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I’m not entirely sure what the Government’s policy is on childcare. It seems to give with one hand and take with the other. First, there’s the doubling of free childcare hours for three and four year olds and the childcare tax rebate. Putting aside concerns, which are substantial, that the free hours might not be fully funded and may mean nurseries have to put up their fees for younger children and the fact that the childcare tax rebate has been delayed. Any move which aims to tackle the rising cost of childcare is welcome.
But at the same time as introducing these measures, the government is making big cuts to tax credits.
The argument is that the increase in the national minimum wage will compensate, despite the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointing out that the sums don’t add up. What will the cuts mean? Parents will either be forced to leave work because they cannot afford childcare or work all hours so that they can just about cover the costs and use a patchwork of friends, parents and others to look after their children – which can break down at any time – or leave older children to fend for themselves.
There have been huge changes in the UK in the last 20 years. Women are much more likely to stay in work after having children. Stay-at-home mums have become a minority. Yet childcare policy still focuses on individual parents getting tax rebates and the like rather than on the bigger picture.
A recent European Council report called for the British government to do more to provide affordable, high quality childcare. It pointed out that the number of stay-at-home mums and mums who work part time in the UK is double the European average. Why is that? Do British mothers want to stay with their children more than their continental peers or is the system just not supportive enough of working parents in the UK? In several countries in Europe childcare providers are subsidised, rather than individual parents, and childcare is seen as a social benefit. Instead of focusing on the question posed by the statistics in the European Council report, though, much of the debate in the UK has focused on pitching working mums against stay-at-home mums, as usual.
Some employers are looking at new ways to help out with childcare, including summer childcare which is a particularly thorny issue. One such employer is Deloitte which recently implemented an agile working programme which includes an initiative for employees to request one month off unpaid at any time in the year. Deloitte says many of the requests it has received have been from dads, with parents weighing up the cost of unpaid leave versus money saved on, for instance, summer holiday childcare. Some part-time staff have also considered increasing to five days a week as a result of the ability to take one month off. Deloitte says that with proper planning, continuity of business has not been adversely affected.
Many parents would not be able to forego earnings over the summer holidays, but the initiative at least puts the holiday challenge on the agenda. Another alternative is annualised hours or term time only working.
Between them, parents and employers are having to come up with increasingly creative approaches to childcare as more and more families face the challenges, but they can only do so much. We need a radical reform which also embraces the availability of flexible jobs, another of the main barriers for families trying to balance work and children. That reform needs to address the ongoing tectonic shifts in our social structure and to support families as they are now and how they will be in the future.