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Letter to the Financial Times, Friday 26 February.

Sir, The Institute of Directors claims (report, February 23) that the UK could not cope with the European Union’s proposal to increase paid maternity leave. But there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the UK’s public finances and economy could benefit from more investment in the early years of childhood.

The UK currently spends £161bn a year tackling preventable social problems that arise from disadvantaged childhoods, including crime, obesity, mental illness and family breakdown: far more than any other country in Europe. The UK is also ungenerous on parental leave: despite being one of the wealthiest countries in the European Union, the UK spends only 0.11 per cent of gross domestic product on parental leave, offers no statutory pay at a full-time equivalent rate and allows fathers to take only two weeks’ paid leave.

Countries that invest in provisions for early childhood, including full-time equivalent paid parental leave and universal childcare, tend to have far fewer social problems, and therefore save money on public services. Finland offers both parents 35 weeks of fully paid leave each and spends 0.81 per cent of GDP on parental leave, but it spends less than a quarter of what the UK does on coping with social problems per head of capita.

The EU proposals also have positive implications for gender equality. Countries that offer more paid parental leave also have a greater percentage of women participating in the labour market, who find it easier to balance family commitments with working life.

Contrary to what the IoD thinks, more paid parental leave would not leave businesses and the state “picking up the bill”, but would deliver real long-term savings, a stronger and more cohesive society and, most important of all, happier, healthier childhoods. Investing in children would be good for us all.

Jody Aked
Nicola Steuer
Eilís Lawlor
nef (the new economics foundation)
London SE11, UK

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Bookmark and ShareEilís Lawlor is the acting head of the Valuing What Matters team at nef.

The Marmot report has made it clear – for better social wellbeing we must eradicate disparities in education, income and health.

Successive reviews and reports have consistently told us two things: that we live in an increasingly polarised society and that this is damaging to our social wellbeing. The latest – yesterday’s Marmot review – supports a widely held view that inequalities of health, education, income and opportunity are all inter-related, and that better education leads to longer, healthier lives, and educational attainment itself is affected by income inequality.

Sir Michael Marmot was commissioned to review health inequalities but his recommendations range from investments in early years to an increase in the minimum wage. This comes hot on the heels of the National Equality Panel report on income inequality and the launch of policy positions by all three political parties on the issue. Inequality is no longer an embarrassing legacy of old Labour; instead, all three parties are now falling over themselves to profess their concern. This raises an intriguing question: after decades of tolerating the rise and maintenance of high inequalities, do we now face the prospect of an election fought around the issue?

Social problems are often economic in their origin, and reforming the system itself is the most powerful policy tool that we have at our disposal. A truly preventative approach starts with the structures and institutions that shape our lives: the destabilising income inequalities, the spatial concentrations of unemployment and poverty, the focus on growth as a proxy for social welfare to the neglect of other outcomes.

Late last year we at the new economics foundation produced a report that looked at the economic case for investing in early years. We calculated that by 2030 savings of about £400bn could be made in return for big investments now in universal childcare, extended parental leave and an holistic suite of preventative services. The response from policy-makers and commentators was that it was “too ambitious”. It is a sobering thought that it is too ambitious for one of the world’s biggest economies to aim for outcomes for children similar to its less well off European neighbours.

Inequality is not inevitable. But in the absence of countervailing forces trends such as globalisation, changing demographics and family structure will increase it. Yet, other countries manage to counteract these forces, whether it’s childcare in Sweden, education in the Netherlands, or land redistribution in South Korea. Labour has of course tried (a bit), and it has identified many of the right points of intervention. The problem is that it either didn’t go far enough (not indexing the minimum wage to incomes) or it left key drivers untouched (industrial policy).

Tackling inequality, at least in the public imagination, is overly synonymous with redistribution through the tax and benefit system. Discussion of the forces that influence different wages is notably absent, which might suggest that people think that the pre-tax distribution of incomes is broadly speaking “fair”. But the fact that a senior banker can earn 4,400 times what a nursery worker earns is not fair and is not an accident. It is in opening up this debate and in helping to highlight the determinants of inequality that the Marmot report is so welcome. The research is in, the arguments have been won, now it is time to act on them.

Bookmark and ShareSaamah Abdallah is a researcher at nef‘s Centre for Well-being.

What solution do primary school children propose for the high energy use involved in floodlighting football matches? Simple – stop playing matches at night. Of course, such a change would require greater working flexibility, so that typical working hours don’t get in the way of spectators getting to the match, but we needn’t expect primary school children to get into these details…

Working with three local authorities in Wales (Caerphilly, Torfaen and Carmarthenshire), nef is developing a website for children on how to live good lives that don’t cost the Earth. So as to get a better picture of what makes children happy, Jody Aked and I have been running workshops with children about happiness and sustainability. We’ve discovered a quiet revolution. In schools around the country, children are getting the environmental issues in a way that makes Swampy look like Susan Palin.  They spout facts about recycling, they name and shame energy-guzzling teachers, and – ok – she said carbon ninoxide instead of carbon monoxide, but I still think knowing about either is pretty impressive for a 9 year old.

And do they get the message about well-being?  Do they believe that you can have a good life without costing the Earth.  Here the message is a bit more mixed.  Yes, some children highlighted receiving an iPod or playing on their Playstation as the last moment they felt ‘on top of the world’.  But many mentioned  scoring goals, acting in a play, or simply the snow. And when we asked them to give their top tip for feeling happier whilst saving the planet, they had no difficulty – many bigged up turning off the telly, and doing sport.  But only during the day of course.

Bookmark and ShareSusan Lee is public policy offer at nef‘s Centre for Well-being.

Product placement abounds on US series American Idol

Last year, the Government announced that it was considering permitting product placement on British television programmes shown on commerical channels. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport have opened a consultation on the matter, and last week nef submitted a response calling for a continued universal ban on product placement. At nef, we’re concerned about the increasing domination of consumerist messages in our lives. Overconsumption is driving ecological collapse and climate change, while also distracting us from more reliable ways to well-being and life satisfaction. But like the British Medical Association, the British Heart Foundation and the National Union of Teachers, we’re also concerned about the effects of advertising on the health and well-being of children.

When the Government announced the plans, it did promise not to allow product placement on children’s programmes. But the problem, of course, is that children don’t just watch children’s TV.  According to research by Ofcom, the industry regulator, children spend just over half their viewing time watching programmes made for adults. Talent shows like The X Factor is an obvious example. In the US, American Idol, featured a staggering 4,349 product placements during 2007 according to industry sources. Unless we continue the universal ban on product placement, there is no way to protect children from increased advertising.

The estimated revenue to be gained by allowing for product placement on British TV programmes – between £25m and £140m annually – doesn’t appear to be high enough to really warrant product placement on our television screens.  This projected annual value of the product placement industry within British commercial television is low compared with, for example, the BBC’s annual income from the licence fee which raised £3.4bn in the 2008-09 financial year. By allowing product placement in British television programmes for such a price it could damage the value of commercial television due to a possible loss of trust between the public and the television programmes that they watch.  This loss of trust – caused by oral or visual product placement which could affect a programme’s editorial content, storyline or direction – would have a detrimental effect in that people may become increasingly cynical about the content and integrity of television programmes.  And there could be confusion about the distinction between editorial and advertising content in programmes.

Instead of giving companies new opportunities to sell to us, we should be looking for opportunities to limit the amount of advertising within society.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport only held a consultation on this issue in 2008.  However, due to lobbying by some of the commercial television providers in the UK, the Department has decided to ask for views again as they are ‘reconsidering’ their position and are ‘minded to permit product placement’.  But one gets the feeling that it might already be a done deal.

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.