Labour's childcare plans will give women the support they need to work

Our pledge to provide all parents with access to childcare through their school from 8am-6pm will give men and women equal opportunity to succeed in the workplace.

Tonight I will talking on Channel 4's Political Slot about the cost of living crisis afflicting men - and particularly women - across the country. Under this Tory-led government, the number of women out of work reached a 25-year high earlier this year and there are currently 1.05 million unemployed women across the UK.

Between 2010 and April this year, the number of women without work rose by 12%, whilst the number of unemployed men fell over the same period. The Fawcett Society has projected female unemployment may rise to 1.5 million by 2018. If we want to tackle this and give men and women equal opportunity to succeed in the workplace, then we need to address the challenge parents have accessing quality childcare.

Labour has recognised this and announced this week that we will introduce a 'primary childcare guarantee' - giving all parents of primary school children guaranteed access to childcare through their school from 8am-6pm.

I know from speaking with hundreds of constituents and hearing the experience of many friends that it's really hard to juggle full time work with a child or children in primary school. In fact, 62% of parents of school-age children say that they need some form of before-and-after school care in order to combine family and work. But nearly three in ten of these parents are unable to find it. Too many parents can't find the childcare they need to fit around their working day.

Labour's commitment builds on what we did in government. It was Labour who introduced the extended schools policy - offering breakfast clubs so children could be at school from 8; and after-school clubs so parents could pick up at the end of the work day - rather than having to make special arrangements to collect when school finished up to three hours earlier.

As a former school governor, I saw how valuable extended schools were. While I was evaluating a breakfast club back in 2008, I met mums and dads at the school gate anxiously waiting for the door to open so they could drop off their kids and get to work; I witnessed students enjoying some time before the formal start of the learning day to eat a proper breakfast, use the computers (which many didn't have at home) and settle in. Likewise after-school clubs provided children with quiet rooms for homework, safe outdoor space for playing football and other supervised activities. The benefits for both parents and children of these clubs were significant - it was one of Labour's unsung successes.

That's why it was so depressing to learn last year that since the Tory-led government abandoned the extended schools programme, 37% of local authorities have reported a cut in the number of after-school clubs locally and 44% have seen breakfast clubs close in their area.

I saw the impact of this firsthand when I held a local childcare summit in my constituency a few months ago. Parents and I discussed the government's then plans to cut the number of staff needed to look after children - an idea subsequently scrapped because it was such a terrible, poorly informed proposal. It was clear from our conversations that those mums and dads were really struggling because of the lack of access to wraparound care at their childrens' primary school.

Household incomes are seriously being squeezed. Some parents report working part time when they want and need to be working full time. Others have said they've been adversely affected on a zero hours contract and haven't received subsequent hours because they aren't available for a full working day. For children whose parents feel they have no choice, it means taking themselves to school and returning to an empty home.

With so many hardworking families being hit by this cost of living crisis, David Cameron's government should be doing all it can to build an economy that works for working people. They shouldn't make it harder for parents who want to work.

Labour has given a clear commitment for what we would do to help mums and dads. It's good news for our economy, good news for parents and, most importantly, will make a real difference to children everywhere.

A National Union of Teachers stand ask delegates 'What is education for' at the Labour Party conference on September 22, 2013 in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Luciana Berger is the Labour and Co-operative MP for Liverpool Wavertree and Shadow Minister for Energy & Climate Change.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.