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The Conservatives have made childcare unavailable and unaffordable

Thousands of nurseries are closing while parents struggle with soaring prices.

By Bridget Phillipson

Getting children up and out the house is a regular small victory for parents, whether that’s to go to nursery, school, or to grandparents for a day during the holidays. In recent months, that has turned into a much bigger challenge for parents whose childcare providers have collapsed, sometimes literally overnight. Over the past year, 4,000 childcare providers in England have closed, which is the biggest drop since 2016. Parents have been turning up with their child at nursery to find that the closed sign is there to stay. The Early Years Alliance, a group representing around 14,000 providers in England, has said the sector is facing its worst crisis in terms of recruitment and costs in 20 years.

As thousands of providers have closed, many more are struggling to stay afloat. The lack of available childcare has huge knock-on consequences for families. Disproportionately, those consequences are falling on women. The rise in the number of women in the workforce is a positive story of recent decades, but they are still more likely to work part-time, and to adjust their working patterns to family life. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) reported that before the Covid pandemic, nearly 60 per cent of mothers with children under 14 had made changes to their working patterns due to childcare, compared to less than a quarter of fathers. Amid the cost-of-living crisis, that carries consequences for family finances, but it also has huge implications for the wider economy too, with an estimated loss to economic output of £28.2bn every year.

The government’s responsibilities to children can’t wait until they start school. Both enabling parents to work and boosting children’s early development are essential. The last Labour government introduced an entitlement of 15 hours of free childcare for families of all three and four-year-olds to ensure that children were ready to start school. The Conservatives have turned this into an offer focused on working parents, but they have failed to provide the funding needed. Documents released under a Freedom of Information request show that the government knew it was underfunding the childcare entitlement by £2.60 per hour in 2020/21.

Childcare providers are facing a funding black hole, and that has meant spiralling prices for parents.

Costs have gone up for hours of childcare that are not covered by the government’s entitlement. Prices have also risen for parents of younger children yet to become eligible for government support, while more and more providers are only offering the government entitlement as part of a package with additional paid-for hours so they can cover their costs. Parents are also finding hidden costs for extras such as snacks, or late pick-up fees.

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In the past five years the price of a full-time nursery place for a child under two has risen by around £1,500. Parents tell me they’re cutting back on other essentials to cover childcare costs, while three in five say they’re paying as much or more for childcare as on their rent or mortgage. This is a huge cost for families to bear as the price of housing, food and fuel is also going up.

Even with cross-subsidising, many childcare providers are being left with no option but to close. Childcare is simply unavailable or unaffordable for many families.

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Labour is committed to giving every child the best start in life and will build a Britain where children come first. The last Labour government transformed support for families, and it will be the mission of a Keir Starmer government to do so again. Support should enable parents to work the jobs and hours they choose – the burden of care should not constantly hold mothers back or break the bank in an advanced economy in the 21st century.

That’s why Labour’s Children’s Recovery Plan would make a £112m investment in the early years right now – a funding boost currently equivalent to 21 million hours of free childcare. But as a mother of two primary age children, I know that childcare pressures and costs do not stop when children start school. The pressure to fit jobs into a 9am-3pm school day limits options and cuts choices.

Polling from parenting website Mumsnet shows that parents of children aged four to six are most likely to rely on grandparents to cover childcare need. Costs are on the rise with parents spending more on a week of after-school clubs than on the weekly food shop. Labour’s recovery plan would tackle this wrap-around childcare challenge by making free breakfast clubs and after-school activities available for every child, boosting their development and time with friends while giving parents the freedom to work as they choose.

Childcare support for families is going backwards. Free entitlements now come with rising costs, and women are again being expected to drop work to plug caring gaps. An advanced economy needs an advanced childcare system that enables mums and dads to work as they choose, helping to reboot our economy and put the country on the path to growth. Labour’s ambitious vision is of a childcare system that supports families from parental leave right through to the end of primary school. That’s the fresh start that families need.

[See also: Labour is still scared of Scottish voters]