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10 November 2021updated 12 Nov 2021 5:15pm

Can you afford childcare on an MP’s salary?

If £82,000 a year isn’t enough to cover the cost of childcare in the UK, we have a problem.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Is a salary of £82,000 a year enough to afford childcare in the UK?

It’s a question that has been raised in the context of MPs taking second jobs after one anguished anonymous backbencher told the FT’s Sebastian Payne: “There’s no way I could be an MP without my outside interests. My wife works full-time, I’ve got kids and need the money for childcare.”

To the average voter in Britain, where the median full-time salary is £31,461, that might seem laughable. But, stay with me here, if you dig into the numbers, he might have more of a point than you think.

The UK has the third highest childcare costs in the OECD, in part due to its stringent staff-to-children ratios, with 30 per cent of income for a couple with two children going towards childcare. Those without small kids might be shocked to learn that a full-time nursery place for a child under two is £13,676, shooting up to £16,692 in London. With two children, that already equates to one adult working full-time, meaning any couple where one partner earns the median wage or less must decide whether it is worth them working at all. The student loan repayment rate for post-2012 graduates and the National Insurance rise coming into force in April skew this dilemma even further against work. Small wonder, then, that many women, who still face greater societal pressure than men to prioritise parenting, leave the workforce altogether.

[See also: Trust me, women don’t need to be reminded to think about having children]

It is true that the government helps with childcare costs – a bit. But any parent will tell you that the tax credit system is so convoluted it is incredibly difficult to work out how much the state should contribute, and even harder to actually get it. I’ve heard of parents losing out on hundreds of pounds because the right box wasn’t ticked when they started a new job or because of a glitch in the creaking gov.uk website. And even if you do get everything you’re entitled to, the full amount you can claim per child is £2,000 a year.

As for the much-heralded policy of 30 free hours of childcare per week for three- to four-year-olds, spoiler alert: it isn’t 30 free hours. For a start, the policy only covers 38 weeks of the year, so actually amounts to 22 hours a week, or four a day. Very helpful for people working full-time. What’s worse, the government pays childcare providers a reduced rate, meaning nurseries actually lose money on these hours. How do they make up the shortfall? By charging higher rates outside these hours and for under-threes, pushing up prices for parents.

Even so, a salary of £82k still seems enough to cover this, especially as the MP’s wife is also working full-time. The problem is she might have the audacity to work in a field that doesn’t keep strict nursery hours. Even if you can get your child a full-time place at a nursery (nurseries in some areas are so over-subscribed parents need to put their names down on the waiting list before their baby is even born), most open after 8am and close before 6pm.

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Childcare outside of those hours is another issue entirely – in many parts of the country it simply doesn’t exist. We don’t know where this MP is from, but if he’s based outside London, he is probably living away from home four days a week. Even if he is in London (where, lest we forget, a sizeable chunk of that salary is probably going towards a hefty mortgage or sky-high rent), long sittings in the Commons and late-night votes mean he probably can’t be relied upon for nursery pick-up at 6pm. If his wife has any kind of job with irregular hours – doctor, nurse, barrister, journalist, police officer – standard nursery won’t cut it.

The only options, then, are to beg for help from grandparents or to hire a nanny. For this, you can expect to fork out around £12 an hour on top of nursery fees, or a minimum of £25,000 for someone to look after your kids full-time, plus tax, National Insurance and pension contributions – which you pay as their employer.

The problem does not end when children go to school, since the primary school day ends at 3pm. That leaves parents paying for wraparound care, which is also costly and oversubscribed. And that’s before we even come to the 13 weeks of school holidays.

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It is worth noting too that, while childcare is clearly required for someone to be able to work, it isn’t treated like a business expense. Companies that will happily allow their staff to claim for business travel, hotels or lavish lunches are unlikely to be so generous if an employee needs a babysitter for an after-hours work event or an overnight trip. Fundamentally, the way society views childcare is still that it is the responsibility of parents (read: mothers), and if you find it a struggle, well, you should have thought about that before you had kids.

To return to our beleaguered anonymous MP, it is entirely plausible that a parliamentary salary of £81,932, plus the average (say) of £31,461 for his wife, doesn’t feel like enough to comfortably cover the costs of caring for multiple small children after tax and housing costs. The question then is: if he can’t hack it, what the hell are the rest of us meant to do? Maybe instead of taking a second job to supplement his income, this elected public servant should channel his energy into making parliament fix the childcare crisis in this country that reduces economic productivity, makes it impossible to close the gender pay gap, and is putting people off having children altogether.

Your move, my honourable friend.

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