Category Archives: Childcare cost & supply

Queen’s Speech: not many promises, but plenty of challenges

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

With the general election fast becoming a distant memory, new ministers have been appointed, the House of Commons has returned to life, and the Conservative majority government has set out its legislative plans for the first year of its five-year term. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, last week’s Queen’s Speech somehow failed even to mention the ‘hard-working families’ of which we heard so much – from politicians of all parties – during the election campaign, with even the Childcare Bill (see below) set to help “working people”. So, what can we expect the new Government to deliver in terms of ‘families and work’ policy over the next few years?

The short answer, judging by the Conservative manifesto and ministerial pronouncements to date, is ‘probably not a lot’. The manifesto was disappointingly short on policy pledges that might help ensure work actually works for all families, with no reference at all to flexible or ‘family-friendly’ working, or the need to increase the supply of good quality part-time jobs. In contrast to both the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos, there was no pledge of additional paternity leave, and no mention at all of shared parental leave. And there was nothing to suggest the new government will address the growing but largely unsupported role of grandparents in childcare.

To the surprise of some, the manifesto did of course pledge to increase the existing entitlement of free childcare for working parents of three- and four-year-olds in England, from 15 to 30 hours per week during term-time (i.e. 38 weeks per year). And, with the publication of the Childcare Bill this week, ministers are now suggesting that roll out of the increased entitlement will begin in September 2016, a “year earlier than planned”.

With costs having soared since 2010, and many parents struggling, more free childcare has to be welcome.  Indeed, as Giselle Cory of the IPPR think tank noted in the New Statesman last week, there is unlikely to be much political argument over the aim of the Bill: “childcare is a sound investment: fund it now and we’ll see the benefits for years to come, in rising levels of maternal employment, additional tax revenues, falling child poverty, and improved child development outcomes.” However, as Giselle further notes: “the rationale is simple; delivering the policy less so.” In the words of  The Economist magazine:

The [Bill] would make childcare cheaper for most families. But it would not address another problem: the shortage of places. In spite of a fast-growing population, the number of nursery places in Britain remained unchanged between 2006 and 2014, and has only just started to pick up. Growth has been stunted because nurseries are hard to run at a profit.

One reason is rising rents, particularly in London, which push up nurseries’ costs. And there is little that nurseries can cut back on: most of their employees already earn little more than the minimum wage.

But another reason is that the government underpays nurseries for the 15 hours a week that they must provide free of charge. The shortfall amounts to £800 per child per year. If the new 30-hour allowance is funded at the same miserly rate, the shortage of places could be exacerbated.

So it is welcome that the government has this week committed to “increase the average funding rates paid to providers (the hourly funding provided for each free place)”, with Department for Eduction minister Sam Gyimah set to oversee a review “before summer”, even if it is still far from clear how any increased rate would itself be funded. Ministers have so far committed only £350 million a year to fund the pledge, but the Pre-School Learning Alliance of private and voluntary providers argues this would leave a shortfall of £250m a year, on top of the existing annual shortfall of £100m. And it’s worth remembering that, as recently as December, Sam Gyimah was claiming that Labour’s  very similar but less ambitious promise to increase the free childcare allowance to just 25 hours per week would cost “at least £1.5 billion”.

Elsewhere in the Queen’s Speech, there was little cheer for struggling families – working or otherwise. The Full Employment & Welfare Bill will reduce the current household benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000 per year, amid warnings that this could plunge 40,000 children into poverty. Ministers have yet to spell out where pledged cuts of £12 billion to the welfare budget will actually fall, with the well-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies warning that further cuts on such a scale will most likely either increase poverty or undermine the Full Employment & Welfare Bill’s aim to “ensure that it pays to work” by weakening work incentives. And the Enterprise Bill’s principal aim of “cutting red tape and saving businesses at least £10 billion [by 2020]” seems to offer little hope any progressive reform of maternity, paternity and shared parental leave, or of employment rights more generally.

In that context, it must be hoped that the publication – possibly later this month – by the Equality & Human Rights Commission of the findings of its £1 million programme of research into pregnancy and maternity discrimination at work, will at least prompt a ministerial rethink in relation to the prohibitively high employment tribunal fees introduced in July 2013. For all the indications are that the Commission will report such unlawful discrimination to be more common in Britain’s workplaces than ever before.

All in all, this means there remains a lot of work to do in convincing ministers of the benefits of making work work for all. Together with our partner organisations – such as the Family & Childcare Trust, Gingerbread, the Fawcett Society, NCT, and the TUC – we at Working Families will be working hard to promote the benefits of tackling low pay (including the disturbingly low rate of statutory maternity, paternity and shared parental leave pay), adopting a ‘flexible by default’ approach to job design and recruitment, extending paternity leave, and creating a new right to a period of ‘adjustment leave’ to enable families to weather a ‘life shock’ without giving up work.

We will press ministers to conduct their long-promised review of employment tribunal fees, and to consider whether further governmental action is necessary to tackle zero-hours contracts and other forms of ‘casualisation’ in the labour market – an issue highlighted in the most recent annual report of our legal advice team. And we will work to ensure that the Childcare Bill addresses the particularly acute childcare crunch faced by parents of disabled and special needs children.



Grandparents & childcare: will our politicians learn from their electioneering?

In this guest post, Sam Smethers of Grandparents Plus argues that politicians have yet to understand just how reliant many working parents are on grandparents for childcare.

Last week, journalist Gaby Hinsliff let us into one of those elephant-sized hidden truths of the general election campaign when she tweeted:

“This election’s basically reliant on grandparents: every MP/journo/aide with kids I’ve spoken to recently basically reliant on them for campaign childcare.”

So, electioneering doesn’t fit neatly into formal childcare hours – 15 hours of nursery care or the 8am – 6pm that a childminder might offer. Surprised? Yet dependent though they may be, how many of those politicos stop to think whether those grandparents deserve a bit of recognition for what they do? Or (perish the thought) what they would do without them to rely on? Not much campaigning after 6pm methinks, that’s for sure.

Every day across the UK, working parents rely heavily upon grandparents for childcare. Our grandparents – and, let’s be honest about it, often it’s our grandmothers – are the engine room of the UK economy keeping those ‘hard working families’ ‘hard working’. A recent Grandparents Plus Survation poll found that one in five working parents – that’s two million of them – would give up their jobs if they didn’t have grandparents to rely on. A further 20 per cent would reduce their hours. And no surprises to see that it’s mothers more than fathers who take the hit – but there were still 15 per cent of dads saying that they would give up work.

So what’s the problem? Grandparents do it for love, they enjoy it etc. Well, of course they do. But the challenge for us all, and for government is that grandparents aged 55-64 provide the lion’s share of the childcare with those aged 65-74 next in line. There are eight million grandparents providing childcare and most of them are now expected to be staying in work rather than providing childcare in their leisurely retirement. We are expecting these generations of grandparents to be both caring more and working longer – and it doesn’t stack up.

Another Grandparents Plus poll, this time in partnership with Family and Childcare Trust and Save the Children, found that 14 per cent of grandparents had either given up a job, reduced their hours or taken days off sick to provide childcare. That’s 1.9 million grandparents. Again, it’s grandmothers who are most likely to say they gave up work or reduced their hours, but 400,000 grandfathers did so too.

But look even closer at those who are doing the intensive caring and you see that it is younger grandmothers (those in their 50s or even 40s) who are particularly likely to be providing longer hours of childcare. DWP research found that low income mothers are twice as likely to rely exclusively on informal childcare when they go back to work after maternity leave. Formal childcare is often beyond their reach. Either it is too expensive, or (rather like our politicos – see above) it doesn’t suit their anti-social working hours, or they are in very insecure employment and simply cannot commit to a formal childcare arrangement. Those on low pay also have less job security so how can they pay a childminder if they don’t know if they are working tomorrow?

So what’s the solution? Grandparents Plus has consistently argued for a period of grandparental leave which can be taken flexibly by grandparents who are providing childcare for working parents. Alternatively we also argue that if we see the need for shared parental leave, and conceded the principle of transferability then why not make it possible for parents to share unpaid parental leave (i.e. the 18 weeks that can be taken until a child is five) with a grandparent? This would provide some flexibility and would also enable grandparents to support when formal childcare often cannot (e.g. if a child is sick).

