As we begin NationaI Childcare Week, hope history will show that the most important talk on welfare reform last week wasn’t from the prime minister, but from Christine Antorini, the Danish minister for children and education who is visiting London.
David Cameron wanted a bit of red meat for a slathering backbench furious about Lords reform, and some newspaper editors, furious about the Leveson enquiry. It wasn’t much of a surprise when many of the ideas didn’t last the day.
Ms Antorini’s story could not be more different. It’s a tale of a social security revolution that raised living standards, employment rates, levels of equality – and middle class buy-in to the welfare state. It’s frankly far more inspiring than the Prime Minister’s speech.
Last week I had a chance to see first-hand the extraordinary day care services which have helped revolutionise the Dane’s economy and society. Walking round the brand new Damperen daycare centre in Copenhagen with Thomas Hjortenberg, the city’s Childcare coordinator, I detected a degree of quiet pride in the latest addition to the city’s network of 500 plus centres. Arranged over four floors, with high class kitchens, rooftop play areas surrounded by high glass walls and an en suite youth centre, the team at Dampern look after 140 children.
It is a shining example of what the Danish Daycare Act has created. Every municipality has to offer parents a Childcare place from 8-5pm from the age of 6 months, or risk a heavy fine from the government. The local council sets the average monthly price and parents only have to pay 25pc – around £200-250 a month. The municipality pays for the rest. In theory parents could place their youngsters in local childminders, regulated by the council. But in practice they don’t. They want their children to have the best. Copenhagen builds enough centres to cater for 90pc of demand. The council runs the admissions system and advises parents on childminders.
The Danes don’t have a lot of regulation of day care services hard-wired into legislation. But in practice, staff to child ratios are not much different to the UK – but what’s hugely different is that team leaders are generally qualified to at least degree level.
Danish childcare is not of course cheap; around £8,000 per place for the over 3s. But it has revolutionised the economy, and helped to raise the level of female employment. That’s why everyone I met from the Prime Minister to Danish parents to the Danish CBI thinks they are getting it right on childcare.
By contrast in Britain, it’s women who are facing the brunt of the Tories’ double dip recession. Women now account for three quarters of the rise in long term unemployment over the last year.
This is precisely why we should be looking to great global leaders like the Danish Daycare for inspiration in the British welfare debate. For a very simple reason. If we want an alternative to the politics of austerity then we need welfare reform that helps high deliver a high growth, high employment economy. High employment economies automatically bring more tax through the doors of the Exchequer because there’s more people actually paying it. That makes deficit reduction easier and less risky.
But this kind of welfare reform also helps solves a political conundrum: what Brendan Barber calls the ‘nothing for something problem’. Working families today pay in a lot of tax and national insurance – but often don’t feel they get out the services they need to help juggle the realities of modern life, from shifts at all hours to the need to save more into a private pension.
In this 70th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, now is exactly the right time to reflect on just how much life has changed since 1945. Those changes mean families need very different things in return for paying ‘their stamp’ to help them get on in life. The Danish Daycare Act has a lot more to tell us than the prime minister’s appeals to his core vote.
Liam Byrne MP is the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions