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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:16 am on 19th February 2019.

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Photo of Thangam Debbonaire Thangam Debbonaire Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:16 am, 19th February 2019

Thank you, Mr Davies. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Darren Jones and to other colleagues, who made excellent points. I will try to do what I always swore I would and not say things that others have covered.

Both parents and early years providers in Bristol West report problems with the current system, including the cost to the economy in lost work and skills when parents are unable to take up childcare because of the complexity of the system or its inappropriateness for their needs. However, I will focus on the social costs, in particular the social cost to gender equality and the social and economic cost to lone parents.

In 2015, the OECD published statistics on net childcare costs as a percentage of average wages for a two-earner, two-child couple. The eurozone average was 14%, but in Malta the cost was 0%, in Austria 3%, in Sweden 5%, in Iceland 5% and in Germany 5%. In the UK, the cost was 55%—higher even than the United States. I just put that down as a marker for two-parent families. For single parents, there are of course often benefits and benefits in kind that help even out the additional burden of being the sole provider and income earner, but there is no doubt that free or very low-cost childcare is a great contributor to gender equality and to single parents’ ability to provide for their families.

Other Members have mentioned parents using childcare for economic benefit, so I want to focus briefly on its impact on gender equality, and particularly on its use for training, job interviews and voluntary work, which are essential for women re-entering the workforce, leaving violent partners or needing to fit childcare around being a lone parent. A single parent cannot get free childcare to go to a job interview or just to clean up the house and go to the shops, which is unbelievably difficult for a lone parent with young children. Free childcare also helps those starting up in business. Again, that has a particular impact on women, who often choose that route into employment after having children. Of course, all that benefits the economy, but there are also social benefits, which include older relatives’ ability to participate in the workforce or in other activities when they no longer have to offer to provide free childcare to enable their daughters or female relatives to do training, job interviews and so on.

Continuing on the theme of gender equality, of course men and women love their children and want to be with them, but men and women also want to provide for them, contribute to the wider world and develop their skills. If high quality, affordable childcare is widely available—the OECD defines “low cost” as less than 10% of average wages, although in the United Kingdom it is nowhere near that—that allows men and women to make decisions based on what is best for them and their children, rather than on the probable inequality of their wages, which further reinforces the inequality of their wages.

I have friends in the Netherlands, where the childcare system is far from perfect, but where there is at least a cultural understating that when someone becomes a parent, whether they are a man or a woman, they should work fewer hours, and that men and women have an equal responsibility for picking up children from childcare or school. I am constantly amazed that, when I pick up friends’ children from school in the Netherlands, there are roughly equal numbers of men and women, and nobody notices because it is not a thing. I have friends who moved to four-day working weeks after they became parents. That is the norm. That means that each child is in childcare for three days per week and with parents for a total of four, but it allows both parents to maintain their work and play a full and active role in their child’s life, as so many parents deeply want.

In my constituency of Bristol West, childcare providers and state-maintained nurseries report problems with the take-up of free childcare by families on low incomes in general, but particularly by single parents—usually women—who struggle to fit the complexity of the system around their needs and those of their families. The OECD has documented the consequent restrictions on their economic participation.

There are other social benefits involving gender. Childcare that is free at the point of delivery, such as Sure Start —a wonderful achievement of the previous Labour Government, of which I will always be proud to bear the legacy—provides many other benefits for women. My friend Jude Grant, who is now a Labour councillor, used to run a domestic abuse support service in the north-east out of a Sure Start centre. Why did that matter? She did that in parallel with a support service for women with post-natal depression, and both those services could operate completely confidentially. When a woman went through the door of that building, everybody—including, importantly, their partners—thought they were going in for a bit of a playgroup. It meant that they could get advice, information, support, guidance on developing a new life and economic support, which was often critical for those women.

Jude has told me of her memories of teaching women how to set up bank accounts and how to organise their finances—things that their abusive partners had never let them have any control over. Their domestic abuse support was not just about recovery from emotional, sexual and physical abuse, important though that was. Having free childcare on site provided both the practical support that the children were well cared-for, and the confidentiality and the reduction in stigma that allowed them to move on to safe lives. I pay tribute to my friend Jude and many others who did similar things in Sure Starts across the country. As a domestic abuse specialist, I was grieved greatly to see all those specialist services gradually shut down as Sure Starts across the country were reduced.