Ryan Bourne: It’s time for the Conservatives to deliver on childcare deregulation

4 May

Ryan Bourne is Chair in Public Understanding of Economics at the Cato Institute.

Can any rational person comprehend the emotive, knee-jerk reaction that always follows modest proposals to relax minimum staff to child ratios for childcare?

Here are mandates, the details of which barely anyone can recite, introduced within the last two decades, which vary substantially across the world, and which some pleasant countries don’t impose at all.

Yet every time Conservatives suggest even limited deregulation of a sector that everybody moans produces services that are too expensive, they generate a Pavlovian response that implies today’s exact regulatory details are all that protect children from imminent danger.

Milton Friedman called this reactionary impulse the “tyranny of the status quo” – referencing the reflex-blocking coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, and interest groups.

Given the weight of theory and evidence is on the liberalising side here, Tories should have the courage of their convictions, using today’s circumstances to finally overcome such forces.

Reform of staff:child ratios was rebuffed first when Liz Truss’s efforts were blocked by Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. This time, as the Conservatives scramble for ideas to reduce living costs, blowback comes from Labour and the nursery trade bodies.

A rather minor proposed change is to allow carers of two year olds to look after up to five children at a time (as in Scotland) instead of four. Yes, all the hand-wringing about “endangering children” arises from plans for England to match a policy already implemented north of the border.

The economic case against tight staff:child ratios in childcare is well-grounded. With binding restrictions in such a labour-intensive sector, the costs of supplying childcare to a given number of children grows as more staff are required.

There’s also reduced flexibility to accommodate for staff absences or to deliver care for an additional child in unusual situations. This all raises prices by restraining childcare availability.

In the US, where ratios vary by state, researchers consistently find that loosening ratios by just one child across age groups is associated with prices that are six to 20 percent lower. Given a full-time childminder or nursery care place for a two year old averages £11.8k or £13.2k per year; that’s equivalent to annual savings of £710 or more.

Quite simply, when you cut the profitability of childcare, the number of providers falls. This might occur directly by raising staffing costs, or indirectly, as tight staff:child ratios reduce the revenue-earning potential of workers, restricting wages available to obtain better staff.

Either way, the regulation makes childcare less productive, so fewer providers operate.

Crucially, research (again from the US) has found that the resultant closures are almost all concentrated in low-income areas. Less availability and higher prices are regressive, forcing poorer households to use other forms of informal care or forego important labour market opportunities entirely.

Given England has about the tightest staff:child ratios in Europe for two year olds, the Government focus on loosening requirements for that age group is understandable.

But the truth is, this logic pushes against having such top-down regulations at all. Denmark, Sweden and Israel have no such restrictions. A lot of people who preach the idea of evidence-based policy, and think themselves internationalists, seem strangely unread and parochial about this.

Instead, their objections either reek of the special pleading of large, formal nurseries who don’t want the competition of a more pluralistic sector, or to the busybody tendency that desires one’s own preferences being imposed on everyone.

But… these ratios aid child development, no?

Doesn’t having fewer children per staff member lead to more staff-child interactions and better child development?

Labour’s Bridget Phillipson argued so, but actually, there is little evidence that’s true. Meta-analyses on these types of regulation have found “small, if any, associations with concurrent and subsequent child outcomes.”

This conventional wisdom ignores the potential for higher wages to improve quality and the possibility that higher prices caused by these regulations drive poorer households towards more informal care or even out of work, also affecting children’s development. One cannot just look at the sample of kids who continue to access more expensive care.

Aren’t parents opposed to these changes?

Online parents often claim to speak for all in opposing this deregulation on safety grounds. But providers in a market face strong incentives to give parents the assurances they desire.

Some centres would therefore no doubt advertise they are sticking to the pre-reform ratios, or even develop private accreditation – these rules are only minimum standards, after all.

Parents, not governments, should judge the features that constitute childcare quality. Research analysing Yelp reviews suggests high- and low-income households have different average preferences on this. Richer families tend to be more concerned about childcare as a learning environment. Poorer families worry more about its availability and price.

A government policy for tight ratios amounts to imposing richer households’ preferences to the detriment of poorer households’ needs. Deregulation allows the market to offer various price-feature bundles to suit different families’ wants.

Don’t only the rich use formal childcare?

Torsten Bell, of the Resolution Foundation, implies deregulation won’t help those really struggling, because just 44 percent of poorer parent households use formal childcare, compared with 69 percent of those earning over £45k per year.

This is still a large chunk of the population, however, and at least one of the reasons fewer poor people use formal childcare is precisely because such regulations reduce its availability and raise its price.

Arguing that lower usage rates by poorer households are a reason not to deregulate is as silly as those who think, having constrained housing development around London, that it’s not worth building new properties there because the rich will inevitably buy them.

Isn’t this a distraction to the real cost of living problem?

The strongest argument for not using political capital on this now is that childcare deregulation will not solve the near-term inflation problem driven by overly expansionary macroeconomic policy and heightened energy prices, which is undoubtedly true.

But the art of politics entails pushing for worthy reforms when opportunities arise.

Our current inflation woes are a good time to reflect on how a range of government policies raise the structural level of prices in regressive ways across important sectors, even if these regulations can’t explain the recent living standards squeeze.

As Henry Hill noted, government subsidies and the professionalisation of childcare over two decades have significantly driven up costs of provision, with deeply unsatisfactory results.

Loosening ratio regulations and occupational licensing requirements would not solve all these problems. But it would be a helpful first step to restoring a bit of market sanity to a sector being gradually destroyed by unthinking, cumulative government interventionism.

