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Saturday, September 25, 2021

The cost of childcare in this country is a scandal… luckily, I’ve got a brilliant idea to fix it

These days, going to nursery is a serious business. So serious, in fact, that once the children turn four they don’t merely leave. They graduate.

Seriously. Their nurseries hold graduation ceremonies. Before an audience of proud parents, the assembled tots – all dressed in tiny gowns and mortarboards – wobble on to a stage, to be presented with a degree-style certificate, congratulating them on their achievements in finger-painting and plastic block-stacking. For my son’s ceremony, he and his fellow scholars were taught to sing: “Don’t you think I’m really great? That’s why I get to graduate!”

To older generations, such a development may seem absurdly ostentatious. Then again, perhaps modern parents have a right to a little ostentation. After all, we pay enough.

In recent years, the cost of childcare has reached levels that are frankly eye-popping. Before they have children, few modern parents realise how expensive it’s going to be – but they find out pretty soon.

If both parents work full-time, nursery fees can cost over £13,000 a year per child. It’s as expensive as sending your children to a private school – without any of a private school’s key benefits. Because whatever it is your toddler gets up to in that sandpit, he or she almost certainly isn’t forging valuable contacts with future captains of industry. (“Tell you who we should appoint to our board, chaps. Deacon. Old pal of mine from nursery. A chap who can fashion a Play-Doh snowman of that calibre is exactly what this company is crying out for.”)

No wonder so many parents are fed up. According to a survey, 97 per cent of them say childcare has become too expensive. Indeed, a third say they spend even more on childcare than they do on their mortgage or rent – while 112,000 have signed a petition to Parliament, forcing MPs to debate the issue.

Of course, childcare costs weren’t a problem in the days when one parent – traditionally the mother – stayed at home. But times have changed, and not just because women wanted the same rights as men to pursue a career. Jobs tend to be rather less secure than they used to be, while housing costs are far higher (in the 1970s, the average home cost less than four times the average salary; today it costs more than eight times). As a result, both parents feel compelled to work.

Those who have long since finished raising their own children may feel like telling today’s young parents to stop moaning. “Don’t have kids,” they may sniff, “if you can’t afford it.”

But this sort of comment, I fear, could easily spark intergenerational warfare. “Why are us workers being hit with a massive tax rise just to pay for your social care?” the young may snap back. “Don’t get old if you can’t afford it.”

To which the old may indignantly reply that they paid towards their care all their working lives, through National Insurance. To which the young may retort that as a matter of fact, they didn’t, because the name ‘National Insurance’ is a political con, designed to make you think you’re contributing towards your own future costs. Whereas in reality, your money gets spent by the government of the day straight away. So in old age, your social care – like your state pension, bus pass and winter fuel allowance – is actually funded by the young.

On and on this horrible row will rage, with the young and the old growing ever more furious with each other. Frankly, I think it’s a row we can do without. So let’s not start it. In any case, we mustn’t discourage the young from having children. Because if they don’t have them, there soon won’t be enough workers to fund anyone’s social care.

It doesn’t bear thinking about. Thankfully, however, there is a way forward. Because I’ve got an idea that will solve not only the childcare crisis – but three other crises as well.

It’s called the NGS. Short for National Grandparent Service.

Here’s how it works. Since so many children these days live hundreds of miles from their own grandparents, local retirees will be assigned by the Government to keep an eye on them while their parents are at work.

First, this will solve the growing problem of loneliness in old age. Second, it will save cash-strapped parents thousands of pounds a year in childcare costs. Which will in turn solve problem number three – because now, those parents will be able to afford the big forthcoming rise in NI, thus paying for the health and social care of the retirees who have looked after their children. And because young and old will be co-operating for mutual benefit, that’s the end of problem number four: the ever-increasing talk of intergenerational conflict.

Now that’s what I call joined-up government.

You can read Michael Deacon’s column every Wednesday. Click here to read last week’s column

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