Ed Davey: Universal childcare is key to tackling social injustice

We should give every parent 35 hours a week of free childcare.

Children at school development centre

The message of our 2019 election review is a stark one for Liberal Democrats. Amongst many problems, the most serious is that voters did not know what we stood for, beyond our opposition to Brexit. As members continually tell me, there was no overarching vision for the country we wanted to create. 

The good news is, this can be solved. It means focussing on voters’ concerns and avoiding talking to ourselves. And it means a laser-like emphasis on a strong core offer to voters.

I want our party to stand for a fairer, greener and more caring society. I’ve already set out plans for a new post-Covid deal for carers and a £150bn Green Recovery Plan that would deliver green jobs and a green economy.

The third plank – of a fairer society – has never been more needed, with the pandemic revealing in sharp relief the extent of inequality and poverty in Britain. So, Beveridge-like, today’s Liberal Democrats have to be at the forefront of a new mission for social justice post-Covid. 

Education must be at the heart of that plan. 

Liberals have long argued that education is the single biggest investment we can make to improve social mobility and children’s life chances – but we have to be honest, that all the tinkering and experimentation of the last 40+ years has not delivered anywhere near sufficient progress for children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Equality of opportunity remains a dream as far off as ever.

There’s no doubt that resources remain an important part of the solution. Back when I advised Paddy Ashdown on economics, we drew up a policy of a 1p rise in income tax, dedicated for education, and I remain in favour of bold solutions to the funding challenges across education.

How money is spent is critical, when the focus is social justice. I’m proud of having developed the policy of a pupil premium that gives extra cash to more disadvantaged children and that this is now benefitting hundreds of thousands, after Liberal Democrats pushed it through during our time in Government. 

I would argue our success with pupil premium will be seen as one of the most progressive education policies since the 1944 Education Act.

But our new education vision has to meet the continuing gaps in educational attainment, made worse by Covid. Based on the evidence that pre-school and early years education can have the biggest impact for a child’s lifetime outcomes, this should be our priority now.

Ahead of the 2019 election, I was in charge of costing our manifesto and Jo Swinson came to me and made it clear that she wanted our manifesto to have the most ambitious expansion of childcare ever proposed at its heart. I’m proud our costed manifesto delivered her ambition.

Our plan would deliver 35 hours a week of free childcare to every child from 9 months, closing the gap between the end of parental leave and the start of existing childcare provision and providing huge savings to families.

There is no doubt it is a game-changer. It costs around £13bn, and was described by the IFS as ‘cementing an entirely new leg of the welfare state and offering a big boost to families with young children.’

We should reflect on that quote. An entirely new leg of the welfare state, proposed by the Liberal Democrats, carrying on the legacy of Beveridge and Lloyd-George whose proposals on social welfare and education were the kind of revolutionary thinking that we need to embrace again.

It is that thinking that we should use as the building block for the message we take to the country.

I want our country to be fairer, greener and more caring. When voters go into the voting booths in future elections, I want them to imagine a country where we give families proper help with childcare, invest record amounts in fighting climate change and give the 10 million carers in our country a better deal.

And when they imagine that country, I want them to know that voting Liberal Democrat is the way to deliver it.

Ed Davey is running to be the Liberal Democrat leader. The other candidate is Layla Moran. Left Foot Forward is neutral in this contest and has published an article by Moran here.

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