Deregulating childcare would be a small step towards solving a vast problem

27 Apr

The cost-of-living crisis, like so many of the most serious problems facing the country, arises in large part from structural causes. but is being met by a Government that seems incapable of thinking in such terms for any length of time.

Boris Johnson is not breaking new ground with this failing; every government in recent times has, for example, preferred counter-productive short-term demand boosts to trying to address the root causes of our chronic housing shortage.

But what previous generations of politicians managed to get away with (more or less) in good times will not necessarily fly in really bad times.

Take latest drive to try and bring down childcare costs as an example.

Bringing carer-to-child ratios, qualification requirements, and so on down to something closer to the systems that prevail in neighbouring countries seems perfectly sensible. Both Bright Blue and the TaxPayers’ Alliance has set out the case for doing so, highlighting the different ways each regulation pushes up the overall cost of provision.

It would scarcely be the only area (rented housing springs again to mind) where an insistence on gold-plated standards combines with limited supply to produce less-than-stellar outcomes. And it would be welcome to see the Tories using their majority to return to an issue they had to retreat on under the Coalition, when Nick Clegg stymied Liz Truss’s reform effort.

Yet the fact ministers were trying to tackle this almost a decade ago shows that this is another problem with deep roots. The solution is probably not going to be conjured in a Cabinet meeting to brainstorm a hodge-podge of suggestions for cutting household costs without offending the Treasury.

Were the Government stepping back and taking a more strategic view of the question it might ponder the fact that many European providers are able to cross-subsidise the resource-intensive work of looking after very young children with the proceeds of caring for older ones, who in this country are already in school.

It might also, when the Chancellor was out of earshot, reflect on whether or not the childcare system should be so ruthlessly focused on freeing up parents to re-enter the labour market.

Why could the resources not, as some have suggested, be made available on a more flexible basis, to support stay-at-home parents or care by friends and relatives?

Or is Whitehall so safeguarding-brained as to demand those expensive CRB checks and qualifications from them as well? After all, it does seem to have a real aversion to these informal alternatives. As Ryan Bourne noted in a recent column:

“Yet governments have sought to professionalise and formalise the sector through heavy regulation, constraining supply, while then subsidising demand. This has brought a whole host of dissatisfaction, as well as rising market prices.”

Or if we’re taking inspiration from overseas, Johnson could consider Miriam Cates’ proposals to reform the tax system so that it recognises the reduced ‘taxable capacity’ of families with children, as in France or Germany?

The prohibitive cost of raising a family is a vast challenge. Really tackling it would involve a sustained and coordinated push on multiple fronts: against the vast coalition of interests opposed to new housebuilding; against the Whitehall fixation on workforce participation; and indeed against the attitude that sees ‘paying for other people’s children’ as an imposition on the taxpayer rather than the rightful duty of the State.

We have little reason to expect that any such plan will be forthcoming, because there is scant interest that Johnson really thinks in such terms.

But an extra subsidy here and the cutting of a bit of red tape there will not give families the sort of help they really need.

Miriam Cates: Our tax system must recognise parenting as a service to the nation

13 Apr

Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge.

What comes into your mind when you hear the word ‘family’? Perhaps you think about your parents or picture a scene from your childhood. Though sometimes these memories carry pain, for many of us ‘family’ the single most important thing in our lives.

Families also play an invaluable role in society. For most people, being a parent is probably the most significant contribution we make to society, and there is a wealth of evidence that shows just how important families are when it comes to raising children to become healthy, resilient, and successful adults.

Conversely when things go wrong, we all pick up the cost. Estimates suggest that family breakdown costs the taxpayer £50bn a year.

Given the central importance of families in our lives and in our society, you might expect that our tax system would be set up to recognise and support the role that they play.

But a new report by CARE and Tax and the Family reveals that not only does the tax system fails to recognise families at all but also shows the extent of the pressure this is putting on British family budgets.

Unlike in countries such as France, Germany and the US, Brits are taxed on individual income rather than household income. This keeps things simple and superficially may seem fair. But the reality is that an individual’s annual earned income often bears no relation to how well off they are.

For example, a single person earning the average salary of £30,000 a year is obviously better off than a single earner family of four, where the earning parent’s wage is also £30,000. There is an enormous difference in both the cost of living and the amount of disposable income for these two households – and yet they pay more or less the same amount of tax.

This unfairness becomes even more apparent when we use the Government’s own statistics to compare the standard of living experienced by these two households. According to Treasury data, the couple with two children needs to earn £74,500 a year to achieve the standard of living as a single person on £30,000. For many families, that is an almost unachievable figure.

British families on low and middle incomes are therefore taxed at greater rates than people without children and face a much higher tax burden than families in many other comparable countries. A poor family on median income in Germany pays no tax at all; the same family in Britain will pay £5936.

This leaves many children growing up in poor households and makes it very difficult for parents to escape the poverty trap, because so much of what they earn is taken away by the Treasury. The problem is exacerbated when only one parent works or where there is a big difference between parents’ wages.

And although benefits like Universal Credit do help to boost household incomes, the way these benefits are ‘clawed back’ when parents earn a little extra income means that for each additional £1 that some families earn, they lose 70p in increased tax and lost benefits.

Things are already bad for British families, but they are about to get a whole lot worse. The cost-of-living increase is multiplied in households with children, and more and more children pushed will be into poverty because our tax system is blind to families.

The root of all this is that we don’t value parenting. With the ‘two-child’ benefit rule, the pressure on parents to work all hours, and the crazed idea that parents can somehow ‘work from home’ whilst simultaneously providing children with an education, we’ve begun to see children as a ‘nice to have’ rather than the foundation of our future.

