A parliamentary committee on Covid heard yesterday of the childcare barriers preventing jobseekers getting back to work.
Barriers to accessing childcare, such as upfront fees and deposits, will make it much harder for women to get back to work after the pandemic, a parliamentary committee heard yesterday.
The Covid-19 committee, which considers the long-term implications of the pandemic on the economic and social wellbeing of the UK, was looking at the impact of the pandemic on parents and families.
It heard concerns about the design of Universal Credit which is paid in arrears for childcare, meaning parents returning to work may need to have over a thousand pounds in the bank before they start earning again or face negotiating with childminders or going into significant debt.
Moreover, the 30 hours ‘free’ childcare for three and four year olds is tied to parents being in work and they can only access it the term after they become eligible after starting work. Also, it doesn’t cover school holidays. Megan Jarvie, Head of Coram Family and Childcare, said the 30 hours should be extended to parents who are upskilling or looking for jobs. She added that the tax-free childcare scheme, which she says is “poorly targeted” and not very generous, is more flexible, but is currently underclaimed and mostly goes to wealthier families.
Laura Dewar, Policy Officer at Gingerbread, said back to work schemes need to be holistic and embrace childcare issues. She said Job Centres used to have specialist lone parent advisers and now advisers are more generalist. She would like to see the return of specialists who understand the particular needs of certain groups.
Other childcare-related concerns mentioned include staff shortages in the childcare sector, in large part due to low wages. Covid has also worsened morale due to the unequal treatment of schools and nurseries, said Jarvie. There was general agreement among speakers that childcare workers need to be better paid.
Covid had also led to increased childcare closures, which are more likely in poorer areas, and to fears that some nurseries will be forced to put up their fees to address funding shortfalls. Part of the problem is pre-existing underfunding of childcare, which is worsening due to below inflation rises in government support. This means more and more parents are relying on informal care, which is usually other women in their families or friendship group. “Covid has had a shattering impact on an already fragile childcare market,” said Dewar. Jarvie added that childcare funding problems may mean providers will have less ability to flex hours and cater, for instance, to hybrid workers who might want shorter days at nursery.
Dewar said employers could help with childcare and mentioned the Greater London Authority childcare deposit loan scheme where employers loan money to pay childcare deposits. This also applies to holiday childcare.
Jarvie also spoke of the need to increase parents’ choices around whether or not to work. She said that, before the pandemic, it was often not cost effective for one parent – usually the mum – to work and Covid is likely to lead to more women deciding to opt out of work due to the likely rise in childcare costs and availability, especially for people working atypical hours or for parents with children with special needs. The system needs to give women more choices, she said. Simon Kelleher, Head of Policy & Influencing at Working Families, said there is already evidence that higher numbers of new parents are not returning to work after parental leave.
Molly Mayer, Senior Research and Policy Officer at the Fawcett Society, said while more fathers had been furloughed and lost their jobs, mums were significantly more likely to have been furloughed for childcare reasons and there are concerns that unemployment is likely to rise after the furlough scheme ends. She said the figures showed stark differences in job loss and furlough depending on age, ethnicity and disability, with lower paid parents being disproportionately affected. Women are much more likely to have lost their jobs in this crisis than in the 2008 crisis when men were more affected.
Laura Dewar said single parents, 90% of whom are women, are also significantly more likely than those in couples to have lost their jobs and to be furloughed, in large part due to the sectors they work in, such as hospitality and the non-food retail sector which offer flexible jobs. She added that single parents have suffered very high levels of mental health issues as a result of the pandemic and high anxiety coupled with concerns about reduced wraparound childcare and said ongoing concerns about schools and childcare bubbles closing will continue to affect their ability to work.
Speakers also spoke of how unemployment and a lack of flexible jobs, particularly secure, good quality ones, mean many parents are stuck in a catch-22 situation. Single parents, 75% of whom are on some kind of benefit, have to look for work when their children turn three or risk losing benefits, for instance, and the two-child limit and the benefits cap [which apply irrespective of a child’s age] mean they lose benefits if they can’t find work.
The committee also heard about issues around flexible working. While there is a lot of focus on hybrid or remote working, speakers said few jobs are advertised as being flexible and part-time jobs, particularly job shares. They called for a right to day one flexible working as well as more access to quality part-time jobs and an overhaul of Shared Parental Leave.
While greater flexible working rights were due to be in the employment bill, which was left out of the Queen’s Speech, Dewar said there may be a way to adapt existing flexible working legislation to promote it in the meantime.
Mayer called for changes in gender pay audits, including extending them to employers of 100 people or more [currently only those with over 250 employees need to submit their figures] and making it mandatory for employers to provide a plan of how they are going to reduce their gap. She also called for ethnicity pay gaps and a right for women to know whether their male colleagues are being paid more than them.
Speakers also expressed concerns about the impact of Covid on women’s career progression, particularly when it comes to women who have been furloughed, and about how more homeworking might affect women’s promotion prospects.