GEORGE Osborne is to give more than a quarter of a million children “from the poorest homes” free nursery places so their parents can go back to work. There really is only one reaction to this. Where are the jobs for these lucky, lucky parents to come from? Especially when it is predicted by the Office for Budget Responsibility that more than 700,000 posts will be lost in the public sector alone in the next six years.
Although we’re talking about parents here, what we’re really talking about are mothers. And, as has been well-documented, jobs for women are hardest-hit when it comes to cuts and redundancies. Not only in the public sector, where women make up the majority of administrative and support staff, but also in the private sector.
I was talking a young woman the other day, a graduate of 25, who cannot find a permanent accountancy job. She has lost count of the interview panels who have questioned her – with temerity and possibly illegally – about her personal life.
She knows that they will always choose the bloke over her because one day she might get pregnant. Business start-ups generously supported by the Government? Great idea for women who want flexibility with work and family. But you try setting up a sustainable small business in a recession when no-one has any money to spend on your products.
And, sorry to obsess, but these jobs... In which world are generous employers going to come up with decent, well-paid permanent posts that only require workers to do them for two hours every weekday?
My friend, who runs a business consultancy in the Cotswolds, reckons that the fact the Government has apparently come out to bat for unemployed parents sends an important message to them that they are expected to work and not sit at home totting up their benefits. It puts an interesting perspective on the idea of parents who have never worked going “back” to work.
I can see her point. Indeed, at root, having always been a working parent, I agree with her point. But then my other friend, divorced with two small children, lives in Doncaster, and can’t begin to find a job. There are millions of women like her up and down the country, who want to work and be financially independent but simply don’t have a chance in a recession.
The point is, and the Labour lot were just as bad at grasping this, two-and-a-half hours of childcare, or nursery provision, does not directly translate into a fully-functioning, happy-to-go-to-work, tax-paying parent.
What’s needed is wrap-around care, where that two-and-a-half hours can be easily added to and adapted with the provision of breakfast club or lunch club to enable parents to get a decent shift in. But with cuts to children’s services and the scaling back of Sure Start, which helped families in the poorest areas, that option is becoming as rare as a Cabinet minister with less than a million in the bank.
At best, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is hopelessly deluded, at worst, he is so out of touch with reality that you have to question his qualifications to be in charge of anything, let alone our public money. Of course, there is the possibility that he thinks that in the midst of all the budget slashing and predictions of severe economic doom, this nurseries announcement will somehow be a whizz-bang vote-winner.
Surely even he couldn’t be that arrogant? Does it not strike him that his party will, frankly, never pick up measurable support from the people he is aiming his generosity at?
Those who might have some sympathy politically are far too worried about being stuck in the squeezed middle to have much concern for anyone else. And in terms of political philosophy – remember that? – I can’t really see how forcing women out of the door and into work squares with other idealistic aims to encourage them to stay at home and operate traditional family units to mend Broken Britain. This scheme, which will extend to about 40 per cent of two-year-olds, will cost £380m a year. What should really gall and appal is the fact that it is not only likely to be a waste of time, effort and money, but we’ve been here before. In the dying days of his Labour government, Gordon Brown rolled out a similar “pilot” to extend to younger children the free nursery provision offered to three-year-olds. When the Coalition came to power, it was one of the first things they scrapped.
So, not only has this Government torn up the rule book on fiscal policy, it can also stand accused of making up education policy as it goes along too.
We can’t trust them on this, we can’t trust them on that, so we certainly can’t trust them to join up the dots on jobs and families.