Children are not a luxury item like a posh car; of course, the state shouldn’t help with the cost of servicing your Porsche. But whilst raising children is primarily the responsibility of parents, it is also an enormous service to the nation. How else will we produce our robust future workforce, our trailblazing entrepreneurs, our carers, our taxpayers?

Bringing up children is not a leisure activity to be enjoyed in your spare time; as any parent will testify, raising kids well demands time, money, energy, and emotional resilience – resources that are in short supply for millions of families right now.

Now is the time to reform our taxation system to recognise families and the crucial role they play by taxing household rather than individual income and by removing the ‘cliff edges’ that make it so difficult for families to improve their financial situation.

Just as society invests in infrastructure and defence to secure our long-term interests, so we must invest in families as they nurture the next generation.

Children are not an economic inconvenience; they are a blessing, and they are our future. We fail to recognise this at our peril.

Gary Powell: Conservative council candidates should agree to protect women’s right to single sex spaces and services

8 Apr

Gary Powell is a former councillor in Buckinghamshire.

There is a dynamic new cross-party grassroots movement in British politics.

The Daily Mail recently published a piece by Maya Forstater that announced the most significant female political movement since the Suffragettes. It will ask candidates in local and national elections to state whether they back women’s sex-based rights – or alternatively, the gender ideology that is determined to undermine them.

In her piece, Forstater – who lost her job simply for asserting on social media the insuperable biological difference between men and women – referred to the tortured obfuscations of senior politicians when asked to define what a woman is, or to answer the question as to whether a woman can have a penis.

She described their failure to provide accurate answers to such questions as “cowardly” and denounced the many MPs and councillors who lack “the courage to stick their heads above the parapet” stating:

We women have had enough”.

Three of the U.K.’s biggest women’s rights groups – Women UnitingSex Matters, and the Women’s Rights Network (WRN) – have combined into an alliance that encourages supporters to ask candidates where they stand on this issue.

We believe that politicians should know they can’t expect our cross in the voting box if they do not acknowledge and protect women’s sex-based rights… We want as many members of the general public – female and male, and across all party lines — to quiz their politicians, both national and local, about their stance on women’s rights.

Women Uniting has also produced a simple but powerful campaign video in time for the May local elections.

The new alliance includes supporters from across a wide political spectrum. The seriousness of the attack on fundamental women’s rights and child safeguarding has brought about a unity that enables campaigners to put aside their political differences on other issues.

Many who used to vote for left-wing parties now find themselves politically homeless and unable to vote for parties that treat women with contempt and throw child safeguarding to the wolves. Although some will simply abstain or spoil their ballot papers, others have resolved to lend their votes to sound Conservative candidates. One Twitter user wrote “Family of five. Four of us will be eligible to vote in next GE. Three years ago we would have all voted Labour. Next election we are all voting Tory. Why? Because Labour have sold women, homosexuals and young people down the gender river. I will never trust them again.” And another: “I was until recently a Labour Party member. But when I politely spoke to my Labour MP, council and pamphleteers, they dismissed my concerns about paediatric transition and self-ID as transphobic and bad parenting. I never expected to vote Tory, but you guys don’t want my vote.”

Information about the harm caused by gender ideology is now getting through to the public, despite the efforts of the leftist media and Big Tech to keep people in the dark. Some conservative voters are already starting to declare that Conservative candidates who support gender ideology will not get their vote. The Conservative commentator, Chris Rose, wrote: “At minimum, my vote won’t go to any future candidate who thinks it’s okay for doctors to ask men if they’re pregnant or can’t define what 50% of the electorate are.”

The voting booth allows those who have been silenced to register their protest anonymously and effectively, without risk of reprisals.

The campaign’s snappy slogan is:

Respect my SeX if you want my X”.

Local councils need to take seriously the harm they do to women and girls when they promote or appease gender ideology. Several local councils, including Cambridge City Council, have passed motions that include the false and Orwellian statement that “transwomen are women”. The impact of this on policy?

Forstater says:

It’s easily forgotten how much is under local authority control: from single-sex services such as changing rooms in sports centres and toilet facilities in parks, to the guidance given to schools about sex education and how they respond to children who are gender-questioning. Our campaign, then, is very much a local issue.”

Local services touch everybody’s lives – and it’s local authorities making decisions which lead to funding being taken away from women’s refuges and rape crisis centres, for example, if they don’t open up their services to biological males who identify as women.

Via the campaign, candidates are being asked to “respect women’s right to single-sex spaces and services; protect the safeguarding of vulnerable children; and prioritise sex over gender in language, law, policy and regulation,” as well as to resist the pressure to be “trans-inclusive” in services at the expense of women’s need for “a secure, single-sex environment”.

Voters will certainly want to know which candidates support the undermining of women’s protected spaces and of parental rights to protect child safeguarding against identity politics indoctrination in schools and online.

Women’s right to protection from male violence, male voyeurism, and male physical advantage in sport, is a matter of great interest to the electorate, who might think twice about voting for those gender activists holding political office who remain deafeningly silent when zealots on their own side send gender-critical women rape and death threats, a large number of which have been collected and published on the website www.terfisaslur.com.

By taking a firm stand against the prioritisation of misogynistic gender ideology over women’s sex-based rights and child safeguarding, the Conservative Party will be acting true to common sense and conservative values, and taking principled measures that will translate into many votes. The general public does not believe that women can have penises or that men can have vaginas or be pregnant. And the electorate will lose trust in politicians who pretend to be incapable of understanding basic biology.

Thank goodness politicians in our Party have begun to demonstrate the courage of their convictions with regard to gender ideology. Nadhim Zahawi is one of the most recent. As a result of the campaign perhaps, every day now, there appear to be more.

