Eluned Morgan on tackling the difficulties facing parents of young children today
The decision on whether to stay at home to look after a child or go back to work is generally accepted to be an individual decision, based on a number of different factors. Today however, that choice is curtailed for many mothers who would like to go back to work but are unable to as the cost of child care simply does not make it worthwhile. And costs have rocketed 30% since the Coalition government came to power.
It is worth spelling this out in financial terms. The average cost of a full time nursery place for a child under 2 is £11,000 a year, or £211 per week, while the average UK salary is £23,000 a year before tax. But we must remember too that this isn’t just a massive financial burden to parents. It is also bad for Britain, if women who want to work aren’t able to. According to the Resolution Foundation fewer women with children work in the UK than in many of our leading competitor countries.
Every signal that the last Labour government sent out was that babies and children are welcome in our society. Child benefit rose, childcare and tax credits were introduced, maternity leave on our watch doubled and was better paid, paternity leave was introduced, and mothers were able to request flexible working hours. And add to that free nurseries for three and four year olds, 3,500 Sure Start children's centres, plus the Child Trust Fund that gave new babies a nest egg.
So what has David Cameron’s government been doing? Despite saying they would protect Sure Start, his Ministers have overseen the closure of over 576 Sure Start Centres. The squeezed middle are also carrying an enormous burden. If, for example, a mother decides to work part time on an average wage, she would have to work from Monday to Thursday to pay off the weekly childcare cost for one child and would be left with just a few pounds for all her work efforts.
Labour recognises that the issue of childcare is fundamental to the discussion on the cost of living. That is why we have pledged to extend free childcare for three and four year olds from 15 to 25 hours per week – all paid for by increase the bank levy.
But the problem does not stop when the child starts school. (I am one of those mothers who spend half their life organising their children’s pick-ups and drop offs, pre-school and after school care.) So, another measure which will have parents of primary school children heaving a sigh of relief is that we will introduce a legal guarantee of access to wraparound care from 8am to 6pm.
The Coalition government really needs to get a grip on the issue of child care and demonstrate whose side it is on. All the current evidence suggests that it is out of touch and has no concept of the difficulties facing families today.
Baroness Eluned Morgan is a member of Labour’s frontbench in the House of Lords
Published 9th January 2014