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Labour Is Turning its Back on Britain's Childcare Crisis

Tribune logo Tribune 21.06.2023 12:54:19 Ella Glover
The UK has the most expensive childcare in Europe, resulting 1.3 million women having to turn down work. (Credit: Getty)

The cost of childcare in the UK has become untenable for the majority of parents, and it's a problem that now spans social classes. Currently, parents are able to access thirty hours of free childcare per week for children over the age of three, and that's only during term time. Between the end of parental leave and a child's first birthday, parents are forced to fork out an increasingly unmanageable amount of money on the UK's broken childcare system, which is the most expensive in Europe. This year, full-time nursery fees have increased by 6 percent to an average of £14,863.

Offering a minuscule glimmer of hope earlier this year, Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said the Labour Party would guarantee free childcare from the end of parental leave until the end of primary school. But now, in a move that is entirely unsurprising, Labour has backpedalled, ruling out offering universal free childcare for children over nine months old. Instead, a source told the Guardian that Labour plans to use a means-testing approach, meaning that families on higher incomes would receive less support while the poorest families would receive more. 

The move is part of the party's bid to position itself as 'fiscally viable' and make good on its promise of ensuring that government debt is falling by the end of the parliament. While it's true that free universal childcare for all children under three would require investment from the government, it's false to assume this would undermine Labour's attempt to be fiscally viable. In fact, it would do the opposite. 

Any parent will tell you that paying thousands of pounds per month is far from 'fiscally viable' for the average person. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a couple earning two-thirds of the average income, with two children aged two and three, can spend 29 percent of their salary on childcare. But a survey of 24,000 people by the campaign group Pregnant then Screwed revealed that the problem is much worse, with one in four saying the cost of their childcare is more than 75 percent of their income.

For many parents-mostly women-it's cheaper not to work than it is to pay for childcare costs. A 2021 survey by the Centre for Progressive Policy (CPP) think tank found that 1.7 million women would like to work more hours but were prohibited due to issues with childcare, and 1.3 million had turned down a job for the same reason. This amounts to approximately £11 billion in forgone earnings, according to the think tank. It's called the motherhood penalty, and it predominantly impacts women, entrenching gender inequality. Not to mention, that's money that could (and should) be funnelled back into the economy, especially considering the number of people who are economically inactive in the UK is around 9 million, with 'looking after home or family' one of the top three reasons. 

Universal free childcare, then, is a direct solution to the problem of economic inactivity in this country. This fact was proven in Quebec, Canada, where childcare was provided universally for the price of approximately £6 per day, or less than £2,000 a year. Between the years 1996 and 2011, women's employment increased from 63 percent to 75 percent, with some 61,000 more mothers in employment than before. Before the policy was introduced, Quebec was sorely lagging behind the rest of Canada when it came to the number of women in the workforce. By 2011, that gap had closed. Without free childcare, parents all over the country-again, often women-are forced to choose between sending their child to nursery and having a job. 

The case for free childcare isn't purely an economic one, either. The social implications of such an unworkable childcare system can't be understated. Income inequality gives way to the worsening of all other types of inequality, and it is children as well as parents who bear the brunt of the consequences. An injection of funding into the childcare system would also improve the quality of the system, something which is sorely needed. Early Years Education is critically underfunded. Staff are overworked and underpaid. A survey by the Social Mobility Commission found that one in eight childcare workers in the UK earns less than the minimum wage at £5 an hour, and that the average hourly wage in the sector is £7.42, despite parents forking out so much to afford it. In turn, nurseries are plagued by staff shortages, causing quality to drop. 

Childcare costs are also putting people off children altogether, with research finding that six in ten women who had an abortion said childcare costs were one of the reasons and 87 percent of parents already using childcare saying the cost is stopping them from having another child. The UK's population is an ageing one, which has negative implications for the economy. Surely universal free child care is an obvious solution.  

At the end of the day, it's hard to take Labour's attempt to appear 'fiscally viable' seriously when all that means is refusing to fund a system that would pay back enormous dividends to the UK's economy. And, in the process, leaving women and their children to deal with the consequences. 

mercredi 21 juin 2023 15:54:19 Categories: Tribune

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