This week, the Prime Minister has also weighed in to the debate with a new energy, confidence, and clarity, that augur well for the future, defending single-sex spaces and sport, and opposing children being allowed to make irreversible decisions with regard to transgender medical interventions. This followed his protection of child safeguarding and evidence-based psychotherapy by removing “gender identity” from the proposed conversion therapy bill, with the Prime Minister refusing to cave in to the consequent outrage of the LGBT+ gender lobby.

Grassroots Conservative members and voters like this kind of leadership, and it will attract even more new voters.

The modern Suffragette movement will be working with great determination to ensure that candidates who betray women and children will learn hard lessons at the ballot box. Conservative candidates, please take note. Find your courage, grasp this opportunity, and nail your colours to the right mast. Women and children are counting on you.

Robert Halfon: There is much, much more to be done to help schools recover from Covid

6 Apr

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Last week, the Department for Education (DfE) released not one, but two significant new policy documents – a White Paper on Schools and a Green Paper on children with special educational needs.

Published just hours apart, the White Paper and SEND Review together could form a bold and cohesive vision for our schools. At last, the Government has begun to provide a washing line for all the clothes pegs of different educational initiatives.

This joined-up thinking should be seen as just the start of a long-term plan for education. Our education system must be equipped, not only to recover from the challenges of Covid-19, but to address significant social injustices and to develop the world-class skills we need for a modern economy.

By social injustices, I mean those different cohorts of children such as children in care, those with special educational needs, and white-working class boys and girls from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t have a level playing field when it comes to climbing the educational ladder of opportunity.

By skills, we need to make sure students can apply the knowledge they learn at school and are equipped for the fourth industrial revolution.

Early Years

If everyone is to be offered a fair chance to climb the ladder of opportunity, early years must be the starting point. The gulf between the life chances for disadvantaged pupils and their peers opens up early in life: around 40 per cent of the attainment gap at GCSEs has already emerged at the age of five.

Rather than redressing this issue of social injustice, the current early years provision entrenches disadvantage.

As schools returned this year, half of all children arrived at the primary school gates not ready to learn. This isn’t just a case of five-year-olds getting confused with the alphabet. A review published by Ofsted on Monday exposed a generation of toddlers failing to meet key developmental milestones.

Children are turning up to Reception wearing nappies, unable to speak, and reluctant to play with others.

Michael Gove’s Levelling Up White Paper set a mission for 90 per cent of young people to leave primary schools with expected literacy and numeracy skills. If that pledge is to be kept, there needs to be a radical plan to make sure that our country is the best to be born into.

The additional £500 million increase of funding to Family Hubs is a welcome start, but the Government should go further to re-shape our early years spending so that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have equal access to early years education.

In practice this would mean revising the eligibility criteria for free childcare and investing the savings to make a more generous offer.

Tuition

Any plan going forward must provide answers on how the Covid generation who have lost vital hours in school will be supported.

Given the strong evidence that tuition can boost pupils’ academic progress, the Department and the Prime Minister must stay firm in their commitment to the National Tutoring Programme (NTP).

But the NTP is not without fault. In our recent inquiry, the Education Select Committee went so far as to question if our catch-up programme is fit for purpose.

However, after I waged a long campaign in Parliament, Nadhim Zahawi and Robin Walker have listened and taken decisive action by ditching Randstad and giving money straight to schools. This decision will simplify the spaghetti junction of catch-up funding.

However, fixing the catch-up programme cannot just be about cash. The focus must be quality, quality, quality. Ofsted raised alarm over left-behind areas where schools cannot find enough decent tutors. We cannot afford to create a postcode lottery of tuition.

The Committee’s recent report – Is the Catch-Up Programme Fit For Purpose? – highlighted significant regional disparity of take-up of the NTP. By March 2021, it had reached 100 per cent of its target numbers of schools in the South West but just 58.9 per cet in Yorkshire and the Humber, and 59.3 per cent in the North West, meaning that tutoring was not always reaching the most disadvantaged pupils.

The Department must ensure that going forwards, there is a quality assurance framework in place for every tutor partner which means teachers can have confidence in the quality of provision for their pupils, wherever they may be.

Ghost children

One of the most grim consequences of school closures is the fact that 124,000 children have mostly not returned to school since they reopened. If we are not careful, there will be an Oliver Twist generation of ghost children lost to education and exposed to serious safeguarding concerns.

The fact that so many children have gone missing points to the glaring problems that existed in schools prior to the pandemic: that the system was unequipped to support the most vulnerable and marginalised young people.

Even with the recovery efforts, the response to severe absence has been piecemeal. Nearly 800 schools have an entire class worth of children missing and over 13,000 children in critical exam years have not returned to school.

The scale of this severe absence has become so big that teachers alone cannot solve this problem. The additional £5 million funding provided is important, but more needs to be done. The DfE should utilise the underspend from the Randstad contract to fund an additional 2,000 attendance advisers to work on the ground and get these children safely back into school.

Skills

I have previously written in ConHome to say that “schools” and “skills” should be the two most important words in the Government’s vocabulary. Employers from Harlow to Hartlepool need skilled young people to create an economy that works for everyone. The White Paper outlined a commitment to a knowledge-rich curriculum, but what about a skills-rich curriculum?

If the Government really want to deliver a skills revolution, the reformation must begin in schools.

The Lords Youth Unemployment Committee found that the English Baccalaureate and Progress 8 have restricted the national curriculum and created a system that stifles the development of digital, technical, and creative skills that our economy needs.

