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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.