Children’s Education Recovery and Childcare Costs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:56 pm on 7th June 2022.

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Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Chair, Petitions Committee, Chair, Petitions Committee 5:56 pm, 7th June 2022

When we look at which developed countries have the highest cost of childcare, the UK always comes close to the top of the list. We know that parents are feeling it, as we have heard today. The Petitions Committee, which I chair, has debated the issue at some length in response to calls for an independent review of childcare funding. As David Simmonds said, we should not have an auction of promises. This should not be a party political issue; it needs to be properly looked at in the round.

The comments that we received from petitioners were quite depressing, but sadly not surprising. One response to our survey said:

“My wages will just about cover our childcare costs, therefore I am basically working only to ‘hold my place’ until my baby is old enough not to need childcare i.e. once she starts school.”

Another commented:

“I do not have the option to have family or friends look after my child when I return to work and I can’t afford to not be in work, but childcare costs more than my mortgage for full time hours.”

We all know that the spiralling cost of childcare is a worry for many parents amid the cost of living crisis, but the impact on new mothers is particularly troubling. Decisions that women make in that very short period have a huge effect on their earnings for the rest of their life. That has a direct impact on the gender pay gap, or what many might call the child pay gap.

The International Labour Office has found that in the UK, the pay gap between mothers with two children and non-mothers is 25% across their lifetime. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that by the time a woman’s first child is 12 years old, her hourly pay rate is 33% behind a man’s. That is appalling, but we can hardly be shocked when our childcare system is not only one of the most expensive in the world, but assumes that most families do not need any help with childcare costs until their child reaches the age of three. Support is poorly targeted, and it is letting families down.

Unfortunately, there are worrying signs that some problems for new mothers are getting worse. The Times recently reported that in the past few months, the trend of women staying in work has stalled, so we are now seeing an increase in new mums dropping out of the workplace, many of them for good. Furthermore, about 29% of women who are not working say that it is because they need to look after their families, compared with about 7% of men. The figure has risen by 5% in the past year alone. It is the first sustained increase in 30 years, and it is incredibly troubling. Some of this may be due to covid and changes in lifestyle patterns, but the increase is most pronounced among women aged between 25 and 34. It feels as though the clock is ticking backwards for women.

Women may make the decision not to work for various reasons. It is their right to make that choice, and the choice should be supported. But what about those for whom it is not a choice—those who simply cannot afford the childcare, and who give up their jobs as a result? What about the women who work three jobs and barely get to see their children, because that is the only way they can put food on the table once they have paid for their childcare costs? The cost of a part-time nursery place for a child under two has risen by a staggering 59% since 2010, which is totally out of sync with the changes in general prices and average earnings.

There is so much evidence to show that the Government’s own policies are driving up childcare prices. The free hours are of course extremely welcome to those who receive them once their child turns three, but in providing funding at a level that they know is inadequate, the Government are forcing providers to cross-subsidise by making non-funded hours even more expensive. This is robbing Peter to pay Paul, and it is mothers who are losing out as a result.

We need a childcare system that not only helps to make the lives of parents and their children better, but helps to make our economy work. We cannot stand by while it becomes too expensive for mothers to work, so that women are forced back into the home for the sake of those few precious years, out of sheer economic necessity. Early years childcare and support is as essential for parents to get to work as the roads and the rail network, and it provides a great many benefits beyond that. Until we approach it as the vital infrastructure that it clearly is, we will continue, as a country, to let down women, families, and our whole economy.