I don't want to come across as a fuddy-duddy. I know how many working women will be absolutely thrilled that they can now make use of Kelly hours, and dump their children off at school at 8am, and then pick them up at 6pm
What if mums don't actually want to go out to work?
This column likes to think of itself as pretty fearless, but there are some subjects which are so explosive that I hardly know how to start. "Hmmmm," said my wife [Marina],
when she heard I was going to broach the question of state-funded childcare. A frosting of ice seemed to form over the marmalade, which she was then passing towards me. "Whatever you do, don't say anything stupid." No fear! I gasped, and ever since I have been brooding on the most tactful way to put it.
I don't want to seem sexist. I don't want to come across as a fuddy-duddy. I know how many working women will be absolutely thrilled that they can now make use of Kelly hours, and dump their children off at school at 8am, and then pick them up at 6pm, after a long and butt-kicking day in the bond markets; and I want to assure all female readers - especially my wife - that I have no interest whatever in the days when women were chained to the kitchen sink. I believe in women going out to work, if they so choose. Our family is positively gluttonous for childcare of all kinds. But I want to enter the smallest, sheeplike cough of interrogation about the Government's policy of steering ever more children toward state-funded crèches.
The other day, I found myself in an idyllic pre-school, reading The Gruffalo to a very bright bunch of three-year-olds. They were painting. They were making boats and sinking them. It was heaven, so I was quite surprised when one of the women managers said quietly to me: "Actually, I am quite old-fashioned. I think children, when they are this age, need to be at home." She thought her pre-school was wonderful - which it is - and she was very grateful for the Sure Start funding system, by which every three-year-old in the land is entitled to five sessions of childcare per week, at a cost of £7.50 per two-and-a-half-hour session. But she tried to put a finger on her reservations. "I often feel that some of the mums just use it because they can," she said. "I think that sometimes they use the pre-school not because they really want to, but because otherwise they think they would be losing out." Is she on to something?
The British economy is remarkable - it is one of the ways we lead the rest of Europe - for the number of women in the labour force. An astonishing 55 per cent of women with children under the age of five are now working, and 73 per cent of women are working whose youngest child is aged five to 10. There are all sorts of reasons why those statistics should be a source of national pride. They show that we are the society where female emancipation has been most thoroughgoing. They show that we lead the Western world in the number of women who have the mental stimulation and self-esteem that goes with a job. From the point of view of the Treasury, there is the additional delight of knowing that all those working women are generating tax revenue and that, of course, is the Treasury's idea of summum bonum, and the chief aim of all economic activity.
The only question I ask - and believe me, I ask it nervously; I ask it in the surefire knowledge that if I get the tone or balance wrong, I may be beaned with the marmalade when this article is read over breakfast tomorrow - the only question I ask is whether all women want to go out to work. I also wonder whether all women should be encouraged - as Gordon Brown fiscally encourages them - to get back on the treadmill before their children turn four. I may be wrong in this, but it strikes me that there may be huge numbers of mothers who would very much like to stay at home and look after a three-year-old, but who feel they have no option. They may feel they have to go out to work, because the family finances do not permit otherwise; not just because they need to pay a mortgage but because, like all middle- and lower-income groups in this country, they are brutally taxed by Labour.
Here, on the one hand, we have a Government that takes away 40 per cent of the income of the bottom 20 per cent of society in tax, so that young mothers are driven to supplement the family income; and there, on the other hand, we have this same Government, using the same tax money, to pay for the Sure Start and the Kelly hours, so that the very same young mothers can get out there into the workplace. It is what we call a vicious circle. I can't help wondering whether there are other ways of doing it.
To understand what is going on, you have to think yourself into the mindset of the grandes dames of the New Labour movement - Cherie, Margaret Hodge, Polly Toynbee - and consider that they have all had fantastically busy careers, and they have paid for their nannies and au pairs out of their socking private incomes. They want to replicate this for all working women, except with state subsidy, and because they are Lefties they want the childcaring to be done in state institutions, subject to all the insanity of state regulation.
Not only do all the mums who run the pre-school I mentioned have to pass loony anti-paedophile screening procedures; they must get written permission from each parent if they want to use the paddling pool, and so on. And being Lefties, Labour folk are instinctively attracted to the idea of children being held and cared for in common, as in Plato Rep II.
Since I am a Conservative, I think it might be better if we gave those who needed it the option of using this Sure Start money to pay for, say, grandparents to mind the children, and keep the children at home. Better yet, we could have personal tax breaks for everyone who has to pay for childcare. Now that is a suggestion that should win me a vote at tomorrow morning's breakfast.