Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Quickfire
21 November 2022

Don’t the Conservatives understand there is a childcare crisis? 

If the Tories want growth, they need to acknowledge what is keeping so many women from working.

By Alona Ferber

Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement on 17 November was littered with euphemisms and cloying rhetoric. And in among the “efficiencies”, “tough decisions” and “public service discipline”, the “Brexit freedoms” and the “British compassion”, two key terms were sorely missing: early years and childcare.  

As has been widely, exhaustively reported, the early years sector is in crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated problems of staffing and retention. Nurseries and childminders say they are crippled by years of government underfunding. According to Ofsted 4,000 childcare providers in England closed between March 2021 and March this year – the largest drop since 2016. 

All this contributes to the exorbitant cost of childcare in this country. The UK shares the dubious honour of having nearly the most expensive childcare of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. As has also been widely reported, the poor structure of childcare – an arguably essential piece of infrastructure in any economy – is pushing parents (mostly women, of course) out of the workforce and back into the past. This year a New Stateman survey found that 70 per cent of respondents said the cost of childcare kept mothers at home.   

The Women’s Budget Group tweeted last week: “Two-thirds of parents are spending more on childcare than on their mortgage or rent and our analysis earlier this year found that childcare fees had increased at the twice the rate of wages over the last decade.”

And yet, despite repeated warnings from organisations such as the Early Years Alliance, who say the sector is at a 20-year low, and despite thousands of parents protesting in “the March of the Mummies” last month, Hunt’s statement contained precisely nothing for the sector, or for working parents feeling the pain of rising childcare costs.  

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

There are two main issues here. First, without support childcare providers will continue to collapse, especially as they now need to absorb the Chancellor’s welcomed rise in the minimum wage. “Its completely untenable,” Sarah Ronan, of the Women’s Budget Group, told me. “Of course, the National Living Wage should rise, but unless the government increases the hourly rate of funding for providers offering ‘free hour’ schemes, they’ll force those childcare settings into an impossible choice: pass on the increased cost of staffing to struggling parents or close their doors.”

Content from our partners
The truth about employability
Why we need a Minister for Citizen Experience
Look at the person, not the CV

The second issue is that, while Hunt noted his concern over a “sharp increase in economically inactive working age adults…since the start of the pandemic”, he did not acknowledge that the expense of childcare, and the lack of it, is stopping many women from being as “economically active” as they might like.

Whatever one thinks of the levels of tax and spending set out yesterday, the Chancellor claimed that his announcement was underpinnned by the logic that investing in education, skills, and research and development was key for the Tories’ white whale: economic growth and the approval of the markets. Announcing a boost in funding for education, Hunt said that “being pro-education is being pro-growth”. There are better arguments for a properly funded and thought-through childcare system than growth but, as the research shows, and as millions of working parents know, provision for young children is essential infrastructure for a successful economy.

Acting as if it doesn’t exist is short-sighted. Not only does the sector create jobs and value, but it enables people to work, and it educates children during those first crucial years of life. Playing around with childcare ratios to cut costs, as Rishi Sunak’s two predecessors as Prime Minister have considered, is no answer. Completely avoiding the issue won’t help either.  

And if that’s not reason enough for this government to prioritise childcare, the Conservatives might think of the next election. Given that the party is losing women voters, it might start paying more attention to what they have to say.

[See also: The five climate pitfalls of the Autumn Statement]

Topics in this article : , , ,