In a week when the political drama played out in Westminster has thrown every other news story off the front pages, it might seem perverse to suggest that there is other stuff happening out there that might be worth our attention. But there is. There always is. It’s just that the news business craves immediacy, high drama and colourful characters with a whiff of sulphur about them. The issue that I’m seeking your views on this week has none of that but its long-term significance far outweighs what the great Robin Day memorably described as “here today... gone tomorrow” politicians. It’s about children: why we’re not having enough of them and what the politicians might consider doing about it.
You’d never have guessed it from the latest census figures, which show that the population of England and Wales is higher than it has ever been at nearly 60 million, but many demographers believe we are entering a population crisis. There are two obvious reasons why a nation’s population might be growing and both apply to our country. One is immigration. The other is that we are living so much longer. The biggest growth by far is in the number of those aged between 70 and 74. The second biggest is those over the age of 90. The drop is in the number being born. That may not matter too much right now, but all those ancients (like me) are going to need youngsters coming up behind them. Not just to care for us when we can no longer care for ourselves, but to earn the money and pay the taxes to keep the nation’s wheels turning.
It doesn’t take a genius to identify at least one of the reasons behind the baby shortage. I was 21 when I got married way back in the sixties. Two years later I was offered a mortgage by the bank and bought a very pleasant new-build house which cost rather less than three times my salary and we started having children. My wife, who was a nurse, gave up her job six months into her pregnancy. All that was pretty common in those far-off days. Now fast forward a few decades.
My youngest son is 22. Ask him or any of his friends when/if they’re planning to marry, buy a house, have kids and they’ll look at you as if you’d asked them when they planned to win the Nobel Prize for physics or win the Lottery. It’s simply not on their horizon. Maybe in their mid-thirties? Maybe never?
But let’s assume they do take the plunge and manage to buy a house or (more likely) a flat. Or, even
more likely if they live in a big citylike London, rent somewhere to live. They’d like to start a family but that would mean one of them giving up their job or paying for child care and they just can’t afford it. Hence what many regard as the main reason for the steep fall in the number of births.
Here’s what my old colleague Jenni Murray wrote in the Mail this week: “If I were in my early thirties now, would I be planning my first baby? To be honest I doubt it. So many women are choosing not to have children before they are 30 and a significant number still don't have them by 45. Is it any wonder? Who would want to have kids if you can't afford to buy or rent a house, are loaded with student debt and can't see how you'll be able to afford the eye-watering nursery costs needed to keep working?”
One of the reasons it’s so expensive is that there is a legal limit of four on the number of two-year-olds who can be looked after by one nursery worker. In London it costs around £85 a day for a two-year-old to attend nursery, which adds up to around £1,700 a month. This week the Government announced the limit will be increased to five. Parents could save £480 a year - assuming the nurseries pass on the savings. But critics say that doesn’t go nearly far enough. They point out that British parents pay the third highest childcare costs in the world after Switzerland and Slovakia. The share of net household income spent on childcare is 30 per cent. In Finland it's 18 per cent, and in Denmark just 9 per cent.
Dame Jenni is not alone in pointing to Scandinavian countries like Sweden partly because “too often, in this country, men are reluctant to take paternity leave, and employers find mothers are afraid to take on a full-time job.” In Sweden, by contrast, employer must offer 16 months of leave which can be shared between both parents. There is, she says, “a cultural assumption there that both men and women want a work and a family life. And If a child is sick, either parent is entitled to take time off with 80 per cent of their salary.”
But Murray would go further. Much further. She is one of a growing number of mothers who want to do away with the concept of “childcare” altogether and replace it with free state education which would start from the age of one. She concedes that it’s a radical concept but it’s “the only way we can get women back into the workforce, engaged in society, getting equal treatment at work and paying tax.”
There are many other less radical ideas out there. A private members’ bill has just been introduced in the House of Lords by Lord Farmer which would allow parents to choose when and how they receive child benefit. Parents could draw more cash in the early years to help pay for nursery places and take less when their teenagers are in school.
The demographer Paul Morland has just published a book highlighting Britain’s impending population crisis. He suggests two goals should be set: First, the UK should aim to have a population that is growing moderately. This will meet objections from the “overcrowded island” lobby even though – as he points out - the UK is far from “full up”. Only 6 per cent of land is classified as developed. He says that for a healthy economy and for provision of the services we require — from tanker drivers to care-home assistants — we do need a steady rise in the number of workers, at least to do the tasks robots may never master.
His second goal is a “grow our own” policy. He writes: “This would aim to provide most of the population growth from births within our racially and ethnically diverse country rather than immigration. Nearly 30 per cent of births in the UK are now to mothers born overseas — like mine, born in Germany. There will always be a place for some immigration, but we should not be as reliant on it as we have been over the past 20 or 30 years. Plus, many of the countries we might get immigrants from are suffering from the same shortage of working-age people.”
Some of his suggestions for how to meet those goals have been mocked by columnists like Alice Thomson of The Times. One of the suggestions was a national day to celebrate parenthood . Another was having the monarch send you a congratulatory telegram if you have three babies. If you have none, you might be punished by the tax man. Thomson asked her female readers: “Have you understood? You are here for a reason. All that talk about studying science was not to become engineers or discover vaccines but so you could have progeny. Get with the birthing programme, ladies. Don't leave it too late. Tick tock!”
Zoe Williams of The Guardian was pretty scathing about the “negative child benefit” too. She described it as “childless couples paying more tax, to atone for their failure to provide the next
generation of bin collectors.” And she asked: “What if they had been parents, but had been bereaved? How to explain to people who are already contributing more than the value of what they take out of the system that actually they should contribute even more? How to sidestep the implications for homosexuals, who are likely to have fewer, or zero, children? All those questions can be distilled to one: what fresh hell is this? Is it not enough that we’re supposed to be constantly at war, generation against generation, region against region, but now we have to do breeders v the rest?”
Where do you stand in all this? Does it worry you that we are not producing enough “home-grown” babies? Are you one of those who would like to start a family but simply can’t afford to and, if so, what do you think the government should do to help you? Or maybe you think we should emulate the American who was boasting this week that he has done his bit “to help solve the global crisis of falling birth rates” by fathering no fewer than nine children? Just one caveat: his name is Elon Musk and he’s the richest man on the planet!
Rich or poor... do let us know what you think.