Mothers should be paid to stay at home. Discuss...

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The call by Harriet Harman, chair of the Childcare Commission, for mothers to be paid to stay at home to look after young children, is welcome. Ms Harman has in the past already suggested that mothers should receive a full year's maternity pay. This develops that idea - and rightly so.

The call by Harriet Harman, chair of the Childcare Commission, for mothers to be paid to stay at home to look after young children, is welcome. Ms Harman has in the past already suggested that mothers should receive a full year's maternity pay. This develops that idea - and rightly so.

It would be easy to suggest that this is a case of spending scarce resources where they can least be spared. The £150 per week - £7,800 a year - proposal that The Independent reports on today may not sound like a generous salary package. None the less, multiply it up for all the mothers of children under the age of two and a half, and it would make a sizeable dent in even the most robust budget. It can sound reminiscent of the doomed and pointless wages-for-housework campaign, which argued that "housewife" should be treated as a commercial occupation.

Ms Harman's proposal acknowledges, however, a simple truth: that financial pressures force mothers of young children to return to the workplace even if they do not wish to do so, when it is difficult for them to do so, and when it is not necessarily in the interest of the child for them to do so. Money for mothers - and for fathers, where the father has primary responsibility for childcare - would help to take the burden off family and children alike. The jobs freed up by those who choose to stay at home (and not all would do so) would take pressure off the nation's bills for welfare and unemployment benefits.

Traditionally, the British left has seen "formal" child care, including nurseries and kindergartens, as desirable, while the right has been enamoured of "informal" childcare at home. But there is no good reason why that ideological division should remain. In countries such as Sweden, the left is supportive of home childcare, and rightly so.

This, above all, should be a case of the woman's right to choose. Some women would wish to return to work as soon as possible. Others would prefer to stay at home. Ideally, that should be an open choice for the individual and the family, not dictated simply by financial need.

Ms Harman's proposals would free up parents' options, and the pressure on jobs. In that sense, it would be a no-lose. For the Government, it may sound like a step too far. As this government has repeatedly shown, it is terrified of thinking the unthinkable on questions of the family and welfare. Just this once, however, it should finally dare to be brave. The exact sums do not matter at this stage; the principle does.

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