public money; something which, Weldon adds, would be “no bad thing.” But however the details shake out, the societal—and moral—case is clear.