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The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Women and Work heard yesterday how childcare issues have worsened during Covid and looked at how that can be addressed urgently.
The assumption that childcare is about women sacrificing their careers needs to change, the All-Parliamentary Group on Women and Work heard yesterday as it sought to find some concrete solutions to a problem which Covid has exacerbated.
Jess Phillips, co-chair of the group, said childcare, as currently constituted, is the single biggest barrier to women’s equality at work and that Covid risks widening the gender pay gap and setting equality back many years. The UK has relatively low productivity levels, she added, and part of the way of addressing this is to put childcare at the centre of the UK’s industrial strategy.
Helen Lamprell from Vodafone said a lot of employers had tried to do the right thing during the pandemic through being more flexible or providing other practical support, but still many mums fell out of the workforce.
She spoke of the need to address difficult questions such as whether to reduce paid maternity leave so dads can have more leave and caring can be more equally shared. And she said that we need to be careful that women’s careers are not disproportionately affected if they are more likely to work remotely or in a hybrid way after Covid. “Covid can be a force for good, but we need to be mindful so that it doesn’t perpetuate the gender pay gap,” she said. She added that, as a society, the UK needs to think more deeply about childcare and the impact on women’s equality.
Laura Dewar from Gingerbread said childcare problems were present well before the pandemic, but Covid had worsened the situation, particularly for single parents. She spoke of nursery closures, problems with upfront childcare costs, the extension of 30 hours ‘free’ childcare to jobseekers and the need for a childcare infrastructure support fund to stabilise childcare, a national deposit fund for childcare and changes to Universal Credit so childcare support is not provided in arrears. She also noted that the cap on childcare costs eligible for support needs to increase in line with inflation – it has not changed since 2003.
Concerns were expressed that more childcare providers may close in the next month when they have to start paying business rates again, even if at a lower rate.
Various suggestions were put forward for improving the amount of money available for those with caring responsibilities, from using the money from the apprenticeship levy to that not spent on tax free childcare.
Justine Roberts from Mumsnet said childcare is failing parents, especially women. The gender pay gap is essentially a motherhood penalty, she said, with the cost of childcare being key. She called for the Government to address the gap between maternity leave and access to subsidised childcare, to ensure subsidised care lasts longer than 39 weeks a year and is more flexible and for better access to wraparound care.
She added that a Mumsnet survey shows 40% of mums who use the 30 hours ‘free’ childcare have to pay additional charges. Covid has been catastrophic for working mums, she added. “We have gone backwards,” she stated, adding that the Government had barely mentioned childcare in the pandemic.
The meeting did not just cover childcare, given women make up a disproportionate number of carers, especially so-called sandwich carers – those who care for both children and elderly relatives. Emily Holzhausen from Carers UK said Covid had also exacerbated the problems for carers, mainly women, with an increase in the so-called sandwich generation being noted and a significant rise in those providing support to people suffering from mental health issues. Women provide unpaid care to an elderly relative on average 11 years before men do, which has a big impact on their ability to work, she stated.
For Holzhausen, care services are just as important as childcare, yet while schools and nurseries are now open, only between a quarter and a third of care services are back and many care providers have gone to the wall during the pandemic. Around nine per cent of unpaid carers have been furloughed during the pandemic and a similar number have given up work due to their caring responsibilities. Work gave a significant percentage of carers a well-needed break from their responsibilities, she added. Holzhausen said unpaid carers were around 30 years behind parents in terms of their visibility at work and should not be taken for granted or forgotten.
She called for continued flexibility and carers leave [at the very least the one week unpaid leave the Government had committed to in its manifesto].