Communities and Housing//

How can Labour solve the childcare crisis?

Written by: Sarah Hutchinson on 1 October, 2012
Filed under Communities and Housing, Education

At the Fabian Women’s Network Labour conference fringe on Monday October 1st, we asked “How can Labour solve the childcare crisis?”  We believe that answering this question is urgent – a position shared by the others contributing to the debate, including the Family and Parenting Institute and the Co-operative Party.  At a time when wages are stagnating, the Daycare Trust has found that childcare costs have increased by 5.8% over the last year.

Yet despite Tory claims to be the party of the family, the Coalition’s response has been to cut support for childcare costs and raising a family.  The Daycare Trust found that cuts to the proportion of childcare costs provided through the working tax credit from 80% to 70% has cost low-income families more than £500 a year, and 44,000 fewer families are receiving it.  Removing the ringfence around Sure Start funding at a time when council budgets are being slashed has already led to a reduction in services equivalent to the closure of 124 centres through merger or actual closure.  For family’s caring for children with disabilities, the barriers may be greater, with childcare costing up to five times more, and a dearth of carers with appropriate skills.

Fawcett Society research on the impact of the government’s austerity policies on women found that three year freeze in Child Benefit will leave families with 1 child £130 a year worse off by 2014, and families with 3 children £285 poorer than they would have been. Raising the threshold for the Working Tax Credit to 24 hours a week from 16 hours a week will cost those parents who can’t find an additional 8 hours a week of work, or cannot find childcare they can afford to cover that extra work – there is a shortage of childcare for non-regular working hours – £3,870.

These cuts are placing huge pressure on women, and undermining the progress that has been made over the last 30 years.  Soaring childcare costs risk making work unaffordable for many, leaving couples with a choice of which one of them works.  Given the stubborn gender pay gap in the UK, and the fact that many women returning to work after having children go back part-time, limiting their chances of progressing through the organisation, too often it makes financial sense for the mother to exit the labour-market.  If we do not address these problems urgently, we risk turning back time and forcing women into the home against their will.

But as contributors to Fabiana, the FWN magazine, demonstrate, childcare is not just a women’s issue, or a family issue, but an economic one.  As well as constraining family’s ability to spend, forcing women out of the workforce wastes talent and is likely to limit economic growth: Victoria Powell argues in the magazine that universal access to childcare could add 7% to GDP by bringing women back into employment.  One of the reasons the Coalition is failing on the economy is that it’s refusal to acknowledge the effect that it’s policies are having on women, and their role in economic growth.  Labour cannot afford to make the same mistake.

Solving these issues and reversing cuts to services and benefits at a time when there is huge pressure to reduce public spending will be tough, and we will have to think creatively about how to meet families’ needs through more efficient and effective spending, drawing on evidence of what actually works.  Recognising that support for families with young children is not ‘profligate’ but a cost-effective investment in the future, we need to continue financial support for the costs of raising children.  We also need to find ways to ensure that parental leave can be shared more equitably, ensuring that women are not excluded from work, and men shut out from full participation in family life.  We need to find ways to engage employers into the debate, as high quality part-time work, flexibility to enable parents and carers to support their families while continuing to work are essential to ensuring women are not left out when the economy recovers.

We were pleased to hear Stephen Twigg MP make a clear commitment to universal childcare at the event.  Writing in Fabiana last week, he argued that we need a ‘renewed radicalism’ to build on the improvements in access to childcare and support of families made by the last Labour government.  The Fabian Women’s Network believes that to be truly radical, we must put women lives and needs, at the heart of the next manifesto.  As Stephen argued at the event, Labour’s approach to looking at all spending offers an opportunity to ensure that our work on childcare is effective and tackles the inequalities that lack of access and affordability can create.  It is great that the shadow cabinet is prioritising a Childcare Commission, and I hope that FWN can use it’s network to contribute to this work.

The Fabian Women’s Network will be leading a cutting-edge campaign on universal childcare to support the brilliant work the Shadow Cabinet is doing. In the weeks ahead, building on the success of today’s event, we will be working alongside unions, childcare providers, cooperatives, working mothers, families, operators, charities, experts to identify possible solutions for the delivery of affordable childcare.

We want to help Labour develop a narrative which puts universal childcare at the very heart of Labour’s manifesto. Childcare encompasses many issues: equality, social justice, fairness, women’s emancipation, solidarity between generations, all of them core Labour values.

Together with the Fabian Society, we want to ensure that Labour continues to be, as Seema Malhotra MP noted, the political voice of childcare.

Sign up to Fabian Women’s Network to keep up to date with the progress of the campaign, and find out about our events: