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From full-time mums to nurses, Britain is failing its carers

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Politicians seem to be biased against domesticity, family and the invaluable work of carers

It is, perhaps, the biggest burning injustice of them all: the undervaluing of care work. Every day in this country there are more hours spent caring, in its many forms, than in any other activity.

In the private realm, mothers, and to a lesser extent fathers, are looking after young children in the home and sometimes elderly parents too. In the public economy, there are nurses in hospitals, staff in social care homes, teachers in kindergartens and child care workers in creches, together forming a workforce of many millions, and probably around 85 per cent female.

This care work is usually highly valued by its recipients and is deemed virtuous and vital in public rhetoric, yet is usually quite poorly paid and much of it is regarded as low skilled. And because of this low public recognition many of these jobs are increasingly hard to fill.

Why is this? The fact that much of the work is done by women, often working part-time (and often combining it with private realm care), partly explains the limited labour-market power associated with such jobs. When did you last hear of a strike by social-care home or crèche workers?

But there is a bigger reason. In recent decades cognitive/analytical ability has become the gold standard of human esteem, draining prestige away from other vital human aptitudes and functions. Moreover, as Madeleine Bunting points out in a forthcoming book on care, Labours of Love (Granta), an achievement society tends to be goal- and solution-driven, yet care is often about containment or just paying attention to another human being in an appropriate way.

The emotional intelligence required to be a good carer is closer to creativity than to cognitive skills. That this emotional intelligence is harder to measure and less respected than more analytical/cognitive skills is one reason, according to Bunting, why care is increasingly being squeezed out of Britain’s National Health Service as nursing, for example, becomes a graduate-only job.

Why is the undervaluing of care not more of a public issue, particularly in the era of #MeToo when women are wielding more power in the public sphere?

A front-page story in the Times at the end of November suggested that Penny Mordaunt, the minister for equalities and women, was going to deliver a speech shifting the focus of policy away from the corporate glass ceiling concerns of what one might call 50:50 feminism to the more family-focused concerns of many non-elite women.

Alas, she did not. The speech was all about the usual issues of making it easier for women to escape from family care work and back into the labour market. There was just one line celebrating the “invisible women” who keep our families and public services going.

Yet surely a necessary condition of valuing care work in our public services is valuing it in the home more too, whether done by women or men.

So why does no mainstream political party in Britain show any interest in pro-family policies such as allowing couples raising children together to fully share their tax allowances (thereby reducing tax bills in the high-pressure years when kids are young), or allowing mothers (and sometimes fathers) to draw on the £6 billion annual childcare subsidy to look after their own children, or making it possible to front-end child benefit to receive it all in the first five years of a child’s life, so making it easier for one parent to stay at home for longer?

There is a powerful anti-care and anti-domesticity bias in our politics, reflecting the concerns of the new cognitive class produced by mass higher education and a dominant strand of feminism that regards more equal competition with men in the public sphere as its primary concern and views with suspicion any reinforcement of traditional female roles.

The problem is that this allows the vital care functions in our society, both in the public and private realm, to remain unappreciated. Why is there no Royal College of Child and Adult Care? Why is there no £15 an hour minimum wage in social care (funded by central government)?

Why is there almost no public policy interest in making it easier for one parent to stay at home full-time before children are of school age, despite the fact that opinion surveys say it would be very popular? Why is there no “granny flat” incentive to make it easier to convert a basement or a garage into a flat for an elderly parent?

A few months ago I met a very senior official in the Department of Health and I asked her: if there was a single thing she could do to improve the NHS, what would it be? Her answer ran something like this: “I would like people to have the same moral, legal and financial obligations to their elderly parents that they currently have towards their children.”

According to Harry Benson of the Marriage Foundation, the under-valuing of care work combined with the declining stock of couples who stay together is building up a huge problem for elderly care that the “invisible women” will not be able to cope with.

We must find a way of thinking about this in a way that accommodates the more equal relations between men and women and the desire, and need, of most parents to combine family care and working outside the home. By focusing almost exclusively on the career, or job, Penny Mordaunt and the equalities apparatus is continuing to sideline the most important category of work in human society.

David Goodhart works at Policy Exchange and is the author of  The Road To Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics