Free Childcare: Costs and Benefits — [Geraint Davies in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 19th February 2019.

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Photo of Darren Jones Darren Jones Labour, Bristol North West 9:30 am, 19th February 2019

I agree with my hon. Friend and thank him for his intervention. It has been shown that parents—especially mums, as I will come on to in a moment—often go from working full time to part time and do not return to full-time work until their children are in primary education. They are out of the labour market for years when they may wish to be in it. That is a systemic issue associated with the pressures of childcare.

I am not moaning about looking after children; I enjoy looking after my children. However, the fact of the matter is that I also want to contribute and to have a career, as does my wife. We should not have to live in a system where having a career is a trade-off between one and the other; where the childcare system is not fit for purpose; and where our way of life does not allow us fully to contribute to the success of the economy. The system is ripe for reform, not only so that we can help families or spend taxpayers’ money more efficiently but to create a country in which we can all be happier and more productive.

Moving on to the economy, OECD research shows that moving to a culture in which men and women are able to share parental duties, without mum or dad trading off who looks after the child, and therefore creating equal participation in the labour market, would increase GDP by about 10% by 2030. Under their current policies the Government seem to be in the mood to surrender GDP growth in the coming years, so reform of the childcare system may be a welcome contribution to increasing GDP.

This issue is particularly relevant to parents of children with disabilities, who find the system even harder and more expensive. I am proud that the Flamingo Chicks charity in my constituency teaches ballet to children with disabilities because there was no such provision. It not only provides excellent services for young people in Bristol and across the country—it is a growing organisation—but does research, too. I hosted the charity in Westminster a few weeks ago, when it launched research showing that only one in 10 dads feels able to tell their employer that their child has a disability. They fear telling their employer because they think that it might impact on their career. How sad is that? People ought to be able to tell their employer that they need to claim their right to flexitime or childcare leave in order to care for their children. In order to maintain their career, they should not feel pressured into having to put their job first and hiding the fact that they have children who need to be looked after. That is entirely incorrect.

I am also pleased that several Bristol businesses have signed up to the new Flamingo Chicks employers’ charter, under which employers should proactively encourage their staff to take flexitime, if required, to look after their children—whether they are disabled or otherwise—and which encourages policies to support staff in playing a more positive and proactive role in looking after their families without it having an impact on their career.

If more parents are in work, it has the obvious benefit of more people paying tax, which, which is welcome and helps to fund systems such as these. That is especially true for in respect of properly funded childcare providers. If we have a sustainable, fully funded childcare provider system across the country, we will create lots of reasonably well paid jobs that people value. Creating a public service we can be proud of will help us to rebalance the regional economies, invest in the next generation and help families to do better today.

Some have suggested that fully funded childcare could increase economic productivity because it would give parents more flexibility around their working days and around the way in which they take time off work to care for their children. That means that we would get more output from them at work, because they would not have to take so much time off at short notice or reduce their hours to fit what the current childcare facilities provide.

The Minister may wish to refer to some studies, including that from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, that say that there is little connection between childcare policies and parents in work. Of course, some parents will choose to stay at home and care for their children, and it is absolutely their right to do so, but surely we would not wish to miss the prospect of increasing GDP, tax returns and productivity. Surely we should aim to help those who want to be in work to lead more productive and meaningful, less discriminatory and happier lives. Not that long ago, the Government started to measure happiness—I think it was under Prime Minister Cameron. I do not know whether they still do so, but it would be interesting to see the statistics.

Moving on to gender and class, we should not shy away from the fact that the childcare system facilitates discrimination in the workplace and the education system. Gender inequality is obvious, isn’t it? The Government admitted that in testimony for the Treasury Committee’s excellent report on childcare of March last year. In that inquiry, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said that women having children end up on the “mummy track”—that well-known phrase—doing less skilled work than they are perfectly able to do, for a salary that is less than they are worth.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, in its report on wage progression and the gender wage gap, said that by the time a woman’s first child is 20, she will have lost on average three whole years’ worth of salary compared with men, and will have spent the equivalent of 10 years out of work in terms of time lost, loss of progression and lack of career development. Those are enormous numbers; it is an enormous impact. Even in our increasingly modern society, it is disproportionately applied to women and mums.

In my view, we should talk more about class inequality. The childcare system has a really important role to play here, too. The Sutton Trust and others have shown that, by the time children leave secondary school, the attainment gap in terms of education, training and skills, means that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have lost nearly two years’ worth of schooling, compared with those from more advantaged backgrounds. That has to be unacceptable in our country. We know that the class gap starts from the earliest of ages, with attainment gaps of more than four months of equivalent schooling having been noted at the compulsory education age of 5.

I saw that frequently, because I used to be the chair of governors at the primary school that I used to go to in what is now my constituency. Everyone who has been a governor knows that they look at lots of data on progression, attainment, attendance and all that stuff. The primary school is in Lawrence Weston, where I am from, which still has one of the lowest levels of attainment in the country for education, training and skills. When children come into the reception class, the gap between those who are the most prepared for mainstream education and those who are the least is really quite significant. Primary schools like Nova Primary School—it was called Avon Primary School when I was there and it was not an academy—put in enormous effort to try to bring children up to the average by year 6. Primary schools do a really good job, but it takes a huge amount of effort and support from teaching staff and teaching assistants to get them there.

Then, of course, the environment changes in the secondary education system—there are more children and less one-to-one support—and the children who were brought up to the average in year 6 start to fall back again. That is when we get an attainment gap at the end of secondary school of so many years’ equivalent of educational outcome, compared with those from more advantaged backgrounds.