Throughout my childhood, my mum had two jobs. In the early years she helped to restock the local branch of Woolworths by night (there was usually a decent Pick ‘n’ Mix selection at home stored irritatingly out of reach) but after my younger brother came along, she became a childminder.
I’ll never forget the look on the faces of the parents as they dropped their kids off each morning — always friendly, but usually mildly stressed. You could almost hear their internal clock ticking as they desperately needed to rush to work.
That strain that mothers and fathers feel each morning is understandable, many of us have been there. Each family has its own domestic demands, but something has changed in recent years: the strain is no longer mild, in large part ramped up by the unmanageable, inescapably steep cost of childcare.
It’s something that a compassionate Conservative government can, and should, have high up on its “to do” list — enacting policies to release this specific parental pressure valve.
Britons have the second-most expensive childcare system in the world. Full-time nursery for children under the age of two amounts to almost two thirds of a parent’s weekly take-home pay in England, according to figures recently released by Coram. In Blackpool the median weekly take-home pay is £344 and a full-time nursery place costs £238 — that’s 69 per cent of take-home pay. In Newport the average pay each week is £396, with nursery costing £247 or 62 per cent of their wage packet.
The reasons for this rocketing rise in costs are well documented, as are the potentially devastating knock-on effects. Just as parents need the biggest buffer possible to mitigate the rising cost of living; rampant childcare fees and all-too-high inflation mean less cash for the everyday essentials. Food, utility bills, petrol and more — all taking an ever larger slice of the pay packet pie, leaving all too little to live on.
This is completely unsustainable. As a result, increasing numbers of those who would otherwise be economically active are choosing to stay at home to look after their children — and most of them are women. This isn’t conjecture, data from the Office for National Statistics reveals that the number of women not working so that they can care for their families has risen by 5 per cent in the last year alone — the first sustained increase in 30 years. We are also seeing a rise in economic inactivity for the over-50s, who tend to have more caring responsibilities for grandchildren than in previous generations, often retiring earlier than they ordinarily would as a result.
Improving access to work is crucial if we are to grow the economy, boost productivity and succeed in levelling up the UK. Removing such a clear barrier on entry to the labour market must be vital to the government’s mission.
Not only is it economically essential, but there’s a clear moral and political case for it as well. Some 1.7 million women who want to work are prevented from taking on more paid hours because of the cost of childcare. The Pregnant Then Screwed campaigners organised a series of well attended “march of the mummies” protests across the country last weekend. They believe greater investment and more legislative clout lies at the heart of real childcare reform.
Others argue that the answer is not more state subsidy and regulation. Public spending on childcare as a percentage of GDP has roughly doubled since the 1990s, and some believe that easing over-regulation would incentivise more childcare supply, helping to match customer demand and lower prices.
Providing safeguarding isn’t compromised, they may well have a point — as might Pregnant Then Screwed — but there are other structural reforms that should be explored.
The Recruitment and Employment Confederation believes a short-term policy that could help to provide immediate support is increasing the existing tax-free childcare allowance from £2 for every £8 paid in by the user to £4, doubling the additional funding families receive.
There will be doubtless other efficiencies that could, when the economy allows, be explored to aid conflicted carers. There is a clear need for more work in this area and for more long-term options to be developed. Jeremy Hunt, the chancellor, has taken the entirely sensible decision to delay his fiscal event until November 17 and expand it into a full autumn statement. With the extra time, part of his work could include a clear demonstration of intent at bearing down on the burdensome cost of childcare.
Rishi Sunak has the mandate and the authority to devise a truly sustainable solution for the unsustainable cost of childcare. He has rightly urged fiscal prudence and presents as a symbol of credible economic stewardship. If anyone should be up for the challenge, it’s him.
If Sunak can successfully get to grips with a problem that has eluded his predecessors then he could secure a legacy as one of the great reforming prime ministers — with my mum and other parents up and down the country thanking him for it for generations to come.