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

Qusai Al Shidi/Flickr
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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war