Gaslight alert! Hunt’s budget: big headlines, but read the small print! Part 1: childcare

Official portrait of Jeremy Hunt, Wikimedia Commons

If it’s not three-word slogans, it’s multi-word lies and misdirection. Jeremy Hunt’s budget is full of the latter. Let’s start with the client press’s headline grabber: FREE CHILDCARE for one and two-year-olds!

A friend messaged me:

‘Help me out here, because I’m struggling. They are going to give ‘free’ child care to 1 and 2 year olds, swamping a sector which has neither the infrastructure nor the recruitment capacity to manage the children they’ve got currently? Asking for a friend! 🤷’

As is so often the case (and in spite of the ineffectual bleatings of that bingo-caller of a Speaker of the House), most of the budget was leaked to the Tory client press before the announcement in the House of Commons. This enabled Stella Creasey, Labour MP and Mum, to make this pre-emptive comment:

But , as it turns out, none of this matters because the implementation of most of this plan would come in AFTER the Conservatives have been comprehensively voted out of power. Oh…and the people who will benefit aren’t even pregnant yet!

Hunt garners the flattering headlines, while Labour cop the cost and the challenge of making it happen. (Note that it was fundamentally a Labour policy, however; conveniently nicked, as so many other opposition policies have been.)

FT and New Statesman journalist Sam Freedman homes in on the problems:

‘Now the problems – we haven’t been given a figure for the new hourly rate but based on the overall cost for 3+4 year olds (£288m for 2024/5) it looks way too low. We proposed adding in £2bn to make it sustainable.

‘This is really important because at the moment nurseries subsidise the too low free hourly rate by charging more for one and two year olds (thus such high prices). If one and two year olds also get free hours then they can’t cross-subsidy. You risk a major supply problem.

It is also not clear how the govt propose to increase supply in a market that is currently v dysfunctional or how they propose to increase the workforce when the hourly rate is not high enough to pay more than minimum wage. So the big question is where will the places come from?’

And as Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, pointed out:

‘It doesn’t help parents who work less than 16 hours, or those studying or training and Government know poorer parents less likely to benefit – the offer should be universal for all’

Robert Peston observed that:

‘The 30 hours per week of free childcare is for just 38 weeks a year. Who works just 38 weeks a year? Slightly implies recipients aren’t expected to take family holidays (though the entitlement can be spread across full year – and would imply 22 hours a week of free childcare).’

And here’s another twist. The ‘offer’ is only open to families where BOTH parents work. Now, how do you think both parents are able to work with a baby at home? Grandparents! Yes! That fantastic source of free childcare… only Hunt wants those people back at work! Hmm! You can see the problem right there. Let’s remove capacity that does exist and replace it with capacity that doesn’t!

And then there’s this:

But the headlines…! Ah, the headlines!

Incidentally, Twitter is now full of vituperative posts from retirees asking why the hell they should pay for childcare. So, an empty main promise with a side order of division…the diet on which this current incarnation of the Conservatives thrives.