Last night (13 December) the government backed down and agreed to treat childcare as national infrastructure like schools or GP surgeries.
It followed a bid by the Labour MP Stella Creasy to amend to the Levelling Up Bill to force house-builders to ensure new developments have enough childcare provision to match the area’s population.
The move is a major victory for campaigners, such as the pressure group Pregnant Then Screwed, who say a lack of affordable childcare is stopping parents, usually women, from returning to work.
Ministers were initially not prepared to support the plan, but that a number of senior Tory MPs were, including the committee chairs Caroline Nokes and Robin Walker, shows the growing importance of childcare to voters.
Ofsted data shows that between 1 April 2021 and 31 March 2022 there was a net loss of 4,000 childcare providers in England – the largest decrease in six years.
Britain’s is among the most expensive childcare systems in the world. The cost of nursery fees has risen by 44 per cent since 2010 according to the Trades Union Congress. Coram’s 2022 Childcare Survey found that a full-time place for a child aged under two costs on average £14,000 a year in the UK.
If you live in England, each of your children is entitled to 30 hours a week of free childcare, but this only applies to three- and four-year-olds. Meanwhile, full-time nursery for children under the age of two costs more than half a parent’s weekly take-home pay.
As well as pushing families into hardship, exorbitant childcare costs are having an effect on the labour market. Data published by the Office for National Statistics shows that there were 64,000 more women out of work in August-October than in the same period last year, with caring responsibilities said to be the main obstacle to work.
Why is childcare so expensive? Staffing costs is one of the main drivers – Britain has a relatively low child-to-carer ratio – but patchy government support has exacerbated the situation.
Parents and carers are becoming increasingly desperate, but the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, failed to mention childcare in his Budget.
Labour is backing a greater role for the public sector, with an expansion of state nurseries and support for families from the end of parental leave through all primary school years.
The Tory backbencher Miriam Cates suggested in a recent Centre for Social Justice report that the government should scrap subsidies and hand families a budget directly.
What both parties seem to agree on is that the current system isn’t working, so if Rishi Sunak is looking to reset his premiership in the new year, he should consider starting with childcare.