Together with a meaningful investment in formal childcare we could create an infrastructure of support for working parents that they can rely on and that responds to the reality of their daily lives. By doing so we would be helping our workforce’s ‘missing millions’ mothers and grandmothers stay in work. This in turn would also help employers as they would see reduce staff absences and improve retention rates.

When we ask grandparents, the public and parents a clear majority supports the policy and amongst those most affected, there is strong support. We just need our politicians (yes those mentioned above so dependent on grandparents) to get it too.

Sam Smethers is Chief Executive of Grandparents Plus.

One small step for parents of disabled children, one giant leap for childcare policy?

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

In January, a Working Families research report – Off Balance – highlighted the enormous challenge that many parents of disabled children face in trying to balance their especially demanding care responsibilities with paid work, not least due to the often very high cost (and inadequate supply) of suitable childcare. And last month, with a rare lack of ministerial fanfare, the government quietly revealed a small but potentially significant boost for such parents, in terms of financial support for childcare costs.

In its response to a technical consultation on draft secondary legislation establishing the Treasury’s tax-free childcare scheme, due to come into force later this year, under which the government will top-up by 20 pence every 80 pence paid into a ‘childcare account’ by eligible parents, up to a maximum of £2,000, HM Revenue & Customs stated:

“Representations were made during consultation that additional support should be provided for disabled children in view of the generally higher childcare costs their parents can face. Similar comments were also made during the Bill’s Commons Committee stage, when the [Minister] made a commitment to consider this matter further.

Having considered this, the Government has decided to introduce legislation to increase the maximum amount that parents of disabled children can pay into their childcare accounts, in recognition of the higher childcare costs these families incur. For accounts for disabled children, the maximum payment for a standard three month entitlement period will be doubled [from £2,000] to £4,000. This means that a parent with a disabled child will be able to pay up to £16,000 into their childcare account per year and receive top-up payments of up to £4,000.”

It’s fair to say that the proposed tax-free childcare scheme is not universally loved by childcare campaigners, and leading critics were quick to note that only those parents of disabled children that can afford to pay more than the previous upper limit of £8,000 per year into a tax-free childcare account would actually receive any extra financial support from government as a result of the move. Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said:

“The tax-free childcare scheme is already regressive in nature, as the more a family can afford to pay into their childcare account, the more financial support they receive from government. It would have been far more practical for the government to increase the rate of top-up for parents of disabled children above the current rate of 20 per cent. That would have ensured that all eligible families benefit from additional support, not just those that can afford to spend large amounts on childcare.”

Working Families agrees, and in any case it’s far from clear whether implementation of the tax-free childcare scheme would survive a change of government in May, as both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats have set out quite specific plans for significant childcare reform that make no mention of the scheme.

However, the move is potentially of wider significance, in that it is the first time any government has explicitly recognised and made provision for, in legislation, the higher childcare costs faced by parents of disabled children. (That is, other than the disability element of child tax credit, and the disabled child addition in Universal Credit, though neither are aimed specifically at higher childcare costs). Prior to this (low-key) announcement, campaign groups such as Contact a Family, the Family & Childcare Trust, Every Disabled Child Matters, and Working Families had struggled to get government officials even to discuss the issue. But last year’s Parliamentary Inquiry into Childcare for Disabled Children, which was supported by all four groups, may well have been the catalyst for the evident policy breakthrough.

The challenge now is to build on this welcome recognition of the issue by current Treasury ministers, and work towards the inclusion of specific policy commitments in the policy plans of all political parties. In the words of Amanda Batten, chief executive of Contact a Family, “ahead of the general election, all political  parties must commit to tackling the lack of affordable, quality childcare for disabled children once and for all”.

Labour’s shadow childcare minister, Alison McGovern, has expressed concern about the especially harsh childcare crunch faced by parents of disabled children in a number of recent speeches, as did her predecessor Lucy Powell, but that acknowledgement has yet to translate into a specific policy pledge. And the arguably more ambitious childcare proposals of the Liberal Democrats are similarly silent on the issue. It’s time for them to follow the Treasury’s lead.

