Social worker with a child in a wheelchair.
Social Work week in British Columbia. Image: BCG Photos.

There has been a bit of chat on the Twitters about the Green Party of England and Wales policy relating to care. First, in her speech to conference, Natalie Bennett announced that the party would include in its manifesto a commitment to a publicly funded universal social care system. Later in the day, the party passed a motion supporting universal free childcare. Reasonably enough, people are asking the question “how will you pay for this?”

The answer given in Natalie’s speech was a series of taxes on wealth. And, of course, I’m all in favour of further taxes on wealth. But I’m not sure that this is necessary. There is a significant extent to which state funding for care work pays for itself.

One of the most astonishing statistics which came out in the Scottish independence referendum is that the gap between the proportion of women in work in Norway and in Britain is worth more to the Norwegian economy than its oil wealth. To put it simply, free childcare allows parents and guardians – usually women – who want to work rather than stay at home looking after children can do. These women pay income tax which they otherwise wouldn’t be paying. This additional income tax makes a significant contribution to the cost of the childcare.

On top of this, of course, there are long term implications for women’s incomes resulting from the way our economy is biased against them, partly resulting from our failure to properly support childcare. It seems reasonable to assume that universal childcare would lead to an increase in women’s incomes, and therefore increase in the tax they pay, would similarly contribute to the cost of the care.

In Norway, these effects more than pay for the cost of the childcare. And its not just Norway. Economics professor Pierre Fortin of the University of Quebec did a similar study of the state subsidy for childcare there. He found the same thing: increased participation of women in the workforce meant that the policy paid for itself.

On the question social care for over 65s, I’ve not seen any figures. However, it is certainly the case that people – and again, particularly women – spend a significant amount of time looking after elderly relatives. Of course, if this is what they want, then they should be supported to do this. But often, it’s because they can’t afford to pay for care. Again, though we can’t know whether it would fully fund itself through this effect, the policy would at least in part pay for itself.

The problem with these arguments is that journalists understandably want hard numbers when such policies are launched. But as Zoe Williams argued at conference yesterday, sometimes policies don’t just fit like neat bricks into the system as it. Sometimes policies transform the system in complex and important ways. It’s impossible to say exactly how much cash would come to the exchequer as a result of women working more. But to ignore this effect because you can’t put a number on it is foolish.