‘£750 million boost for childcare costs’ shouted a front page headline last Tuesday after the government announced proposals to help parents if they are re-elected in 2015. Less well publicised perhaps was a policy briefing in May 2013 from Age UK and Grandparents Plus which valued the childcare that grandparents provide at around £7.3 billion – yes, that’s billion with a ‘b’ – up from.£3.9 billion in 2004. That’s a lot of money. And apparently around 7 million of us were helping out in 2013 and this year it’s probably even more. Why is this? Do we choose to do it simply because we want to while otherwise parents would send their children to nurseries or use childminders? Or is the onus on us to help out?
Well, the Family and Childcare Trust says that childcare costs have risen 27% since 2009. And the help that working parents are currently getting from the government such as tax credits, child benefit etc. has either been capped or frozen in the last couple of years due to austerity measures. It also seems that childcare places have gone down – why has this happened? The DfE says that the number of childminders has almost halved over the last 20 years mostly because they don’t want the stress of setting themselves up as self-employed and running their own business. And the BBC pointed out in January that cuts to Sure Start has led to the closure of around 250 council-run nurseries with others only running a reduced service. Also, private nurseries have suffered since the recession with some going out of business because the cuts to tax credits and parents’ salaries flatlining have meant that they haven’t got the money to use private nurseries. A newspaper recently claimed that around half a million working mums (yes, it’s mostly women) have been forced to give up work. It seems to me that the choice for some parents, particularly those without willing and able grandparents nearby, has been deciding whether you can afford childcare and work or, if you can’t afford it, not work.
Of course, some grandparents are not able to do childcare because of issues such as distance, ill health or disability while others choose not to. Some of us can and want to help out but there is a question hovering around this: does it sap the political will to do more about childcare? I was at a session recently where it was pointed out that with the cuts to care services such as for the elderly, and the disabled, it’s female friends and relations who are stepping into the breach for free since people’s lives become very difficult indeed without these services. Doing this additional care must have a huge impact on these women’s lives. Is this a similar issue with some grandmothers helping out with childcare? And it’s usually grandmothers.
A few higher earning mums and dads actually pay their parents for childcare. But Grandparents Plus points out that grandparents then become employees with tax liabilities, NI etc so things can get a bit complicated. The thing is that a lot of grandparents can find that their outgoings increase when they do childcare, paying for extra food for their grandchildren’s meals, snacks, outings etc. You could say that if the parent is working, they could offer to pay for these costs and grandparents on a good pension may be able to afford them and might be happy to pay. But for those on low pay with grandparents on a basic state pension the additional expense can lead to hardship or to the parent having to decide whether to work at all.
And according to Grandparents Plus, it’s a mistake to assume that grandparents will be able to continue help out with childcare in future. Their website says that there is a very real fear of a childcare gap crisis when grandparents are expected to work longer to fund their pensions. The TUC is arguing already that the care working grandparents provide is not properly recognised although those that do childcare, and are under state pension age, can apply for national insurance credits towards their state pensions – well, that’s something then. But the TUC is suggesting that they be formally granted a period of unpaid grandparental leave rather than simply in emergencies as happens at the moment, This is quite likely to happen simply because it’s unpaid, but the flip side is that being unpaid would mean that many grandparents wouldn’t be able to afford to take it. However, the TUC is also arguing that grandparents have flexibility in hours. As readers of the Workingmums website will know, the right to request flexible working is being extended to all employees later on this year which will, of course, include working grandparents. Their employer must show that they have given the request ‘due consideration’ and there are eight grounds on which it can be refused. So some grandparents might have their requests granted which would be helpful if they are doing childcare in their time off work. But let’s face it, this will take its toll on these older workers.
Surely it’s time for something more straightforward and upfront – but it does need political will. Of course, politicians are busy politicking in the lead-up to the election and the government has just announced that, if re-elected in 2015, they will give up to £2,000 for each child towards childcare bills to those parents earning up to £150,000. And the Opposition said that if it’s voted into power in 2015 it will increase the 15 hours free childcare per week for 3-4 year olds to 25 hours, with the Independent reporting last December that Labour is moving towards free childcare provision for all pre-school children. All well and good. But another question remains – are these measures alone meant to stimulate an increase in childcare places? Or is something else needed?
Of course, political parties can say anything they like to win votes – it doesn’t mean it will happen. But at the very least childcare issues have hit the headlines so hopefully political parties of whatever colour won’t be allowed to forget them. And if any of these things were to come to pass, it might give some of us 7 million grandparents more leeway in choosing whether to help out with childcare or not.