By Calum Sherwood and Cat Smith
There’s been a lot of talk recently about welfare reform, but sadly it seems to have been cover for rolling back rather that arguing a case for a progressive welfare system. A long time ago – long before we were born – something happened called ‘Second Wave Feminism’, and in Oxford in 1970 a bunch of these ‘second wave feminists’ got together and pulled together a mini-manifesto of four key demands of UK feminists:
1. equal pay for equal work
2. equal opportunities and education
3. free contraception and abortion on demand
4. 24 hour childcare meaning that childcare should be available at any time for women who worked unsociable hours
Soon after they got their first win, The Equal Pay Act 1970 followed up in 1975 with the Sex Discrimination Act. Although that’s a legislative win it doesn’t mean the demand was met, today women are still paid around 20% less than men and face losing their jobs when they become pregnant. Education is a happier tale; by 1992 more women were graduating from universities than men – however this was predominately from within the arts and humanities, while men continued to dominate the ‘serious’ subjects of engineering and the sciences which coincidentally led to higher paid jobs. With significant cut backs to the arts and humanities at universities, it appears women’s educational gains are once again under threat. Back to the four feminist demands and another win with contraception; many women now chose to control when and how many children to have using the contraceptive pill provided free on the NHS. Abortion on demand hasn’t been met but most women find they can access abortion services once they’ve jumped through the hoops of getting the permission of two doctors; unless they live in Northern Ireland where it is still illegal.
But what about the childcare demand?
Many a working parent will tell you that either they or their partner work ‘just to pay the childcare’, the Daycare Trust findings for childcare costs in 2011 were that childcare costs have typically increased by more than the average wage, the average yearly expenditure for 25 hours nursery care per week for a child under two is £5,028 in England, £5,178 in Scotland and £4,723 in Wales. Worryingly, some 60% of Family Information Services across Britain said that parents had reported a lack of childcare in their area during the past twelve months, with only 12% reporting there was sufficient childcare to meet the needs of parents working atypical hours across their local authority.
Is the demand for 24-hour access to safe childcare a demand whose time has come? We have a National Health Service, why not a National Childcare Service? While we had something like this during World War Two when women were needed to make the bombs and work the land, after the war, the 1950s saw an end to that. If we can make a National Childcare Service during the difficult times of war, why can’t we invest in one to help improve our lives?
A National Childcare Service would end the postcode lottery and enable all parents who wanted to work that opportunity to do so. At a time when we need to grow our economy the government should be enabling parents and carers to work outside of the home. Not only would a National Childcare Service provide greater flexibility and economic security for parents, it would also provide thousands of jobs for those who are graduating from colleges with specialities in childcare.
Many comprehensives now teach childcare courses beginning at a GCSE or BTEC level, and colleges offer qualifications in childcare and nursery nursing. These vocational qualifications are designed to provide people with a non-university focussed route to a good career, yet the state of the private nursery market is one filled with high competition for jobs and wide discrepancies in the level of training given to their staff and the level of value staff are awarded. By creating a National Childcare Service, we could reward those in the childcare profession with the same level of distinction as nurses and teachers, providing careers for thousands who would otherwise face difficult competition in a saturated market, while offering a vital boost to the service economy.
That would be a progressive policy for welfare reform and a policy Labour could have for growing the economy again.