It takes a village to raise a child, according to the old proverb. That may have little meaning for the majority of parents today, but the proper place for institutions outside the family in the birth and rearing of our children is a pressing matter indeed. And recent evidence suggests that government is grievously failing parents in many ways.
It starts even before birth. A new report, out last week from the Care Quality Commission (CQC), highlighted a worrying decline in women’s experiences of NHS maternity services in England . The trend comes in the wake of a number of inquiries into the appallingly poor maternity care on offer in some hospital trusts; it is estimated that more than 1,000 babies die or are left with severe injuries each year as a result of something going wrong during labour and the CQC has found four in 10 maternity services are providing unacceptable levels of care. This goes beyond the general resourcing and staffing issues within the NHS that have created its biggest ever crisis; it reflects a cultural under-prioritisation of the care of women and their babies that has not been adequately addressed by successive administrations.
Government policy also has a marked influence on the context within which parents bring up their children: how expensive it is to have a child, the level of support on offer when things go wrong and the ease with which you can juggle looking after your child with maintaining a career. And as a result of political decisions over the last decade, Britain has undoubtedly become a more hostile place to bring up a family.
Rising energy and food bills have pushed up the already high cost of raising a child to the age of 18 even further. The Child Poverty Action Group has estimated the average figure is now £160,000 for couples and £200,000 for lone parents. Even if both parents work full time at the minimum wage, they will fall more than £1,700 a year short of the income needed to attain a basic minimum standard of living. This reflects the fact that as wages have stagnated over the last decade, the cost of living, including housing, food and energy, has increased and government support for low-paid parents has been significantly scaled back since 2010.
Successive Conservative chancellors have reduced tax credits and benefits for low-income families with children while introducing tax cuts that have benefited the better off: a redistribution not just from the less to the more affluent, but from families with children to those without. This has undermined the financial safety net that was put in place for families by the last Labour government, in recognition of the fact that Britain has too many jobs that simply do not pay enough for parents to be able to provide for their children. Little wonder, then, that child poverty rates have risen since 2010, with almost one in three children now living in poverty.
Long-term issues in the housing market have also introduced much greater uncertainty in relation to raising children. Rising house prices mean more parents will never be able to afford to buy their own home: one in five households now live in privately rented accommodation, up from one in 10, 20 years ago. The proportion will continue to rise, with more children being brought up in rented homes. This not only has a huge impact on living standards – Britain has the most expensive rents in Europe – but on safety and security. A quarter of homes in the private rented sector do not meet the government’s minimum “decent homes” criteria. Also, renters remain vulnerable to short-term tenancy agreements, at the end of which they can be kicked out of their homes, sometimes necessitating a move and a change of school. The growing numbers of parents who rent deserve to be able to achieve much greater stability for their children through controlled rents and long-term tenancies.
The other huge financial outlay for parents is childcare, particularly for young children not yet at school. New figures out this month show Britain now has the joint-highest childcare costs of any OECD country. Government support with these costs is patchy and it is hardest to access quality nursery provision in the least affluent areas. Yet high-quality childcare provision is associated with better educational outcomes, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, higher levels of parental wellbeing and better economic outcomes for women. Modelling by the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests that investing in universal free childcare for the under-fives would boost economic growth and result in a higher tax take.
The decision about whether and when to have children is deeply personal. But the high costs involved – and the increasingly anti-family sheen of government policy – mean that many parents cannot give their children the level of security they aspire to, affecting the rest of their lives. It also likely puts some people off having children, with wider consequences for the whole of society given the higher tax burden that Britain’s low birthrate will impose on future generations. The government’s neglect of children and families has profound repercussions not only for the kind of society we are today, but for what we will become in the future.