We need policies to support parents to put children’s needs first, however it best works for them

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‘Children are the losers in this bidding war with Labour”  says Jill Kirby, writing for Conservative Home 

 We agree.  

She asks:  ”… why does the Prime Minister think that it would be a good idea to put pre-school children in daycare for 30 hours a week, at public expense?”   We all know the answer: ”Because Ed Miliband has offered 25 hours, that’s why.”  

She continues: ”  Does that sound too cynical?  Perhaps you prefer to believe that David Cameron actually thinks six hours a day in institutions will be good for children?  If he does hold such a belief,  it is sadly unfounded,  since there is precious little evidence to support it (longer hours in early childcare – MAHM italics ) and plenty to the contrary.”

And how should the ‘problem’  of the care of children be resolved?  Jill Kirby believes the answer lies in supporting family care.  Spot on.    ”Rather than daycare subsidies,  families should be offered tax allowances that recognise the cost – and social value – of raising children whilst holding down a job.”

She continues: ”Such allowances should be based on the number of adults and dependent children living together in the family, with parents able to choose which income to set the allowance against, for maximum relief.  Families providing their own childcare would then be on a level playing field with those who buy care.”

MAHM agrees.  We need policies that consider parents as families with shared responsibilities, working in partnership in the joint project of bringing up children. If benefits are calculated according to the overall household situation,  then it makes little sense for our taxation system to look at individual income, ignoring responsibilities for dependents.  At the very least we need a consistent approach to assessment. 

We would go further and add that measures are also needed to factor in the joint responsibilities of parents living apart, with consideration given to the security of the primary caregiver in enabling him/her to provide for a child’s everyday emotional and practical needs. Children feel safe and secure when their home environment is stable and secure and both parents recognise their responsibilities, however they divvy out work and care between them. 

What is equality in families?

What drives the relentless increase in numbers of childcare hours offered by policymakers?  As mentioned in Jill Kirby’s article.  to what extent is the government agenda  driven by claiming to support children’s development?  Or is the childcare agenda to enable more parents on low incomes to work longer hours?  

We believe it’s about another agenda which has nothing to do with children’s wellbeing and which relates to international league tables of female participation in the workforce and a narrow interpretation of what equality means and how best achieved.  

The clue is in the contents of a letter sent to a pensioner last year from David Cameron.  He wrote that: ”The concept of adult dependency is becoming increasingly outdated in a society in which partners generally regard themselves as equals rather than as breadwinner and dependant”.

 So where does that leave family members who we argue are inter-dependent throughout the ups and downs of the family life cycle?  

It’s now time for a serious debate about what it means to ‘be a family’. Family members depend on each other in the shared project of bringing up children: parents depend on each other not only financially, but emotionally and practically in the shared priority of putting children’s needs first.  Some parents manage to do this even when the relationship has broken down.  

MAHM believes that ‘being a family’  is naturally about inter-dependence and that equality should not be based on calculations of individual lifetime earnings in paid work.  Judging  ‘equality’ solely on earnings and non-stop participation in paid employment is too narrow a view of what equality means. 

There are many ways that individuals can contribute to society, especially through invisible unpaid care work within families and in the community.  Invisible work is calculated by the Office of National Statistics to be worth £343 billion to the economy and benefits everyone.  The paid economy depends on an army of invisible workers. No man is an island –  we are all dependant on one another in the end. 

When individuals are inter-dependent, is this a sign of progress or is it outdated?

To Mr Cameron we would say this… Equality is about valuing everyone’s contribution,  both in paid and unpaid work. There is no more important job than nurturing the next generation or caring for the young, sick, vulnerable or elderly. Judging by letters we receive from mothers and fathers caring for children, they already very much view themselves as ‘equals’  (regardless of paid work status) but they question a system that is stuck in the past. Does financially dependency mean loss of ‘equality’?   Does this mean that caregivers – or those who are being cared for –  are not equal? Surely not!

Perhaps it’s time to re-define what we mean by ‘economically active’ and to clarify that  the term  ‘working family’  isn’t confined to households where all adults are in paid work all of the time. Perhaps it’s time for care work to be included in measurements of GDP – a sure way of elevating the status of care.  

In any case it’s contradictory to base equality on the size of someone’s  pay packet because it’s blatantly clear that we will never achieve equality for citizens as long as the gap between the top paid and lowest paid keeps widening- or when people need to take time out of paid employment to fulfil other responsibilities in life.   No-one would dare suggest that an individual on low earnings, or no longer ‘productive’,  due to retirement  for example,  is less ‘equal’ than a higher income employee!  Why should it be any different for caregivers?

We need a modern taxation system that values care

We believe that a modern system that supports family life should consider bringing up children as a shared partnership – rather than treating parents as two separate individuals.  It doesn’t matter who earns the most over a lifetime. There should be an option to opt into joint assessment looking at overall circumstances, income coming in and number of dependents. Parents and children are  a family unit, working together, and as such are bound to embrace a degree of inter-dependence, give and take, making joint decisions based on their own unique challenges and individual children’s needs.  A one-size-fits-all approach can never work – because it’s clear that families face different pressures, including the demands of particular types of employment situations and wider family circumstances, such as the needs of elderly family members.    

A truly progressive system is not one that rejects people’s care responsibilities for dependants, or which discounts the extra costs of bringing up children or which sidelines children’s needs for love and family care.   A progressive system does not penalise family care in favour of care as a commercial transaction.   All citizens,  the young and the elderly, should be treated with security and dignity, not as units of production.  When we achieve this,  then perhaps we’ll have ‘equality’.  

Until then our party leaders should stop using children as a political football for point scoring. 

Marie Peacock 

Edited 4th May 2015

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