Leading Article: Child care needs a braver strategy than this

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Whenever you hear a Tory government minister use the phrase "national strategy" you know one of two things. Either the Conservative Party has converted to collectivism, which is unlikely, or an election is not far off and ministers are out and about doing things. Like unveiling green papers on child care. Yesterday's effort is a poor thing, strong on exhortation but weak on imaginative understanding of the burden borne by working parents with children.

Child care is an arena where government should tread lightly. In it men and women are exploring new roles; surveys capture the continuing ambiguity of many women about leaving children to go out to work and the pressure of household finance which makes it necessary. Thus child care is where many of the dramas of domestic life are played out; also where the often selfish and uncaring face of corporate Britain shows most harshly. Better child care ought to mean more and better work opportunities for women and it is a political puzzle that women employees with young children should be as complacent as they appear to be when it comes to voting and responding to opinion pollsters on the issue.

Britain fares badly in most league tables on pre-school care and education outside the home. Surveys and anecdotal evidence confirm that, for many parents of young children, providing somewhere for them to go safely during the day is an expensive headache. Yet the aggregate level of women's employment has been rising - women are now 45 per cent of the workforce. Some 80 per cent of the projected increase in the workforce over the next decade will be female. Although, compared with some other countries, a smaller percentage of single mothers work in Britain, it would be crass to say that the absence of child care has been a barrier to women entering work.

But of course that is only a part of the story. What is not so easily captured by the figures is what child-care difficulties do to women's careers, the way it forces mothers into part-time jobs, smothers ambition and sacrifices talent. Many women with small children lead Stakhanovite lives, diminishing their own well-being, and (there is some evidence here) jeopardising their marriages. For employers this is not just a "social cost" or, as the jargon has it, an externality. Under-performing mothers cost us all. The more productive employees, the better-off we all are. The more contented parents are, the better parents they are, and that too benefits us all.

The Government's response to that tale is a kind of hand-wringing hands- off. "I don't believe in a nanny state", said employment minister Cheryl Gillan yesterday, borrowing from page one of the Thatcherite book of aphorisms. But why then this green paper and vague promises of further action? The answer - while unseen by writers of economics textbooks and Tories of John Redwood's hue - is that employers won't play ball. To most of them how employees provide for their children is a private matter, a cost which must not be visited even proportionately on the firm. So, across a wide swathe of small and medium-sized British business employers do nothing to help working women and often fail as a result to get the best out of them. The take-up of the Government's tax incentives for workplace child care has been poor. Government needs to act to try and fend off a national own-goal.

The Department for Education and Employment wants suggestions as to how. It needs to be told three things. One, there is no free lunch. More child- care places depend upon government's pump-priming. Tax relief may be less painless than public spending but has the same budgetary effect. Even the most hide-bound Treasury economic adviser can surely see that, over a relatively short period, government spending that boosts the productivity of the workforce and increases the numbers available for productive employment will be matched by increased tax revenues.

Second, the priority group must be those families - often single-mother- led - moving from dependence on benefits into work. Recent evidence emphasises how crucial for them is access to child care that is not just affordable but the cost of which does not deepen the "poverty trap". Solutions are possible - perhaps some add-on to Family Credit - but they will require the closest co-operation inside Whitehall between DFEE and the Department of Social Security, let alone the Treasury.

But third, the Government has surely learnt from its abortive nursery vouchers scheme you cannot just wind up parents and expect safe and reliable child care to appear magically. The private sector alone will not produce the places - at least at prices affordable by parents in part-time and lower-paid employment.

The voluntary sector, likewise, can only do so much. The Government, so antagonistic in the past to local authorities, has to see that there will be a variety of local solutions. If certain local authorities wish to provide subsidised places that act of local choice should not be censured but encouraged - council places will appeal to some parents, but not to others.

In this sense the very opposite of a "national strategy" is needed. Child care is best provided under a diversity of local strategies. There is, however, a case for a national strategy, except it needs to be much bigger and more radical than the present government seems willing to contemplate. This would involve rigorously reviewing the whole income tax and social security systems for their impact on parents and children, marriage and partnership, in order to make them fairer to those involved in bringing up society's next generation.