I am delighted that we are having this debate today, because, frankly, it is long overdue. Indeed, in the past couple of years, this place has debated wind turbines more than it has debated the future of childcare in this country. We can all make the jokes about hot air, but the reality is that our children deserve better.
I want to focus my remarks particularly on this question about childcare costs. According to the TUC, one in three parents with pre-school children are spending a third of their pay on childcare. The cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two—those children whom we do not seem to know what to do with—has risen £1,500 over the past five years. The honest truth is that these challenges are not about the pandemic. They pre-empted the pandemic; they have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
Our childcare system is more dysfunctional than the Home Office. We have to ask ourselves what we can do to fix it. Having the debate is the first step. Again, I want to declare that I am a big fan of the “Derry Girls” and “Countdown”, but we have spent more time, particularly in the Queen’s Speech, thinking about privatising Channel 4 than we have about sorting out childcare.
Childcare in this country does not work for the children, especially if they are aged under two, because they do need more than a packet of crisps and a pint of coke during the school holidays. Parents face bills running to hundreds of pounds a week for at least the first two years, often pricing all but the wealthiest out of the workplace. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds feel the pinch most of all. They are already 11 months behind their peers when they start primary schools because many of them cannot be in childcare to get that early years learning that we all said is so important. We know that that has got worse during the pandemic, with 76% of schools reporting that that cohort of children—the children from the poorest backgrounds—needed additional support compared with the pre-pandemic cohorts.
Even when the Government do invest in childcare, it does not get any better, particularly if parents have a child who might need care during the school holidays. Parents are spending over £800 a year more for after-school care than they did in 2010, with the average family spending more on these activities than they do on their weekly shop. Little wonder that this childcare system does not work for parents or for employers, who are losing talent from our economy at a rate of knots. Some 40% of mothers have said that they had to work fewer hours than they would have liked because of childcare costs, and that figure rises to more than half of women in households on incomes of less than £50,000.
This weekend alone, we saw evidence of a jump of 13% in women aged 24 to 35 not working in the past 12 months. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out who those women are, but it does take a Government who want to prioritise families—I say families, because we know that dads are getting a raw deal too. The mums are disappearing and the dads cannot be there for their kids as they want to be either.
The uptake of paternity leave in this country has dropped to a 10-year low, with only one quarter of new dads choosing to take it. Let us be clear what they are taking: two weeks. Anybody who has had a new-born knows that it takes a lot longer than two weeks to work out what on earth to do with it. Just 27% of eligible fathers are taking up that offer of just two weeks’ paid leave, down from 170,000 in 2021, compared with 650,000 women who took maternity leave, although many of them then faced the discrimination of not being able to return to work. That is a loss of 100,000 men compared with those who took paternity leave in the previous year. The number is falling.
A separate study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed that more than three quarters of men feel there is a stigma to taking just those two weeks to care for their children, let alone asking for flexible working. Where does that stigma come from? I do not know. Maybe somebody could leave a note on my desk to tell me why caring for children and wanting to have a career is a bad thing.
Employers want to be able to offer these things, because employers and businesses are ahead of the Government here. They know that offering flexible working, helping families to work and have a career but also be able to care for their children, is one reason why many of their employees stay with them.
The current situation does not work for Government or those running nurseries—those heroes we all know who look after our children. National Day Nurseries Association data shows that the Government is the biggest purchaser of places, but they are frankly short-changing the industry hand over fist. Providers are making a loss of £2 an hour on every Government-funded child they take, forcing them to cut their margins, underinvest in staff and overcharge other families to try to make ends meet.
Even when childcare is subsidised, it does not work. The estimated shortfall in funding for a three or four-year-old is more than £2,000 a year, and it is nearly £895 a year for a two-year-old. Little wonder so many nurseries are going out of business and childcare is increasingly becoming an indulgence of the middle classes, rather than part of the infrastructure of an effective economy.
In this debate, it is parents who we do not hear from in this place most of all. I pay tribute to the amazing work that Joeli Brearley and Pregnant Then Screwed, and people such as Anna Whitehouse at Mother Pukka, are doing in giving a voice to real parents. These are genuine comments I have had in the past week alone:
“Nursery fees for two kids cancel out my whole wage. My employer is consistently in the top 10 global best employers (they are great) so if I can’t make it work, god knows how others do.”
“All my wage goes on childcare for two days a week, which works out at the same price as rent for a flat.”
“I’m a teaching assistant. My monthly nursery fee for 4 days a week is £300 more than my entire monthly salary—I’m lucky to have a supportive family who help me with some of the cost, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to work. I’m trying to complete my teaching degree, make a career for myself and support my child, but my god do this government make it so hard!”
“£1870 a month for 5 days a week for me to pay childcare to return to work. More than I earn!”
“This summer it’s going to be a nightmare trying to work and find affordable childcare for an 11-year-old, 5-year-old and 3-year-old.”
“I attempted to re-enter the workforce once my twins were in reception—I had to give up as there was no childcare provision during the summer holidays of 2021. I wasn’t expecting to still be at home when the children were 7.”
“No one warns you or helps you pay £2,400 per month in childcare so that you can go back to work. I’ve always been a career woman, so why should we have to choose?”
“I have returned to work 4 hours a week to fit around my partners working hours. If I returned to my normal hours I would take home less than £10 a day, minus the cost of petrol. Totally ridiculous that there is no help until the age of 3.”
“Cheapest nursery I found within walking distance of my flat was £1603 a month!”
“The worst thing about this is that it is seen as the status quo. A justification for pregnancy and parental discrimination. So we get hit twice. No career and blamed for it too. I now work freelance and when I was hired by a client in the same profession for private work, they had assumed I had left an office to start a family.”
The truth, though, is that those experiences are not the worst thing—the worst thing is that investing in childcare is not a loss leader; it is a benefit to our economy because of the increase in tax take, the lower universal credit that is paid, and the equality, prosperity and productivity it brings to us all. Free universal childcare from the end of parental leave to the start of school would bring £25 billion extra funding into the Exchequer through those factors. That would cover 90% of the additional cost outright. But instead of investing, we have a Government murmuring about trying to cut corners by tweaking childcare ratios. I say to the Minister—he and I have children of a similar age—that, if he wants to take five kids of that age at the same time, I will happily lend him mine so that we can see just how possible that is. Our economic competitors recognise that this is the wrong way round as well. Some people claim that they have higher ratios, but we already have higher staff to child ratios than other similar countries. We have 13 children for every staff member in pre-school compared with six children in Sweden and eight in the Netherlands.
As I said, there is money to spend on childcare, but this Government are not spending it. It is our money as taxpayers. Those tax credits could be a valuable part of helping parents to make ends meet when it comes to childcare. The Government are not telling people that they are entitled to tax credits, yet the Government got back £2.8 billion alone last year in unclaimed childcare tax credits. If the Minister needs people behind him to go to the Treasury to demand that money back, I am with him, because that money alone would pay for 500 million hours of childcare as a first step towards having a universal system. But I do not hear any evidence that the Department is going to claim our tax money back so that our children can have that childcare.
The truth is that we cannot solve the cost of living crisis without solving the cost of childcare. We cannot have a productive economy unless every single talented person can make the right choice for their family about working life. A party cannot claim to be the party of the family when it is abandoning particularly mums but dads too. The Minister knows that he could have support to do this, but we need it to be a priority, even more so than saving “Derry Girls” and putting up the wind turbines.