THINKPIECE: Why pay for a service that's already free?

LISA HARKER, deputy director of the Institute for Public Policy Research and chair of Daycare Trust

It's rare to see signs of unbridled generosity from any government. So the recent proposal to pay grandparents for looking after their grandchildren was bound to capture public attention.

Of course, all was not what it seemed. The proposal from the Department for Work and Pensions (yet to be formal policy) was for some funding to be available for relatives who provide regular childcare support to enable lone parents to work. The primary motive wasn't recognising the contribution of the older generation - it was closing the childcare gap that prevents mothers returning to work.

Which is why the proposal is so flawed. Hot on the heels of this proposal came research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that as many as one in four non-working mothers can't work because of lack of childcare.

There are childcare places for only one in seven children under eight.

Most parents already rely on family members to fill the gap.

At best, paying grandparents for childcare is a short-term solution to mask the failings in services. At worst, it channels limited cash towards support already given free, and provides no extra places.

The voluntary sector, which provides £120 million worth of childcare services, is facing difficulties sustaining the number of places it provides.

Despite considerable political commitment to a national childcare strategy, and a substantial increase in public funding, there has been only limited growth in the number of nursery, playgroup and childminding places in recent years. The solution has to lie in directing funding towards increasing the supply of services: direct investment in the infrastructure of services and in building sustainable provision.

But paying grandparents for childcare would also signal a radical shift in the direction of public policy. To recompense relatives for the tasks they see as part of their familial duty breaks into territory that governments have previously been wary about encroaching on.

It would change the very notion "public

policy and the role that the voluntary sector plays in bridging gaps between public services and private family life. No doubt it would gain votes from grandparents, but the Government would be wise to think through the implications first.

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