The Education Committee’s current inquiry on the Future of Post-16 Education, heard that while students in Britain do relatively well when it comes to reproducing subject matter knowledge, they have far greater difficulties in demonstrating practical ways of working and applying the knowledge they have learnt.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s Director for Education and Skills, told the Committee that “in a world where the kinds of things that are easy to teach and to test are becoming easier to digitise and to automate, that is a significant risk”.

This is not an argument about ‘knowledge vs skills’. It is an argument which urges the need to see skills and knowledge go together, hand in hand. As the old saying goes, give a man a fish and you give him a meal; teach a man how to fish and you give him a meal for life.

The same can be said about knowledge and skills. It is important that children should learn the names of the fish in the river, but it is equally important that they know how to fish as well.

Cristina Odone: The government engaging with parents is crucial in improving early years education

16 Mar

Cristina Odone heads the Family Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.

Children arriving to school in nappies, unable to eat with a spoon, properly articulate simple words, or even play. Even before the pandemic struck, schools were struggling with children lacking basic skills.

Covid-19 accelerated this. On average, 50 percent of children were not ready to start school in 2021 – as opposed to 1 in 3 pre-pandemic. The new YouGov survey of almost a thousand primary school staff, carried out for the Kindred2 foundation, exposes a terrible truth: a government unwilling to help our youngest.

The Government cannot fail to have learned that the first 1001 days shape a child’s brain. Andrea Leadsom consulted experts throughout 2021 to produce her Early Years Healthy Development Review report, highlighting the need to invest in early years. Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, is calling for the same. The Royal Foundation, with the Duchess of Cambridge, travelled to Denmark to report on their critical early years education programme. The Education Endowment Foundation has been preaching since 2011 that what happens at home at this time promotes children’s cognitive development. 

These efforts focus not on pastel-coloured nurseries and cuddly toys, but neuroscience: a child’s brain is formed during their first two years, particularly through communication with their primary carer. Developmental progress at 22 months serves as an accurate predictor of educational attainment at 26. Consequently, messing up then impacts a child’s life: 40% of the attainment gap evident in GCSE outcomes at 16 are established before children starting school.

Preventing this disaster doesn’t need the Government to establish kibbutz-style nurseries or Stalinist creches. It does not need to step into the family home, but should focus on parents. What happens at home counts four times as much as a formal setting in affecting a child’s cognitive development. A Government wanting to promote toddlers’ progress needs to engage with their parents, prioritising equipping them with the know-how to care for their children. Yet ministers remain reluctant about intervening.

Parents of toddlers feel short-changed. Those working to pay the bills sense that they should not leave their child with a babysitter slumped in front of her Ipad; and that nurseries, over-subscribed and over-priced (UK childcare is the third most expensive in the world) should offer more than finger painting and mud fights. They suspect their children should be encouraged to speak better, listen more, and exercise self-control. But they are unsure how to achieve this, and would welcome guidance.

We need policies to supply it.  Many schools already have family liaison officers, who prove indispensable in linking hard-to-reach families to their child’s school. Crucially, they can deliver parenting classes. Parents can learn how to stimulate their child’s development and regulate their behaviour. They can appreciate the need for give-and-take and understand the brain’s basics. Feeling better-equipped, they become confident. This lubricates their relationships with their children but also with their spouses, parents, and others.

These programmes are popular, as Matt Buttery, CEO of the Triple P programme has highlighted “It would be a mistake for the Government to assume parents (and voters) want to be left to raise their children. Our online offering, Triple P Online, received a three-fold increase in enrolments during the pandemic…parents are eager to learn strategies and skills.”

Training family liaison officers is a few hundred pounds: a daunting sum for primary schools already feeling financially squeezed. The government would not have to pay, but they could nudge schools into allocating their budget to cover this investment. The Pupil Premium, received by schools with very vulnerable children, would be one source.

Family hubs, a concept the CSJ introduced in 2007, are already integral to the Government’s vision for supporting parents, and the Chancellor has pledged £500 million to promote them. They provide accessible settings for classes and – as Robert Halfon MP has called for – support for local parents struggling with bringing up Baby. But roll out should be accelerated and budget-holders steered towards investing in the early years. 

Childcare must also shift focus. The present system fails to support the most needy. It should deliver free early education for the under-twos in low income households, and not worry about subsidising a few hours (15 per week) of babysitting for well-off 3-4 year olds. Presently, take-up of free childcare is higher among higher income families; only 67% of low income parents are aware of their entitlements. After streamlining this system, the Government should spend more communicating its offer.

Spending on early years is an investment. Failure to do so affects us all. When half the children in a classroom do not have basic skills, they compromise everyone’s learning. As one teacher surveyed by Kindred2 reported, if she is constantly leaving the classroom accompanying a six year old in nappies to the lavatory, how does that affect their classmates’ learning? Every extra hour of instruction accounts for significant improvement in academic performance.

But the impact is long-term, too. It is scary that half of our Reception-age children are ill-prepared to learn, and continue to be so for GCSE and A Levels. Poor educational outcomes are associated with everything from permanent absences (as the CSJ’s Lost but not Forgotten report showed last month), through mental health issues to homelessness and gang membership. The government must learn about the way the brain works – parents’, as well as children’s. 

Georgia L Gilholy: Ukraine’s surrogacy industry shows capitalism at its worst

11 Mar

Georgia L Gilholy is a reporter for politics.co.uk but writes in a personal capacity.

All eyes remain on Ukraine as the horrors of the Russian invasion continue to unfold. The crisis has also laid bare another tragedy at the heart of Ukrainian life: its burgeoning surrogacy industry.

Commercial surrogacy is illegal in most western countries, often leading those in search of it to flock to impoverished women in India and Thailand to carry and birth children at their request.

