Both you and I know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that academies were the policy milestone of a Labour Government, because we both had the opportunity to vote for them and see them introduced. So I suggest that we will take no lessons about academies from Jonathan Gullis.
The Government repeatedly argue that the best way out of poverty is work, and I for one would never disagree with that. I would go further. I think it is morally important. It is important for health. It is important for people’s children to watch them go out to work. The rhetoric is only ever as strong as the practical reality, however, and that reality could not be clearer. Prohibitive childcare costs mean that ever more women are being priced out of the labour market and out of the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their children. As we have already been told, the average cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two has risen by almost £1,500 in five years, and 40% of mothers now say that they have to work fewer hours than they would like because of childcare costs.
Against that backdrop, I was delighted to take up an invitation from the Social Market Foundation to join a new cross-party commission on childcare, co-led by John Penrose. Our aim is to analyse the stark impact of poor childcare provision on wages and poverty, and to consider cross-party the changes that are desperately needed. Today’s debate is timely, as our first research was released this week and reveals that women who had a baby in 2010 have in the decade since missed out on a staggering £70,000 almost. That is not their costs, but the income they have lost relative to what would have happened if they had remained childless—£70,000.
But should we be surprised? The charity Pregnant Then Screwed found that more than a third of mothers who return to work make a financial loss or break even, and that 62% of parents said that their childcare costs were the same as their rent or mortgage. If they cannot afford the childcare costs of returning to work, or if those costs outweigh the salaries they would bring home, work simply does not pay—no matter how many times the rhetoric is repeated at the Dispatch Box.
Meanwhile, this weekend’s The Sunday Times revealed that Britain shamefully leads the way when it comes to net childcare costs, which represent 29% of income. That compares with 11% in France, 9% in Belgium and just 1% in Germany. We are statistically one of the most expensive countries in the world in which to raise children. The problem is getting worse: the reality is that the number of women aged 25 to 34 who are not working has jumped by 13% in the last year.
The cost to women, children and society is about more than money. It is about missed promotions and career progression for women who cannot afford to return to work. It is about the consequential worsening of gender inequality. It is about the lost learning and the widening of the attainment gap because of the unaffordable costs of before and after-school clubs. Meanwhile, according to the Women’s Budget Group, the cost to economic output of the 1.7 million women prevented from taking on more hours of paid work due to childcare issues is a mind-boggling £28.2 billion every single year.
The importance of the early years must never be underestimated, but how far this Government have fallen. Under the last Labour Government, education was so important that we said it three times—and our rhetoric matched the reality. Some 3,500 Sure Start centres were delivered on time and offered a place in every community for integrated care and services for children and their families.
The situation is clear: we know the importance of the early years. We know that parents are being priced out of childcare and that an increasing number of women are not returning to work because they simply cannot afford to. We know that we have a problem in the entire economy with people withdrawing from the employment market and that the consequential cost to society is extortionate. If only we had a Government who recognised the importance of affordable childcare as the solution that threads so many of society’s injustices together.