Childcare – let parents decide

There’s just a few shopping weeks left until…the budget. And this is the budget that will finally get to grips with one of the biggest issues in Irish life – who will mind our children?

It’s a massive issue, wrapped up in the commuting and housing nightmare; and opening again the great feminist debates about who should be minding children.

There are a huge variety of options on childcare but they essentially come down to two basic ideas. One: childcare should be publicly funded, and two: funds should be given to parents.

I think that the payment should follow the child. That allows parents the greatest degree of choice. Specifically, child benefit for under-5s should be significantly increased.

Once the money is in hand then parents can decide if they wish to use it to buy childcare, to work part-time or to mind children at home.

If the money is directed towards crèches and childminders, then that puts further pressure on parents to work full-time when their children are very small.

As someone with young kids, I think that both parents having to work full time is very stressful. Ideally, there should be a job and a half in a house in order to leave time for kids getting sick, schools taking half days, grandparents shirking (only joking… really) and so on.

That type of flexibility is only open to parents if it is economically affordable. That’s where the direct payment to parents would make a difference.

Of course, many of the people who make decisions in this country are not thinking primarily of the pressure on parents. They want women out to work because there are labour shortages. I’m thinking of IBEC and their friends here.

Mary Harney and the PDs’ suggestion of increasing funding for people childminding in their own homes is also based on purely economic arguments.

Many people are coming to see that we are chasing ourselves up our own asses. We work in order to pay for things like childminding, housing and cars while the extra income earned is pushing up the cost of housing and childminding, while the trip to work means we spend more on transport. The economic gain for families is marginal while the stresses are huge.

My beloved decided to job share this year and, while it will cost money, it certainly eased the burden of childminding. Lots of other people would like to do the same but the choice is not open to them.

So the choice facing our great finance minister Brian Cowan is a fundamental one, not just an economic one. It’s interesting that the recent Fianna Fail get-together in Cavan heard from the guru of ‘Social Capital’ Robert Puttnam. Does this mean that Bertie’s’ socialism might get an outing in the budget?

Communities are also strengthened when parents are available for activities other than paid work and aren’t flat-out knackered every evening. And it doesn’t have to be women staying at home any more. I can testify to that.

Let the money follow the child and let parents decide what to do with it.