Since both these countries cracked down on the “trade” following a series of high-profile scandals, commercial surrogacy has surged in Ukraine over the past seven years as European “customers” have sought ought locations closer to home.

Ukrainian women are paid, on average, a paltry fee of £10,000 to £15,000 for the life changing process of pregnancy, at the conclusion of which the child is usually taken away immediately. While the purchasing power of such a fee is much higher in Ukraine than in the UK, it is not enough to live off forever, amounting to just over enough to purchase a one bedroom flat in the average Ukrainian city centre.

However much we excuse these “exchanges” as the informed decisions of adults, they are predatory by definition and the UK remains complicit in them so long as it permits its citizens to participate in them.

Media coverage of Ukraine’s surrogacy “industry” since Russia began amassing troops on its borders, including pieces in the Irish Times, the BBC, and the Times, have disturbingly prioritised the wants of the overseas couples paying for surrogate mothers, or focusing on the economic impact of an interruption to the “trade”, whilst asking few or zero questions about the mothers themselves.

While articles display smiling couples who have managed to ensure a child’s safe transport from the conflict, somewhere far outside the frame, is a woman left without a child she has carried for nine months, the implications of which we cannot begin to comprehend.

The brutal reality is that any surrogacy agreement involves a succession of planned abandonments that risk trauma to the birth mother and a child that will one day have to face the fact their coming into the world involved the “renting” of an exploited woman’s organs.

Indeed, many surrogate mothers have clearly been left behind in the midst of war and their newborn babies transported to their overseas parents. In other still-pregnant women report feeling pressured by their  foreign “commissioners” to flee Ukraine alone, even if they have other children or family members to consider.

Once again, commercial surrogacy has been exposed for what it is: the exploitation of economically deprived women at the behest of wealthy overseas couples.

This is not how other contracted workers would be mistreated under international norms; but no matter what we would like to believe, surrogacy is not simply another type of ‘work’.

While many liberals, on both left and right, are quick to suggest that surrogacy is an act of charity (on both sides of the exchange) this is not the case. Couples who pay women in Ukraine or elsewhere to carry a pregnancy are unfairly placing the desires of adults above the needs of children.

Across the world, there are millions of children in need of adoption or foster care. In Ukraine alone, there are 70,000-110,000 orphans, and the government’s ability to ensure their safety was already scant prior to this year’s conflict. Covid also resulted in many impoverished surrogacy mothers being left to care for the babies they had been paid to carry as travel restrictions delayed their transport to the “commissioning” parents.

While adoption practices, too, are far from immune to exploitation, surely this is a better route towards parenthood than seeking to treat the inside of a woman’s body as if it were a vending machine, and living, breathing children as consumer goods?

Naturally, inter-jurisdictional surrogacy risks legal and moral chaos when questions of who can be considered a child’s ‘true’ parents arises. While in Ukraine, laws geared toward promoting commercial surrogacy ensure that the “commissioning” parents are the child’s legal parents following birth, in the UK surrogate mothers are automatically considered the child’s parent.

In 2019, ABC reported on a three-year-old girl called Bridget, living in Kiev’s Sonechko Children’s Home. Carried by a surrogate mother from war-torn Donetsk, Bridget had been abandoned by her biological American parents after her premature birth left her with several physical and intellectual disabilities. According to ABC, they even demanded she be removed from life support while struggling with postpartum health issues. The nurse who cares for Bridget has also attempted to contact her parents more recently but to no avail.

This is the direct result of treating children like material things that can be bought, sold, and viewed as defective if they do not fit the expectations laid out in a contract.

The proliferation of commercial surrogacy suggests many of us have become so disconnected from biological realities that we are willing to believe that it is possible to ‘outsource’ the most intimate biological processes, just as we might hire an accountant to do our paperwork, or relocate a manufacturing plant to a newly industrialising economy.

If the British government is happy to keep commercial surrogacy illegal here, why does it think it is okay for British citizens to exploit foreign women?

Are we okay with the complications and trauma inherent in the commercial surrogacy ‘contract’ to rumble, as long as it does so in a distant country we view as somehow beneath our own in the global hierarchy? Why are we allowing corporations to profit both off the desperation of emotional parents struggling with infertility as well as women in poverty?

As surrogacy rates increase, the Law Commission of England Wales are reviewing its related laws. But while couples who have fertility issues should receive our utmost sympathy, a wish to raise and care for children should never be an excuse to commoditize overwhelmingly vulnerable women and degrade the reality of the mother-child bond.

This has already happened for too long in Ukraine. Its people deserve real stability and economic growth, not to be treated like objects.

Teresa O’Neill: Our budget will make Bexley even better

8 Mar

Cllr Teresa O’Neill  is the Leader of Bexley Council.

Tomorrow Bexley’s Conservative Councillors will formally present our budget for 2022/23 – a budget will increase funding for key services such as waste collections and street cleaning, maintaining our parks, complete the building of two new libraries, increase the amount of affordable housing across the Borough and further flood prevention measures.

It has been a difficult two years for everyone, with the pandemic hitting all Councils hard. Plans for 2020 and 2021 had to be changed at a moment’s notice but we’re proud of how our Council responded – setting up a hot food delivery network to ensure vulnerable or isolated residents received a meal every day, or providing millions of pounds of support for local businesses to keep them afloat.

And while we have watched neighbouring Labour Councils like Greenwich make savage cuts to key services or in the case of Croydon go bankrupt, here we have done what all good Conservative Councils do; roll up our sleeves, work hard and see what we need to do.

