Things not to do: Introduce universal free childcare

Childcare is expensive in the UK, and takes a large slice, in many cases one-third, from the earnings of (mostly) women who want to resume work after giving birth. Its costs deter some from returning to work. One proposal in circulation is that the state should provide and pay for childcare for all parents who need it. This means the general taxpayer, including childless people and those with older children, would pay for state provision for those who need it. If it is to be universally available and free, that means it will also be given to people sufficiently well-off to be able to afford it themselves.

The government already offers 30 hours of free childcare per week for 3 and 4 year-olds, paid for by local authorities, with 15 free hours for 2 year-olds from disadvantaged families. Even this is very expensive, at an estimated £7bn a year and rising. Spokespeople from the childcare sector have said many more billions will be needed to support even this commitment. If it were rolled out as a universal free service of more childcare hours covering more years its costs would soar dramatically.

Critics of universal free childcare point out that one reason it is so expensive is that it is over-regulated in terms of the ratio of staff to children and the qualifications required for carers. Other countries manage with lighter regulations and have much less costly childcare than Britain’s.

It is quite likely that a universal free service would have even tighter regulation imposed upon it. In the interests of health and safety there would be additional regulation about premises, and further requirements for professional qualifications for those administering it – something that would also limit the supply of people prepared to supervise childcare.

Much childcare in the UK is informal, in that grandparents or other family members take care of children while the parent (usually mother) goes to work. This informal care takes place in premises many of which would not meet the regulatory requirements for nurseries, and is done by people who do not have the level of qualifications required for those who do it professionally.

Instead of imposing the vast costs of universal free childcare, government might do better to encourage more informal childcare by proving incentives for family and friends to provide it, and by directing support toward those least able to afford it.