This is a piece I've written for the "Conservative Home" website, which has gone online today:
All parents want the best for their family. For some, that means one parent looking after the children full time until school age or beyond. Other parents want to return to work at the end of parental leave, or at some point between babyhood and the child starting school.
For working parents, the Government’s announcement of 30 hours free childcare a week for three and four year olds will provide a very welcome boost to family finances. These free entitlements are good news for parents and good news for children – we know that high quality early education helps children’s personal and social development and ultimately means they do better at school.
But there’s still a long time between the end of paid parental leave at nine months and the free entitlements kicking in at age two or three. During this time, parents who want to – or have to – work are left to shoulder the burden of very high childcare costs. And today, far too many parents find their choices about employment are limited by whether or not they can find childcare they can afford. The APPG Women and Work, which I co-chair, published a report in January 2017 which found evidence that the cost of childcare is one of the biggest deterrents for women to go back to work.
New research from the Family and Childcare Trust shows just how much pressure childcare costs are placing on family finances: on average, parents of children under two are paying £117 for 25 hours a week of nursery, or £225 a week if they need full time care. Average prices are even higher in London and the South East, reaching £291 in Inner London. For many families, this means childcare costs more than their mortgage or rent, and puts a real squeeze on all other spending.
Childcare should not be seen as a ‘women’s issue’ – all parents are responsible for their children and childcare costs are part of the family budget. Nonetheless, when a family are deciding whether it is worthwhile for a parent who has been out of the workplace to go back to work, they will – very sensibly – work out what the costs of childcare would be and compare that to how much the parent will earn. Families often find that the gains of working are very small – as little as £2 an hour for parents on the minimum wage – and in some cases parents would have to pay to take a job once childcare costs are factored in.
We know that the vast majority of people who take time out of the workplace or reduce their working hours when children are small are women. And even if mothers are able to return to work when their child turns two or three and get the free entitlements, time out of the workplace reduces their earning potential and makes it harder to find a job that suits their interests and experience. This can have lifetime effects – much of the gender gap is explained by mothers’ time out of the workplace and a greater propensity work part-time. It also often means that they miss out on National Insurance credits and private pension contributions, making them poorer in older age.
Part of the answer is more equitable sharing of care between parents. I’m part of the Women and Equalities Select Committee and we recently launched an inquiry into fathers and the workplace. 53 per cent of younger fathers want to move into a less stressful job to balance the demands of work and family life. We want to understand what’s needed to unlock this army of potential carers and relieve some of the pressures on mothers.
I am proud to be part of a Government that has prioritised childcare – we are improving outcomes for children and making life easier for working mums and dads across the country. But we need to do more for families in the earliest years, and to make sure all children and their families have access to the childcare they need.
Given the substantial extra investment we are making in childcare, it is imperative that we closely monitor the roll out of the 30 hour offer and Tax Free Childcare to make sure that all children can access the high quality childcare that they need and all parents can make real choices about how they work and care for their children.