Yes, we have increased Council Tax but we really want the Government to get on with the fair funding review – if we received the same level of funding as Greenwich, we could actually reduce our Council Tax bills by 70 per cent tomorrow. And while we propose a 1.9 per cent increase this year, residents remember when Labour ran Bexley they increased Council Tax by 40 per cent in 4 years and they can see Mayor Sadiq Khan’s 8.8 per cent rise too while the funding from the Mayor for transport has been cut drastically.

As a result of that work, our 2021/22 budget was in balance and we were able to increase funding for key services; our 2022 budget goes much further, with an eight per cent increase in the overall budget.

This means more investment for highways maintenance and street cleaning, but also for the things that make Bexley such a great place – over the last few weeks we have planted over 61,000 new daffodil bulbs across the Borough, ready for spring.

But it’s not all about being a financially responsible Council, independently rated as being efficient and effective, continuing to deliver value for money. It’s not all about being, as CIPFA noted, having political leadership with understands the challenges facing the organisation with clear commitment to manage the medium term financial resilience of the organisation, important as that is.

It’s not just about building new libraries, having an outstanding children’s services, opening Changing Rooms bathrooms for people with disabilities, being the only Council in the country to open two new schools for children with special needs or leading London for recycling for the 17th year in a row.

It’s also about keeping our word. Every single manifesto pledge we made in 2018 has been delivered in full, exactly as promised.

In fact, we have delivered every manifesto pledge since being elected in 2006.

And all of these achievements also have one other thing in common. All of them were opposed by Bexley’s Labour Councillors. They voted against funding two new SEN schools, opposed the investment in new libraries and new playgrounds; and Labour opposed high quality new affordable housing and homes for first-time buyers built in  the Borough, and have even pledged to scrap plans for new mixed tenure developments that create communities and offer homes for all.

We go into this year’s election with a demonstrably proven record for delivering for residents, delivering what we promise and delivering for our Borough. Residents know when we say we will do something, we do it.

And that’s what we will continue to do if given the honour of running Bexley again in May.

 

How the Government could help workers buy homes, build families, and save for retirement

3 Mar

This country is governed primarily for the benefit of older people, and electoral demographics mean that this is unlikely to change anytime soon. So totally does this cohort dominate the discourse that even those protesting against it, via Exinction Rebellion or Insulate Britain, tend to be old as well.

But there’s only so often one can write the same despairing piece; only so many times one can point out that the Conservatives are storing up a richly-deserved reckoning for themselves if they continue to pretend that the South doesn’t need millions of new homes.

So let’s instead indulge in a little fantasy and wonder what, in some mirror universe, a pro-young people policy agenda might look like.

Housing

Obviously, comprehensive planning reform and a major housebuilding boom would be idea. But absent some sort of putsch, the Town & Country Planning Act and all its malignant consequences will be with us for some time to come.

But even so, there are definite positive steps that ministers could take to make it just that little bit easier for people to get onto the housing ladder.

Take the Lifetime ISA (LISA). Introduced in 2016, this is a specialised savings vehicle intended to help young people save for their first home (or retirement). For every £4 you put into it (up to £4000pa) the Government puts in £1. Seems pretty good, right?

Now, let’s play a game. When LISAs were introduced, the cash value of the home you could buy with them was capped at £450,000. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in December 2016 the average UK house price was £220,000 (£236,424 in England).

In December 2021, the ONS put the UK figure at £275,000 (£293,339 in England). A substantial increase in each case. Now guess: what was the 2021 value of the LISA house price limit?

If you picked ‘£450,000’ then well done, there’s no getting anything past you. Between December 2016 and December 2021, the UK average house price rose by 25 per cent (24.1 per cent on the English values). The power of the official savings vehicle, not at all.

Bonus points if you noticed that neither of those sets of averages includes London. The average property value in London in 2016 was £483,803 – already over the limit – and in 2021 stood at £521,146. There is, of course, no London Weighting on the LISA limit.

So the first plank of our agenda would be simple: take the existing vehicles the Government has set up to help young people save for housing and make them fit for purpose. If there is any reason to keep the maximum value cap, index-link it (from 2016, obviously). Apply a London-specific or regional weighting to it, as we do with public sector pay, so that it reflects the state of the market.

And in order to help family formation, allow couples buying together to pool their value caps. So, for example, two professionals buying together could max out on a £900,000 property, i.e. the price of a family home near a school that cost less than £300,000 in 2000, in the sort of town I grew up in.

Families

Speaking of families, the next thing our pro-youth ministry would do would be to introduce more measures which make it easier for working-age people to have children and support families. William Boyd-Wallace wrote an interesting piece yesterday about the UK’s ‘baby bust’ which set out some of the issues.

However, our ministers would be a bit more radical than simply opening up the market for childcare provision, although cutting the regulation that pushes this country’s costs so much higher than the European average would be a no-brainer.

Moreover, making professional childcare the only option, as at present, seems to be as much about freeing people up to work rather than maximising their freedom to build their own arrangements.

In our mirror universe we’re going for a system that serves the best interests of families, not capital, so the policy would probably look a lot more like a cash payment to every household on a per-child basis. This could be spent on professional childcare or, importantly, used to as income support if one parent went part-time or stayed at home. It would be completely up to the parents.

Making this system universal would also remove one of the great iniquities of the old child-benefit system that preceded the two-child limit, which was that working people faced major financial pressure on how many children they could have whilst those on welfare did not.

Social Care

Now we have a home-buying savings vehicle that is at least calibrated towards the housing market politicians are determined to perpetuate, and which better allows couples to pool their resources towards family homes. We also have a system of cash support to help them start populating those homes.

