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.
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.”
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.