Tory MP says expansion of free childcare is wrong policy for children

Conservative MP Miriam Cates has hit out at plans in the Budget to expand free childcare, saying it is the wrong policy for children and “most women have jobs and not careers”.

The MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge told the Commons that she welcomed the additional spending to help families with young children, but suggested she wanted it to be used to give families greater choice in what if any childcare they used, including the option of staying at home with children.

Under the Government’s plans, free childcare for working parents will be expanded, so that by 2025 in all eligible households in England children under five will be entitled to 30 hours a week free childcare from the moment maternity leave ends.

Speaking during a debate on last week’s Budget, Ms Cates said: “I’m delighted that the Chancellor has set aside £4 billion to help families with young children.

“I’m less delighted with how he’s choosing to spend it.

“And I’m referring to the massive expansion of the 30-hour childcare scheme.”

She added: “The stated aim of this policy is to get parents back into work and to grow the economy.

“But unfortunately I think it will probably fail on both counts.”

UK Parliament portraits
Miriam Cates (David Woolfall/UK Parliament/PA)

She said the current 30-hour offer has had “limited success”, and that she does not expect the take-up of the expanded scheme to be high.

And while she said the policy might increase GDP, she questioned whether it would increase GDP per capita, saying the latter was “highly unlikely” because it would create “more low-paying jobs in childcare and elderly care”.

She also cast doubt on the argument that childcare in England is especially expensive, saying the root of the problem is “our unique individual taxation system that doesn’t recognise households with children”.

She said: “Now, the Treasury and others keep repeating this mantra that British parents face the highest childcare costs in the western world.

“It’s not actually true.

“The absolute costs of childcare are similar in the UK to other countries.

“The problem is that British families childcare costs are a higher proportion of families net income than in comparable countries.

“The problem is not the childcare cost, it’s the low net income.

“And that’s the result of taking so much money off parents in tax in comparison with other countries, combined with meagre child benefits.”

After outlining the economic arguments, she said: “Even if I’m wrong, I still believe it’s the wrong policy because it’s the wrong policy for children.

“What is best for baby in the early years?

“The bond between mother and child is probably the strongest human relationship there is.

“It’s not just a soppy feeling, it’s a highly evolved survival mechanism.

“And strong attachment in the early years pays dividends in later life.

“There’s many great people in the childcare sector, but no one replaces mummy.”

Ms Cates said it was “heartbreaking when mothers feel they have no choice but to leave their babies in childcare from a very young age because of the financial imperative”, and suggested the funding could “give parents a choice of how they spend it, on informal childcare, fewer hours in the workplace”.

She said: “I wish I spent more time in the office instead of with my small children, said no one on their deathbed ever.

“And I think those making these policies think of women with high-flying, high paid careers.

“And of course they should be supported to stay in work and maintain their careers.

“But that is not most women.

“Most women have jobs and not careers.”

Children enjoy playing on swings (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Children enjoy playing on swings (Gareth Fuller/PA)

She added: “It’s fundamentally un-Conservative to spend £4 billion separating parents from their babies in the pursuit of marginal gains in GDP.

“We offer tax breaks and incentives to reduce costs for companies investing in the economy. Why not offer the same to families nurturing the source of our future economic success.

“I commend the amount of money being spent on the early years, but please can it be to offer parents choice and babies the best start in life.”

Tory former minister Sir Edward Leigh said he welcomes the new childcare measures but added: “It is a massive extension of the state”.

He went on:  “Whilst it is desirable in itself, I’m entirely in favour of mothers who want to go out in work, being allowed to do so and indeed encouraged to do so, even when the baby is as young as nine months, but we’ve got to also support mothers who want to stay at home.”

Sir Edward added: “I just make the point to the Government that they should be neutral about the fact that often is the interests of the child and the mother, where the mother wants to stay at home, for her to be allowed by the tax regime to stay at home and not be forced by the tax regime or by her personal circumstances to go out in work.”