For our last trick, let’s do something about the iniquity of the current social care arrangements. Heaping taxes on working-age people to fund unlimited liabilities towards retired people is very much not on the agenda for our hypothetical pro-youth ministry.

Again, there are plenty of ideas floating around for how this might be fixed. Make older people invest their largely adventitious housing wealth in their own care; introduce a ‘bedroom tax’ on private property to encourage downsizing in areas that reject planning reform. But again, let us concede that nobody is going to be marching on the Grey Gate anytime soon.

Perhaps a sensible middle-distance solution would be moving towards something like the Japanese system. Under its terms, people over 40 are obliged to buy a form of social care insurance, but then not allowed to claim on it until they reach retirement age.

Introducing such a system here would mean that, for the first time, people were actually ‘paying in’ for the benefit they would eventually receive. It would also focus the burden on older workers, rather than heaping unjust marginal tax rates on graduates already burdened with paying off very high tuition fees.

It would also give the Government an opportunity to formally abolish National Insurance, whose main function at present is to generate a useful myth for older voters (and increasingly, Scottish and Irish nationalists, who think the rest of the UK will pay their pensions forever).

Such a list could be much longer of course. We haven’t looked at overhauling universities and student finance, or reforming the rules around noise complaints so if you move next to a pub or club that’s your problem rather than theirs. But the above would be a good start.

Stewart Jackson: Why is a Tory Government risking criminalising professionals – and the health of young people too?

21 Feb

Stewart Jackson is a former Conservative MP and Special Adviser, and is the Founder and Director of UK Political Insight.

Given the precarious position that the Prime Minister finds himself in, one has to rank the Government’s commitment to legislate for the so-called Conversion Therapy Bill “in spring 2022” as particularly brave, foolhardy or tin-eared.

The need to engineer a rapprochement with the Conservative Parliamentary Party is inconsistent with such a divisive and unnecessary measure.

It appears to be driven by a desire to placate the shrill zealotry of Stonewall – now discredited by its absolutist stance on trans rights, and estranged from many former LGBT supporters with whom, along with other critics, it seems unwilling to engage.

Indeed, the Bill seems to be a solution looking for a problem. In a meeting with religious leaders, the Government Equalities Office, which is sponsoring the Bill, failed even to identify what the legal definition of “conversion therapy” actually is, according to one of those present.

Those advocating the changes are desperate to avoid scrutiny and rush through the legislation. Nonetheless, the Government extended the consultation on the Bill until earlier this month after threats of judicial review.  It takes a unique talent to unite the fractious Tory tribes against these proposals.

Those concerned by aspects of the Bill reportedly include Damian Green, Chairman of the Conservative One Nation Group; other former Ministers, such as Jackie Doyle-Price; such middle ground stalwarts as Pauline Latham and Sir Robert Syms; and social conservatives such as Miriam Cates, Sally-Ann Hart, and Tim Loughton. Not to mention peers, faith groups, charities, the Economist and, most recently, the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

The ECHR has rightly highlighted  the need for proper pre-legislative scrutiny, and has warned against the unintended consequences of rushed legislation.  Supporters of the measure have also failed to take into account evolving research from the United States on paediatric and youth gender dysphoria, and that fact that the Government’s own Cass Review on gender identity services for children and young people will not be published until this summer.

In a nutshell, there is concern that rushed and poorly drafted legislation will threaten the basic tenets of fairness, freedom of speech, religious belief and tolerance, and the professionalism and autonomy of a number of caring sectors – such medicine, nursing, therapy, pastoral care and youth work and education.  Not to mention parents and guardians, all of whom risk being criminalised by poor legislation and activists with a narrow and extreme agenda.

For there is a real possibility that certain types of private consensual and routine conversations regarding sexual orientation and gender identity will become subject to criminal sanction.  And that it will not be possible for those charged with helping children and young people in particular to have open and explorative discussions about sexual identity and gender issues.

Thus, in the case of gender dysphoria, legitimate alternatives to radical and life changing pharmaceutical and surgical interventions could effectively become illegal. Do we want primary legislation that prevents clinicians from offering their patients the best treatment for their unique medical issues? As Baroness Jenkin has said: “when a child is suffering, it is crucial that they are allowed time, space and supportive therapy to discover why they feel the way they do.”

Such a bar would impact on young people with mental health problems and suicide ideation. Some of the alternatives would be irreversible. Government pledges of a “common sense” approach will count for very little if the legislation enacted is interpreted in a draconian manner.

These deeply flawed proposals arose from the well-meaning intentions of the May Government, and are now driven by a small claque of social liberals in 10 Downing Street – irrespective of the fact that there is already, and rightly, widespread opposition to physical and mental coercion based on both sexual orientation and gender identity, and tough legislation in place to combat it. In this respect, the UK has always been a pathfinder internationally. Who wouldn’t want to protect vulnerable people from bullying and coercion?

There is also real possibility that the Bill will fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights in regards to Article 8 (Respect for Private and Family Life) and Article 9 (Freedom of Thought, Belief and Religion).  And that the Government may find itself liable for punitive damages in future litigation arising from the practices sanctioned by the Bill.

Like other May Government landmines – think Stop and Search, Windrush and the Northern Ireland Protocol – ideas touted as common sense and the right thing to do can obscure intractable issues and bring about unintended consequences.

All in all, there is no compelling case for this new legislation, or even persuasive evidence that it is actually required.  And the Government’s failure to outline a proper case for it hasn’t helped to dispel fears of a fait accomplis, with MPs being railroaded to an arbitrary deadline.

The Prime Minister has enough on his plate already. He needs the courage to reject this proposal, and face down a tiny minority, most of whom would never vote for him and his party, not least for the health of his battered administration.