As this week is National Childcare Week, there is no better time to highlight the importance of liberating and unleashing the economic potential of the tens of thousands of women in our country for whom childcare is either too expensive or not available.
Labour did much to tackle the problem of providing affordable, high quality childcare in government. We launched the national childcare strategy, which acknowledged for the first time that rather than it being a private family matter the government had a role to play in ensuring it was both affordable and available. That was combined with the creation of more than 3,500 sure start children’s centres, many of which are now at risk of closure. We devoted particular attention to supporting single parents back into work as a route out of poverty. But we could and should have gone further.
Childcare costs are rising, at a time when wages are static and the government has cut support for childcare. I am concerned that childcare will become even less affordable as demand drops and more women are forced out of the workplace. Affordable and accessible childcare is key not just to helping families but to supporting economic growth and, with it, social mobility. There is also clear evidence that high quality, early years childcare leads to improved outcomes for children, particularly those from the most deprived backgrounds. It improves access to employment and so reduces child poverty. But we also know that families from lower-income backgrounds are among the least likely to use formal childcare. Having a child at nursery provides a support network for parents, particularly important for lone parents who can often be isolated. It also opens up opportunities such as access to training and volunteering. Sure start pioneered this approach, but there is the risk that it will be lost.
The Tory argument that deregulation has all the answers is flawed. Nor do I accept the proposal to increase the carer-to-child ratio. It could be a regressive step and lead to better off families being the ones able to access the highest quality provision. The number of childminders has decreased over time, but this in part reflects the changes that have taken place within families and working arrangements. While childminders provide the best option for many families, others prefer the certainty of nursery care.
I am pleased that Labour has launched a national childcare commission to consider these issues. It also needs to address the fact that many working parents are struggling not only with working and childcare but with the need look after elderly relatives. It must consider both issues together, because family finances are often being squeezed at both ends.
Childcare will be one of the key policy areas at next general election. It’s crucial our commission gets this right and comes up with answers that ensure a balance between availability, affordability and quality.
Childcare will be one of the key policy areas at the next general election. It’s crucial our commission gets this right and comes up with answers that ensure a balance between availability, affordability and quality.
This article was originally published on Progressonline