Childcare: the gaping hole in the government’s growth plans

High-quality childcare should be seen by government as an issue for business and a key infrastructure priority. But ministers have nothing to say on the subject.

As the dust settles on the 2013 Spending Round, it is perhaps no surprise given this government’s abysmal record on supporting families – and mothers in particular - that the Chancellor failed to mention childcare. This is a key issue at the centre of the cost of living crisis yet it is absent from government plans for growth.

Parents face a childcare triple whammy of this government’s making. Prices are rising year-on-year, outstripping earnings and inflation; places are plummeting as a result of cuts to Sure Start and early years funding; and support for parents to make childcare affordable has been slashed since this government came to power.  This crisis is creating disincentives to work, or work more, and the lack of affordable childcare has a negative impact on women’s participation in the labour market.

Government proposals will create more problems than they solve. We’ve already had the debacle over childcare ratios; childminder agencies could increase costs for business and parents, rather than reduce them; and quality could also suffer with the loss of individual inspection of childminders. Tax-free childcare will not be introduced until 2015 and will benefit the richest the most.

Childcare is a vital part of improving the economic prospects of this country, of critical importance to the economic future of many women, and in some cases men so they can return to work at a level and pay they were receiving before having children. 

It’s time for a new deal for parents and mothers particularly, to make work pay and to improve the prospects of women in low paid limbo-jobs after they return to work. Research this week shows that more than three quarters of part time workers feel trapped in jobs unable to get promoted and on low pay. Childcare should support women back to work immediately after maternity leave if parents choose this with help at six, nine, twelve or eighteen months. 

All the evidence shows us that women who take a break from work and their careers suffer a pay gap for the rest of their lives, very rarely returning to the level, hours and pay they were on previously. 

Labour needs to think big and to think BIS. Childcare is not just a Department for Education issue. It should be a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills issue too. While early years education is vital for child development and early intervention, childcare should be seen by government as an issue for business and a key infrastructure priority to promote growth and get people back to work, linking in with BIS responsibilities for flexible working and shared parental leave. That’s why I’m proposing that a future Labour government should have a Childcare and Early Years Minister with cross-departmental responsibilities in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education coordinating support for working parents across government including working with Ministers in the Treasury and Department for Work and Pensions. Support for families should be shaped by what parents need rather than falling between the silos of government. Ensuring good quality early years education and child development goes hand in hand with getting the quality parents want to have so they feel happy leaving their children to return to work.

Sufficient high quality childcare should be used as an engine for growth. It is as important for a strong local economy as transport infrastructure and skills. This government has nothing to say on this. Labour needs to make the infrastructure and growth case for childcare to support women back to work linked to a radical agenda of real shared parental leave, flexible working and childcare to meet the needs of all families, particularly those working anti-social or unusual hours. Business has a big role to play in this and we should look at how we can incentivise workplaces to support wraparound childcare.

A Childcare and Early Years Minister working across DfE and BIS needs to make the case to the Treasury of the added tax-revenue over the long-term of women returning to their existing jobs as well as eradicating the perverse work disincentives that exist today. IPPR argue that over a four year period there would be a net return to the Exchequer of over £20,000 per parent of a returning mother, even when 25 hours a week free childcare is provided over that same period.

We should then look at using the extra tax generated from parents earning more and working more to increase up-front investment, in more radical childcare support focused on the points at which parents make the decisions about how and when to return to work, especially when their maternity leave comes to an end, or when they have had their second child. 

Labour should make it our business to make the case for better support for mums and dads to balance family life. Childcare will be a key battleground at the next election.

Lucy Powell is Labour MP for Manchester Central

A Sure Start centre in Long Stratton in Norfolk.

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education. 

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.