Nick Clegg sits with children at the Mace Montessori nursery on September 2, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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To solve the living standards crisis, all parties need to go much further on childcare

Too many many parents are trapped at home or are only able to work a few hours a week because of the rising cost of childcare.

With the price of childcare increasing at double the rate of overall inflation, there now seems to be agreement across the three main political parties that more needs to be done to make childcare affordable. This is likely to become a key battleground at the next election. Family living standards and childcare affordability is a doorstep issue in battleground seats across the country.

Many parents want to work but can’t afford to. Among two-parent families with children, the risk of child poverty is four times higher in families where only one parent works than in families where both do. Our original modelling, published today, suggests that the incomes of families with children aged less than five stand to gain an average of 20 per cent in disposable income upon a mother’s transition into work.

Families with children who are already in work are spending a larger and larger proportion of their income covering childcare costs. The Resolution Foundation has estimated that a median-income couple working full-time with two children aged 2 and 4 now pay out a huge amount for care, around a quarter of their disposable income.

Many people who are already working would like to work more hours but can’t afford too. Surveys of mothers frequently reveal a large gap between the hours mothers would like to work and the hours they currently are. A recent DWP survey found that more than 60 per cent of couples not working full-time would be willing to increase their hours of work if the extra costs were covered by the government. Again, if their needs can be met it is families themselves who stand to gain - our modelling shows that a mother transitioning from working part-time to full-time would see their disposable family income rise by around 20 per cent.

Of course, it is not just incomes that are at stake. Childcare is also good for child development and having more mothers in work would help to reduce gender inequality in earnings. But in an era of squeezed wages and cuts to working-age benefits, work can provide a valuable route out of poverty and lift living standards for families with children.

So what are the political parties planning to do? The coalition announced extra funding in last year’s Budget to increase the value of childcare cash subsidies to families, through a new offer of tax-free childcare vouchers and within Universal Credit. The Labour Party, on the other hand, has said that it would also extend the weekly entitlement to free childcare at ages three and four from 15 to 25 hours for working families.

But if we are to support more out of work parents into jobs, we will need to go further. In most other countries with high rates of employment among mothers of under-fives, publicly subsidised childcare is offered for more hours than in the UK. Prices are often capped so that parents only have to spend around 10 per cent of disposable incomes on care. We should be exploring both options here in the UK. Parents also need high quality childcare that is sufficiently flexible enough to fit around their work schedule. It‘s vital that we address the lack of provision at evenings and weekends.

Not all parents of young children want or are able to work. Public policy that supports parental employment should not be forcing people into the labour market. But many parents are trapped at home or are only able to work a few hours a week because of the rising cost of childcare. Helping this group into jobs and to progress has enormous potential for tackling the cost of living crisis, and should be a key focus of childcare and early years policy.

Spencer Thompson is Economic Analyst at IPPR

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

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Should London leave the UK?

Almost 60 per cent of Londoners voted to stay in the EU. Is it time for the city to say good by to Brexit Britain and go it alone?

Amid the shocked dismay of Brexit on Friday morning, there was some small, vindictive consolation to be had from the discomfort of Boris Johnson as he left his handsome home in EU-loving Islington to cat-calls from inflamed north London europhiles. They weren’t alone in their displeasure at the result. Soon, a petition calling for “Londependence” had gathered tens of thousands of names and Sadiq Khan, Johnson’s successor as London mayor, was being urged to declare the capital a separate city-state that would defiantly remain in the EU.

Well, he did have a mandate of a kind: almost 60 per cent of Londoners thought the UK would be Stronger In. It was the largest Remain margin in England – even larger than the hefty one of 14 per cent by which Khan defeated Tory eurosceptic Zac Goldsmith to become mayor in May – and not much smaller than Scotland’s. Khan’s response was to stress the importance of retaining access to the single market and to describe as “crucial” London having an input into the renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU, alongside Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It’s possible to take a dim view of all this. Why should London have a special say in the terms on which the UK withdraws from the EU when it ended up on the wrong side of the people’s will? Calling for London to formally uncouple from the rest of the UK, even as a joke to cheer gloomy Inners up, might be seen as vindicating small-town Outer resentment of the metropolis and its smug elites. In any case, it isn’t going to happen. No, really. There will be no sovereign Greater London nation with its own passport, flag and wraparound border with Home Counties England any time soon.

Imagine the practicalities. Currency wouldn’t be a problem, as the newborn city-state would convert to the euro in a trice, but there would be immediate secessionist agitation in the five London boroughs of 32 that wanted Out: Cheam would assert its historic links with Surrey; stallholders in Romford market would raise the flag of Essex County Council. Then there is the Queen to think about. Plainly, Buckingham Palace could no longer be the HQ of a foreign head of state, but given the monarch’s age would it be fair to turf her out?

Step away from the fun-filled fantasy though, and see that Brexit has underlined just how dependent the UK is on London’s economic power and the case for that power to be protected and even enhanced. Greater London contains 13 per cent of the UK’s population, yet generates 23 per cent of its economic output. Much of the tax raised in London is spent on the rest of the country – 20 per cent by some calculations – largely because it contains more business and higher earners. The capital has long subsidised the rest the UK, just as the EU has funded attempts to regenerate its poorer regions.

Like it or not, foreign capital and foreign labour have been integral to the burgeoning of the “world city” from which even the most europhobic corners of the island nation benefit in terms of public spending. If Leaver mentality outside the capital was partly about resentment of “rich London”, with its bankers and big businesses – handy targets for Nigel Farage – and fuelled by a fear of an alien internationalism London might symbolise, then it may prove to have been sadly self-defeating.

Ensuring that London maintains the economic resilience it has shown since the mid-Nineties must now be a priority for national government, (once it decides to reappear). Pessimists predict a loss of jobs, disinvestment and a decrease in cultural energy. Some have mooted a special post-Brexit deal for the capital that might suit the interests of EU member states too – London’s economy is, after all, larger than that of Denmark, not to mention larger than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined – though what that might be and how that could happen remain obscure.

There is, though, no real barrier to greater devolution of powers to London other than the political will of central government. Allowing more decisions about how taxes raised in the capital are spent in the capital, both at mayoral and borough level, would strengthen the city in terms of managing its own growth, addressing its (often forgotten) poverty and enhancing the skills of its workforce.

Handing down control over the spending of property taxes, as set out in an influential 2013 report by the London Finance Commission set up by Mayor Johnson, would be a logical place to start. Mayor Khan’s manifesto pledged to campaign for strategic powers over further education and health service co-ordination, so that these can be better tailored to London’s needs. Since Brexit, he has underlined the value of London securing greater command of its own destiny.

This isn’t just a London thing, and neither should it be. Plans are already in place for other English cities and city regions to enjoy more autonomy under the auspices of directly elected “metro mayors”, notably for Greater Manchester and Liverpool and its environs. One of the lessons of Brexit for the UK is that many people have felt that decisions about their futures have been taken at too great a distance from them and with too little regard for what they want and how they feel.

That lesson holds for London too – 40 per cent is a large minority. Boris Johnson was an advocate of devolution to London when he was its mayor and secured some, thanks to the more progressive side of Tory localism. If he becomes prime minister, it would be good for London and for the country as a whole if he remembered that.  

Dave Hill writes the Guardian’s On London column. Find him on Twitter as @DaveHill.