David Cameron talks to two-year-old Theo during a visit to a London Early Years Foundation nursery on January 11, 2010 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We need to end the childcare crunch on our families and the economy

Families have been hit by a triple whammy in childcare: rising childcare costs, falling early years places and cuts to financial support.

Today's important report from the IPPR lays bare the difficulties David Cameron's childcare crunch is causing for parents and for our economy. The report shows that maternal employment rates in the UK are lower than the OECD average. It finds that if we had a childcare system that worked for working mothers, we'd be able to help an extra 150,000 women into work, benefiting the public finances by up to £1.5bn a year.

Yet families have been hit by a triple whammy in childcare under this government: rising childcare costs, up 30% since 2010, falling early years places and cuts to financial support. David Cameron's cost-of-living crisis has meant parents are struggling to make ends meet and it is even more difficult for work to pay. A recent survey for Mumsnet and Resolution Foundation recently found that a third of stay-at-home mums would like to work and a fifth of those in work wanted to work more hours but couldn't because of the soaring cost of childcare. Mothers working part-time earn about 22 per cent less per hour than women working full-time, with women reporting problems accessing before and after school care. The biggest employment gap is for mothers of three and four year olds.

Flexible and affordable high quality childcare can boost the economy and make a difference for mums and dads, helping them make choices about going back to work and to work the hours they choose. This not only helps grow the economy, but it helps tackle the unfair motherhood pay penalty women face when they return to work after having children. Labour is investing in childcare to grow our economy, help make work pay and give children the best start in life. Our plans to increase free childcare provision from 15 to 25 hours for three-and-four-year-olds with parents in work will make a real difference to families struggling under this government. It will give parents choice about increasing their hours or returning to work after caring for young children. Worth £1,500, parents will be able to work part-time without having to worry about childcare costs. Guaranteeing before and after school care in a local school will help parents with the logistical nightmare of before and after school care. This primary childcare guarantee will support parents balancing work and family life.

We know women who take career breaks face a pay and status penalty for the rest of their lives. Affordable, flexible high-quality childcare is part of the answer to ensuring that parents have choices to meet their aspirations for their families. There is a gap in support at the critical 0-2 years period and I'll continue to champion support for families at this crucial time when parents make choices about returning to work.

Labour understands this dilemma and is working to alleviate the childcare crunch families' face. As we move towards the election , childcare will be centre stage and this IPPR report shows just how high the stakes are for families and the economy if the government continues to get it wrong.

Lucy Powell MP is the shadow minister for childcare and children 

Lucy Powell is MP for Manchester Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education. 

Photo: Getty
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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.