By Richard Dunstan, Policy & Parliamentary Campaigns Officer
In recent months, barely a week has gone by without the announcement of new research or survey findings on the ever-rising cost of childcare.
In January, it was Mumsnet and the Resolution Foundation, with joint research revealing that the high cost of childcare is a barrier to work for 64% of non-working mothers. Then, last month, it was think tank IPPR, with a report suggesting that half a million mothers of young children may be “missing” from the UK workforce because of unaffordable and inflexible childcare. And earlier this week the Family & Childcare Trust released the latest findings from its authoritative annual survey of childcare costs and supply.
Most if not all of the media coverage of the 2014 survey that I saw focussed on the Trust’s finding that the average cost for a family with two children needing full-time childcare amounts to “a staggering £11,700 a year, 62 per cent higher than the average UK mortgage”. And, for sure, the 27 per cent increase in this figure since 2009, and the Trust’s finding that “most parents buying full-time care contribute 20-30 per cent of their gross income on childcare”, gives ministers and shadow ministers plenty of food for thought.
But it was a section towards the back of the Trust’s report, on the overall supply of childcare, that most caught my eye. Under the Childcare Act 2006, local authorities in England & Wales are legally obliged to ensure sufficient childcare provision for working parents and those undertaking training or education with the intention of returning to work. Yet, according to the Trust’s survey, only one in two English local authorities, and just one in five Welsh local authorities, report sufficient childcare for children aged two or under. Put another way, many local authorities are failing in their legal duties and – as the Trust notes – are “not being held to account for this”.
Worse still, only 28 per cent of English local authorities, and just six per cent of Welsh local authorities, report sufficient childcare for disabled children. Across England, Wales and Scotland, just one in four local authorities report sufficient childcare for disabled children. No wonder then, that only 16 per cent of mothers of a disabled child are in paid work, compared to more than 60 per cent of mothers generally.
By coincidence, on the same day that the Trust published these survey findings, what this actually means for parents of a disabled child was illustrated with force and humour in a brilliant blog post by Sarah Ricketts, mother to “a lovely non-toddling toddler with an undiagnosed genetic condition”. In an ‘open letter’ to Education Secretary Michael Gove, Sarah writes:
I worked long and hard to get a career [as a corporate fundraiser] that I care about. It enabled me to give my son financial stability and a plan for the future. It enabled me to have time away from the immense responsibility of being a ‘carer’. It gave me a chance to miss him and remind me how very precious our time together is. But despite an epic battle to rival Waterloo, I have had to leave my job. Why? Because there was absolutely zero affordable childcare option available to me, even on a three day per week basis. This is purely because of my son’s disabilities.
As Sarah concludes, this is “just not right”. But it’s also a false economy. The UK economy needs women like Sarah to remain in the labour market, rather than fall back on benefits, if it is to recover from the worst recession in living memory. As the shadow equalities minister, Baroness (Glenys) Thornton rightly notes today, “we need to address the role of government in making it easier and more equitable for women to work, and how it matches up to those challenges”.
But is anyone in this Government – or the next one – going to hold those failing local authorities to account? And will they provide the necessary funding to enable local authorities to meet their legal obligations?
If you’re a minister or shadow minister and you’re reading this, do feel free to give your answer in the comment box below.