Off balance: parents of disabled children and paid work

By Richard Dunstan, Workflex blog editor

Since 2012, the issue of affordable childcare has risen rapidly up the political agenda, and seems set to be a key battleground in the run-up to the General Election on 7 May. All three main UK parties will include a ‘childcare offer’ in their manifesto, and all three routinely stress the importance of paid work – including higher maternal employment – to tackling poverty and other social ills, such as mental ill-health. In short, there is broad political consensus that all parents who wish to work should be able to do so.

However, if achieving any kind of work-life balance is a serious challenge for many  parents – and recent research by the Family & Childcare Trust and a survey of parents by 4Children confirm that it most certainly is – then it’s a challenge that parents of children with a disability or special needs face in spades.

I would love to have paid work, to allow us to do more to help our son and for ourselves as a family, but the flexibility required just isn’t available. That is why I had to give up my job. Mother of disabled three year-old.

The need for my wife and I to split all our available leave to cover our caring responsibilities means that we rarely have any time-off together. Employed father of disabled 15 year-old.

Becoming the parent of a disabled child is rarely a matter of personal choice – it can happen to anyone, at any time, not just at the time of birth. One day you have a healthy toddler – and the next day he is struck down and left disabled by one of childhood’s rare but vicious illnesses, such as meningitis. Or one day your teenager is knocked off her bike by a truck, and never walks again.

Such unexpected events happen, every day of every week – and their shock can hit families with tremendous force. Knocked off balance and forced to learn a whole new language of medication, treatment and care, it can take time for families to make the adjustments that, in the long-run, will enable them to weather the storm that has broken over their heads.

Off balance, a new Working Families report based on our survey of over 900 parents of disabled children, illustrates both the extent to which such parents value the opportunity to work – for economic, social and other reasons – and the enormous challenge they face in combining their especially demanding caring responsibilities with paid work.

I would love to get back into paid work. I get depression from being stuck at home. Mother of disabled seven year-old.

The great majority of those parents currently not in paid work gave up work specifically to care for their disabled child, but nine out of ten would now like to return to paid work at some level. However, four out of ten have been out of work for at least six years, making it much harder for them to re-enter the labour market. And all but a small minority say that their caring responsibilities would limit them to part-time or (highly) flexible work. Yet there is an acute shortage of quality, part-time or otherwise flexible vacancies.

Of those in work, two-thirds have refrained from seeking promotion, declined promotion, or accepted demotion in order to be able to balance work and their caring responsibilities.

Combining work and caring is very challenging. There is never any flexibility around the timing of my son’s hospital and other appointments. I just need to drop everything and be there. Employed mother of disabled two year-old.

Seven out of ten parents describe finding suitable, affordable childcare as ‘very difficult’ or ‘impossible’, with as many as one in two relying heavily or exclusively on ‘free’ childcare provided by family or friends. There is clearly a significant lack of specialist childcare capable of meeting the sometimes complex needs of disabled children, and even where it is available it is often significantly more expensive than that for non-disabled children. Almost one in three of in-work parents who pay for their childcare are paying more than £10 per hour – more than twice the national average hourly cost.

Only one local provider offers childcare suitable for my son, but at £16 per hour this is far too expensive. Out of work mother of disabled one year-old.

However, to date, none of the three UK main political parties has explicitly acknowledged this especially harsh ‘childcare crunch’ and other major barriers to paid work faced by parents of disabled children – let alone developed specific policies aimed at lowering these barriers within their policy programme. This has to change.

Off balance calls on all political parties to commit to:

  • Creating a statutory right to a period of adjustment leave, to enable families to weather relatively short-term life crises such as the onset of disability of a partner, parent or child, or other major change in their caring responsibilities, without having to give up work. Cost analysis carried out for Working Families by management consultants Oliver Wyman indicates that a legal right to a six-week period of adjustment leave for parents of disabled children could generate a net gain to the economy of £500 million per year.
  • Adopting a flexible by default approach to job design and recruitment in the public sector, so that all jobs in central and local government are advertised on a flexible basis unless there is a specific, good business reason not to. Ministers should also act and recruit business leaders as ‘flexible working’ champions, and should encourage private sector employers to adopt the Happy to Talk Flexible Working strapline.
  • Appointing a junior minister with specific responsibility for urgently driving up the national supply of suitable, good quality, and affordable childcare for children with a disability or special needs.



Mind the gap: the national shortfall in childcare supply

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.