Demos’s “family-friendly” policies expand state intervention and raise business costs

The attractiveness of the coalition to many of us was that we would get determined action to shrink the size of the state and to refocus on what government needed to do rather than perpetually interfering in new areas.

This isn’t happening. Instead we seem to be expanding into yet more areas of intervention and direct or indirect cost to business and the taxpayer.

Today we have news of two more new “family friendly” initiatives, a report by Demos (sponsored by the Children’s Commissioner for England and Nick Clegg) arguing for a further expansion of flexible working, and a report for ministers produced by Labour MP Graham Allen, calling for a sort of national curriculum for infants.

The 270-page Demos report claims that inflexible and stressful jobs are leaving parents increasingly racked with guilt and distant from their children. It draws our attention to some well-known labour market trends – that fathers work longer hours than men without children and that the number of working mothers continue to rise – and puts a negative spin on this, backing it up with a survey and  case studies which suggest that parents feel guilty about not spending more time with their children. The recommendations include transferable parental leave, “encouraging” (with what sanction?) firms to experiment with flexible working, keeping Sure Start centres open, extra money for community organisers and parenting refresher classes.

Enhanced parental leave and flexible working potentially add to the costs of business, while the other proposals increase public spending. In the current climate you need a strong case to argue for this. I’m not sure Demos have it. Fathers work longer hours when children come along because they wish to boost family income in a tax system which is biased in favour of two-earner families and where tax rates have been increasing. Despite this, evidence suggests that today’s fathers work shorter hours than a generation ago, spend more time with their children and do more household work. Women return to work because they want to and because it boosts family incomes in the long run. Today’s work may be stressful, but it’s a darned sight less exhausting, dangerous and boring than fifty years ago.

Parents – and I speak as a recent one, second time around – are always worried about getting things wrong.  But it is not clear how we could change always-evolving parental behaviour, even if we wanted to and we knew precisely what worked in the complex business of bringing up children. Nevertheless, yet again public money is being used to produce arguments for spending more public money to no great effect beyond creating more unproductive jobs.

Graham Allen argues that the government should supervise children closely from birth – possibly even during the mother’s pregnancy. He wants intensive support from parents and regular checks by increased teams of health and educational professionals to ensure parents are helping their babies “develop interactivity”. The government should draw up a schedule of “Foundation Years” to produce targets for children who are “school-ready” at five years old (an age, incidentally, earlier than that at which children in most countries enter formal education).

The scheme sounds like something out of Huxley’s Brave New World or some similar dystopia. It would be prohibitively expensive and one wonders whether it would work without harsh sanctions against those parents who didn’t want to cooperate.

The whole area of childcare, parenting and work-life balance is one with potential for swallowing up enormous amounts of money and raising business costs. Governments cannot run the relatively uncontentious area of formal schooling properly. They should sort that out before nationalising childhood.

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.