My heart lifted as I heard Ed Balls announce labour would commit to 25 hours of free childcare, while I stood at the Fabian conference some months ago, bouncing up and down trying to keep my baby asleep. Immediately I wanted to know from what age. I got chatting latter to a woman next to me about the complications of having a family and working. We both agreed we wanted more than a commitment to 25 hours free childcare (from I suspect 3 years) we wanted a comprehensive set of policies that would support families in work and address the competition so many people experience between caring responsibilities and paid employment.
In the lunchtime session with the Fabian Women’s society someone pointed out that the disproportionate effect of the cuts on women had not been mentioned in the main meetings so far and that we needed to mainstream feminist politics. I nearly shouted amen before remembering where I was and giving a polite clap instead. Another point made elsewhere was the rampant nature of individualism and the need to articulate the benefits of collectivist action.
I wonder if these two things contribute significantly to the lack of value we place on caring and nurturing those who are dependent on others. This lack of value strikes me as odd since every single one of us has at some point in our lives been entirely dependent on others. However much people have made their own way and their own money there was a point in their life where they were unable to do anything and would have died had not someone lifted them to bottle or breast. And for most of us there will come again a time where we are greatly dependent on the care of others. I think there is a great opportunity for Labour to fill the gap and come up with a comprehensive set of policies that value family.
Now the phrase ‘valuing family’ near the word Christian is going to send many people into a state of panic and with good reason. But rather than shying away from discussing it let’s meet the challenge with a deeper solution than the right can offer.
Firstly our Christian and socialist world view leads us to understand family in much broader terms than the ‘traditional’ right view. I put traditional in quotation marks because I’m not sure the nuclear family is all that traditional. Since complete dependence is such a universal experience lets value it and celebrate it.
So in my nappy changing buggy pushing day dreaming a comprehensive set of policies would look something like this:
- Joined up thinking from birth to school. At the moment you have to go back to work at year 1, but free childcare kicks in at 3 or sometimes 2. What are you meant to do in between?
- A universally available community service allowance. This would be an increase of your tax free allowance dependent on you doing at least 5 hours of community service a week. Parents would automatically be entitled and could nominate one other person (relative or friend) who also cares for their child for free for at least 5 hours a week. Where only one person has parental responsibility for the child they will be able to nominate 2 other people. Adults in need of additional support would also be able to nominate individuals to receive this tax free allowance (this would be in addition to any care package not instead of). People who gave 5 hours a week of their time to a voluntary organisation could get a simple form stamped by the voluntary agency, which they give to their payroll department to receive the tax free allowance. This would be a great answer to the announcement of giving married/civil partners a tax break. Mostly couples save by economies of scale so we must reply with something fairer and deeper.
- Childcare vouchers should be changed from a weekly rate to an hourly rate and should be generously set so as to cover at least 80% of likely childcare costs. This would stop it from becoming more expensive to work more hours and allow parents to decide how much to work based on the needs of the child and family. The amount of childcare vouchers available should be increased between the ages of one and three rather than at present where you can get the same for a 3 and 15 year old.
- Deal with the lack of nursery places. Deal with term time only issue.
- People and companies should be actively dissuaded from people working regularly weeks over 40 hours. If you’re doing 70 hours someone is missing you and your doing 2 peoples job.
- All jobs should be advertised as optional number of hours unless there is very good reason why the job cannot be done by several people. People should be able to state on application how many hours they wish to do. The selected candidate will get the hours they requested and the next best candidate offered what is left ect.
- Workplaces should where reasonably possible be required to make provision for parents to bring infants under one into work. (Most babies are very amiable and it’s a time many parents could work)
These are just a few thoughts after 3 years of juggling babies, volunteering and work. They all need thrashing out but are enough I think to provide a little hope that the left could offer something radical and deep that not only would help parents but change the way we value one another and engage with society.