Ask any working parent `what the toughest part of the job is, and they’ll tell you the same thing – sorting out childcare. It’s a constant logistical and financial challenge. I should know: I’m a working Mum.
70% of working parents do not work 9-5, Monday to Friday. In London, and other big cities, with journey-to-work times of over 30 minutes, doing a full day’s work is made more difficult by nursery hours. A recent OECD report also found that the UK has some of the most expensive childcare in the world.
In my constituency in Hackney South & Shoreditch, and across Britain, the cost and quality of childcare is becoming the biggest worry for squeezed middle- and lower-income earners. It must become a top priority for politicians and policy-makers if we are to fix the problem.
Liz Truss, the Coalition children’s minister, is set to announce her policy. I wish her luck. There are plenty in her party who still consider childcare a peripheral issue, and some who think women should not be out at work at all. Unless Truss addresses head-on the issues of cost, hours, quality and availability, she will have failed working parents and their children.
I am happy to defend the record of the last Labour government, in introducing nursery places for four and five year olds and the voucher system. But the lesson for the next Labour government is that piece-meal reform is not enough. Britain needs a childcare revolution.
Look at Denmark, where the Day-care Act means that local councils provide 8am-5pm childcare for all, with parents making a contribution to the cost alongside government subsidy. In Denmark, childcare is free to the lowest income families. The subsidy is then tapered upwards depending on family income. Seventy-six per cent of Danish women are working. Across the Scandinavian countries, childcare is a priority, and their economies are weathering the storm as a result. I want some of that Scandinavian magic brought to Shoreditch.
The austere public spending that Labour will inherit should cause a keen sense of prioritisation amongst Labour ministers. What can be more important than childcare? First, to secure a recovery, we need everyone onboard the boat to be rowing as hard as they can. Limited, inflexible nursery hours mean that most parents cannot do a full-time job properly. Britain needs the talents and energy of parents as much as anyone. Second, we need women to be economically active, and fully equal in the workplace and jobs market. Third, the evidence shows that children benefit from nursery, equipping them with the skills to prosper at school and beyond. Fourth, the IPPR has shown that a decent, universal system of childcare pays for itself in the long-run. More parents working, paying taxes, and not claiming tax credits and benefits more than pays for the state’s investment in caring for children.
Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas are drawing up the Labour manifesto, alongside the shadow ministerial teams. They must listen to voices of working parents, who want to do the right thing but feel they are being punished. They must read the evidence that shows childcare makes economic sense in tough times. They must consider the views of educationalists, who argue pre-school care makes children confident mini citizens. They must be bold, and look at co-operative, not-for-profit and municipal models of childcare which engage local families.
The need has never been greater and the benefits never more obvious. Universal, affordable childcare must be at the heart of Labour’s offer to the British people. That would prove beyond doubt that we understand the strains of modern life, and are in tune with Britain’s families.
Meg Hillier is the Member of Parliament for Hackney South and Shoreditch. She was a minister at the Home Office in the last Labour government.