Next year, should I win my Tees Valley mayoral election, I will be the UK’s first female metro mayor. Standing for this role as a woman gives me a different perspective on what it takes to grow our economy. This is a perspective that quite frankly many of the men in these roles don’t see, or at least they don’t realise its importance.
For many years I have worked with and championed women across the Tees Valley, and one of the big issues that regularly comes up is the need for good, affordable childcare. The UK currently has the seventh most expensive childcare in the world, with families spending on average 36% of their income on childcare. The proportion is much lower for our European neighbours, with Sweden, Greece, Iceland and Austria all averaging less than 10%. We simply don’t stack up, and this barrier to entry to the workplace is holding women back economically. Covid, along with the pressures brought by this government, are making it worse.
I had a conversation with Tulip Siddiq, Labour’s shadow minister for children and early years, last week. We talked about the issues confronting women and looked particularly at childcare. She highlighted the potential devastating loss of 472 childcare providers across our region in the next year. There are government schemes currently available, but they are incredibly restrictive and hard to access, with only 40% of two-year-old children eligible. It is hard to argue with any conviction that it does more than pay lip service to the real problems and issues of working families.
To see how these issues were affecting women across the Tees Valley, we ran a survey asking families their thoughts on childcare and how it was affecting their access to the workplace. The results of that research showed that 80% of respondents considered childcare to be expensive and how difficult it was to get access to the government schemes leading women to have to persevere with expensive alternatives. This fits in with the results of a nationwide survey by Pregnant Then Screwed, which showed that 51% of women said that they did not have sufficient childcare to enable them to work at all, whilst a staggering 74% said that it had adversely affected their earning ability.
Of course all of the issues have been made significantly worse by the current Covid crisis. 65% of mothers who were furloughed said lack of childcare was the reason, whilst 44% of self-employed mothers reported that the crisis had cost them childcare places vital to the running of their businesses.
We must do better, and I will do better. Good access to affordable childcare is a vital cog in our economy and one of the most important factors in allowing women to achieve economically. The Labour Party is committed to offering universal childcare for children aged between two and four, and to ensuring that there is a Sure Start centre in every community. I am also keen to explore ways in which local companies can allow more flexible working to help with childcare needs.
If we are to grow the economy in the Tees Valley, affordable childcare will be part of that growth. We must empower women and families to be able to fulfil their fullest economic potential.