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 UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder